Sunday, 29 January 2012
Trial by Fire
Before coming to India many had asked me a basic question, “what will you be teaching when you are there?” I replied that I did know or that it would probably be teaching English, but the grades were unknown. I think my response puzzled some and at times it puzzled me since I did not know the true answer. In the U.S. this seems odd if a teacher does not know what they are teaching a few months or especially a few weeks before they have started. Typically most things back home are planned out well in advance from my experiences particularly when it comes to a job. Things in Agartala operate very differently explaining why our group did not know what or even where we would be teaching until the day we started with our first classes.
The people here are very flexible and time does not work the same here as in America. If someone tells you they will meet you somewhere at 4 PM that day you may see them around then or you may not see them until two days later. Although a lot of things are planned out here, the question always remains of when the plan will be implemented or if the plan will completely change. In some ways this can be frustrating and vexing, but most of the times I embrace how laid back our schedule is and how timelines are not made based on time.
The first week we arrived in Agartala, Iain and I discovered to our surprise that we’d be spending the first half of the year teaching at the Holy Cross School while Charlotte, Christa, and LucyRose would be teaching at the Saint Andre School. I am still learning about the two different schools and although they both are run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross there do seem to be some noteworthy differences. The Holy Cross School is directly across from where we live making for a one minute walking commute each day while the Saint Andre School is about a 45 minute bus ride with all the stops along the way. I’ve been told Holy Cross is one of the best schools if not the best in Agartala and there tend to be wealthier students. “Wealthier students” can be misleading though as it is all relative, because I have seen some of these students’ small two room houses that have conditions that would be considered deplorable and very hard to find in the U.S. A lot of the students Holy Cross receive tutoring or what they call “tution” in the evenings so between that and receiving a quality education in the classroom there are many who are very bright and excel in the classroom.
I have only visited Saint Andre and the school is smaller (still 1,000 pupils) than Holy Cross, and the population is primarily composed of very low income, tribal students. Saint Andre is slightly more affordable than Holy Cross (even though both are very reasonable compared to U.S. private schools) making it a more viable option for those with very little money to be able to send their child to a very good school. I’ve been told that the free government schools are extremely substandard and in some classrooms teachers will not even be present. I have a lot more to learn about both schools, but it is clear that each one is a place that serves local children in need of an education that could be a pathway out of poverty and oppression.
On our first Friday, Iain and I arrived at the school ready for a couple weeks of shadowing other teachers and becoming familiar with how to actually teach since this was all new to us. That morning we were given books and our own class schedules with the wonder of how our training would begin. Surprise! A teacher brought me to a seventh grade class and with no warning I was teaching my first English grammar class. There ended up being no shadowing or additional training, luckily we did have a informative orientation at Stonehill College and a small teachers’ orientation earlier in the week, but nothing could prepare me for this.
My first three classes that day taught me a lot about how to affectively teach here and control a classroom. Having forty to fifty seventh and eighth graders in each class makes discipline crucial. My first rowdy class showed me the rules had to be made clear. For example, the first rule is that only one person in the room is talking at a time, either the teacher or whoever raised their hand to participate. I realized that I could convey a message that demonstrated that I require respect for each other in the classroom that ultimately fosters an environment where everyone has the opportunity to learn. By my second and third class that day we were swiftly moving through the course material with only the occasional laughs and chatter that has to be expected.
I currently teach three seventh grade and one eighth grade English Grammar classes. Also, one seventh and one eighth grade English Literature classes. I’ve never considered myself a master of the English language and tried to avoid English classes in college so I was naturally apprehensive about teaching English classes. To my surprise I have actually found that I know a lot more than I expected from speaking the language my whole life and I do believe this is very beneficial for the students. All the teachers do speak English at the school, some better than others, but it is not their native tongue so it can be difficult for most of them to teach English classes. Hopefully I can develop effective teaching methods and combine this with my ability to speak the language to be a great teacher for the students.
Finally once a week I take a fourth grade class to the library, which is the only class so far I was unable to control as they continually surrounded me requesting autographs with no response to my demands for silence. I’ll be requesting help from by fellow volunteers the next time I meet with those youngsters. So far it has definitely been challenging learning how to best teach here. Things operate differently in these classrooms as it is very hard to do group projects or to move away from the text due to the large number of students, and how it is ingrained in them to strictly follow their workbooks step by step. My next goal is to work more creative exercises into the classroom, and so far the students' enthusiasm and desire to learn has made it all worth it.