“Why did you get punished?”
“I was talking to my partner.”
“What were you telling him?”
“There’s a spider on the teacher’s back.”
Grinning in amusement at the banished child’s predicament, I walked past him and into the classroom. I slid my way through the rows of desks, long-jumped over the school bags on the floor, and squeezed myself into the last bench. When I sat down and looked up, I saw 40 pairs of curious eyes staring back at me.
They were all fascinated by this new creature in their midst. Not sure what to make of me yet, they would steal a glance at me whenever possible. After all, carrying out mischief while the teacher isn’t looking is the one inevitable life lesson learned in every school. Guilty as charged.
It was the summer of 2013. I had decided to take the what-are-you-doing-with-your-life route of a gap year before going to university, and was contemplating my options: “How do I best spend this time? What really matters to me?”
I had just finished four whirlwind years of high school, and was thoroughly disillusioned with the Indian approach to schooling. What sort of education rewards memorisation over genuine learning? As students, we deserved better. So, in order to do my part to make things right, I decided to join Teach For India as a volunteer.
The schools were a world of their own. Each had an incredible energy, a zest for life, and a unique personality hand-crafted by the children and teachers alike. Every time I walked into a new classroom, I would enter this custom-made, one-of-a-kind world of colour: science charts adorning peeling walls, blackboards sporting multiplication tables in neon chalk, school bags and water bottles with prints of superheroes, and notebooks where verbs and adjectives sat comfortably beside doodles drawn in glitter ink.
One day, I was trying to teach one of the girls how to write a few simple sentences in English. She had been sitting at her desk, yellow pencil in hand and left cheek all but pressed against the table, for hours. I could see that she had been trying – the pink eraser at the end of the pencil furiously bobbing away. But even after I tried explaining it in seven different ways on her notebook, I wasn’t successful.
The next day, by sheer luck of trial and error, I discovered that she loved writing on the big blackboard. So, when I told her that she could use it to practice, she suddenly began grasping concepts much better. I know it sounds weird, but it dawned on me that her notebook was simply too small a canvas for her ideas. My biggest lesson from this experience was this: If your student fails to understand what you teach, it is not your student who has failed.
The most strangely beautiful thing about all this was that I changed. I began to care – really care. For the first time in my life, seeing someone else succeed made me genuinely happy. And because I cared, I was even more motivated to understand their way of thinking so that I could figure out yet another approach that could work for them. I learned that being a teacher is an extreme lesson in and test of sheer resilience, conviction, empathy and belief. If your motivation to teach is just clocking in ‘community service’ hours, it really isn’t for you.
You have to be fully present and engaged everyday. You have to empathise with the students’ parents to understand their situation at home, because more often than not it will affect the behaviour and performance of the children at school. You have to negotiate the sharing of resources with obstinate school administrators who dislike the fact that you are this ‘English-speaking’ outsider who is telling them what to do. Over time, the students will come to see that you really are fighting for them. That you really care. It is only when this understanding occurs will you be finally able to earn their respect and lead the classroom.
Although the change you seek to implement will be slow, it will be permanent. If you want the next generation of citizens to vote, to not throw trash out on the road, to be ethical in business dealings and respect one another’s religious beliefs – then this is how you deliver that change. You will empower your students to be the best-possible version of themselves – to be independent thinkers and doers. I urge you to bring your creativity and skills to this cause, and to donate your most precious resource – your time – to give back to your country. Do this for no other reason than the fact that you can. And even though it is an incredibly demanding proposition, I promise that you will get more out of it than you could ever possibly imagine.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Teach For India. Do visit here for more information.