The first day came with the expected nervousness.
Sruthi and Sidhanth arrived at a school where the building had no doors so classrooms had no privacy. Chalkboards were falling apart, desks were rickety and floors uneven. It was also noisy: horns blared, busses rumbled and there seemed a constant clatter of pots and pans. Teachers squatted outside chatting loudly while children patiently waited in the classroom awaiting their arrival. But the minute they walked through the door, they noticed the liveliness of the students, how they animatedly joked with each other, and all traces of worry vanished.
Sidhanth is 16 and a junior in High School. Sister Sruthi is in her 3rd year at University of Illinois. Born and brought up in United States and not being fluent in Tamil, they had been tentative about their ability to teach English at a village school in India where the medium of instruction is Tamil.
They need not have worried.
They taught English for 3 hours each day for over 1 month in a classroom as well as in an after-school setting to girls and boys aged 5 to 13. Their own lack of Tamil skills turned out to be a benefit. Students in the classroom were respectful, well behaved and paid attention. Forced to converse in English, within days the student’s pronunciation, vocabulary and reading skills improved dramatically.
Our interview covered a broad range of topics including concerns and recommendations for other Americans wishing to volunteer in a village school in India.
Question: Was it hard for you to understand the students?
Sidhanth: Initially our accent and dialect sounded strange to the students. The teaching process was to read out aloud from a book and have them repeat after us. This turned out to be good as we all got used to one another’s speech quickly and we had no problem at any time.
Sruthi: While pronunciation and word understanding improved rapidly I soon found out that comprehension was not improving. They didn’t understand the material covered in the books. I think it is because even being in 8th standard and 13-14 years old, they have no experience with anything outside their small village environment and limited curriculum. They experience no diversity in religion, food, thoughts or teachings. They are not taught politics, geography or any other social sciences. So when they read books which are English translations of grade appropriate material, they have no concept of what they are reading. So after a while, we started just talking to them about things we take for granted like musical instruments, the richness of diversity in different parts of India. One day we even ended up talking about Hitler!
Question: What was your biggest challenge?
Sidhanth: I am only 2 years older than my students, but seeing them look so much smaller than their age, due to malnourishment, was quite a difficult thing to come to terms with. They didn’t know of any music or art from their own culture, outside their immediate impoverishment, that would enrich their lives. That made it challenging to get close to the older students. But the after school program where I interacted with 5-8 year olds was different. There are 2 kids I will really miss. Just being there, letting them play games on my phone and seeing pictures was an enriching experience for all of us I found them to be intelligent, hardworking and fun to be with. It has given me a whole new perspective on my own privileged upbringing.
Sruthi: I too loved working with the 1st and 2nd graders after school; it was downtime after working in the classroom. I had expected that the older children would be excited to learn but only a handful had the motivation to put in required work. Also, there was no expectation from teachers or their parents that they learn any more. In fact my biggest challenge was the teachers who sat outside. They talked loudly and frequently interrupted the classroom to call out students to go fetch water, answer some call for routine upkeep of the school or some other errand. During the hours we were present at the school, not once did I see a teacher teaching. Since they did not speak English and we spoke very little Tamil, my attempts at reducing interruptions remained unresolved.
Question: What was the best part of your experience?
Sruthi: The little ones. For the younger kids, learning is part of the fun experience so they not only learn faster, they retain more and become excited in their hope for their future. The older kids were 2-3 grades behind in their math and reading. So really, being older, they were at a disadvantage compared to the younger ones. One breakthrough was around family pictures with the older ones. We found they were very interested in learning about our family- names, ages, background and so on. They asked to see pictures which initially I had not wanted to show because of the disparity but it turned out they loved it. One 15 year old even said “Now I will also learn English so I can have a job and house like yours.” I was very excited to hear that and when we go back for a family vacation in December, I plan to visit the school and see how they are doing.
Question: What impact has this experience had on you and how will you behaved differently?
Sidhanth: It hasn’t changed me as much as it has clarified and reaffirmed what I already knew – how privileged we are; not just in things but in having parents and teachers that constantly support us and help us aspire and work towards our goals.
Sruthi: Being older, I remember more of my previous trips to India. The stay in Coimbatore has reinforced my belief in the value of education as well as the importance of a broader experience that we associate only with privilege or upper and middle classes in India. Perhaps one thing I now have is a much greater appreciation and respect for my teachers. I never knew how much hard work teaching kids can be. We used to be so exhausted at the end of every day that we just fell asleep as soon as we got home.
Question: Any advice for others thinking of doing something like this? Would you recommend it?
Sruthi: Sometimes people glamorize the India trips. It is hard work and if you go in with that expectation, you’ll be better prepared and will not only enjoy it more, it will be more impactful. With that caveat, I would recommend it.
From June 24th to July 26th, 2015 Sruthi and Sidhanth taught English to the 8th standard during school hours, comprised of 13 and 14 year olds, but would work with students of all ages and grades in an after school tutelage house. The school is CORD sponsored rural government school, located in rural Thonadamatur adjacent to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Their stay was coordinated by Chinmaya Mission.
About Sidhanth: When he hugs that guitar and sings Eric Clapton you can’t help but get teary eyed.
About Sruthi: With a major in communications and a minor in Women and Gender Studies, Sruthi can hold her own in any situation. And she makes the best banana bread.
About the Author:
Neerja Raman is research scholar at Stanford University.
Blog Social Entrepreneurship: http://fromgoodtogold.blogspot.com/
Blog Ramn Wright: https://neerja2014.wordpress.com/