“How do you like teaching here in India?” It’s a frequent question that I get from both my colleagues here at school and from others I meet when travelling. We talked a lot about this topic a couple of weekends ago when our group of seven US Fulbright Exchange teachers got together and swapped stories about our schools and our students. Since it’s December 6 now and I won’t be teaching my regular class load again until January 3, I figured this break in the action is as good of a time as any to share some thoughts about my experience.
When I made the decision to pursue a Fulbright exchange in India, I did so with an “I can do anything for six months” frame of mind. I was well aware of the challenges teaching in India can pose and I prepared to teach multiple classes with scores of students crammed into under equipped classrooms in conditions that might be sweltering and grubby. There are hundreds of thousands of classrooms across India that could easily fulfill this kind of expectation. Government schools and many unofficial private schools are simply abysmal. I know this not from first hand experience but from conversations and research I’m conducting while I’m here. Small steps are being taken, but the problem exists on a scale of magnitude inconceivable for many Americans. There are 1.15 BILLION people here and half of them are under the age of 25 years. Do the math – education is a big issue.
Living and teaching in India has been an amazing experience to be sure, but my experience has not unfolded as I imagined it would when I filled out my application 16 months ago. The Fulbright program is careful to place American teachers in situations where there is a good chance of success – all seven of us this year are in either a international or private school that are quite well off compared to many other schools. Still, some teaching situations are more favorable than others and it was clear to me from early on that I had drawn one of the most favorable school assignments possible.
To begin, I’ve been assigned to teach in Kerala, one of the more affluent states in India, a region that has historically valued education, demonstrated religious tolerance among the three major religions represented here, and supports a much higher status for women than in most parts of the country. Kerala’s tourist board advertises the state as “God’s Own Country”, a somewhat pretentious promotion but often it doesn’t seem too far off – the state is very tropical with excellent beaches, beautiful mountains and a rich culture – it is the land of coconuts, palms and green vegetation. The weather is tough to beat – 80’s during the day, high 70’s at night, not much variation, at least during the months that we are here. The poor in Kerala don’t seem as poor as the poor in other parts of India – it’s a rare occasion to encounter a beggar or observe people living in destitute conditions. Without any truly major cities nearby , there is a somewhat provincial feel here. All and all, it’s a very nice part of the country to live in, even it if geographically we couldn’t be much further away from the rest of India.
The Trivandrum International School is only seven years old – the girls hostel in which we live was the most recent building to be completed just last year. The tuition is very high by Indian standards and the students attending mostly belong to affluent families living in Trivandrum and abroad, mainly in the Gulf States. The campus is quite beautiful and the facilities are architecturally elegant. In exchange for the high fees, students are taught in small classes and offered many extra-curricular activities and special programs. There is a strong emphasis on academics, but the school is hardly a “pressure cooker”. The commitment of the faculty is truly impressive – they are called upon to run all sorts of activities and fulfill different duties outside of their teaching responsibilities. There is a distinct underlying tension between the effort to prioritize academics and the interest in offering a full and diverse school program – there are numerous days when it feels as though academic classes are low on the priority list. I’ve mentioned the number of classes that were cancelled for so many different reasons.
When designing my particular teaching assignment at the school, Sreeja, my exchange partner, limited my responsibilities to only teaching. I live in the hostel but have no formal duties here. I have only to teach my classes and jump in to school life wherever else I want. Compared to how much I would be teaching this semester at Andover High, my teaching assignment here is relatively small. On Monday and Tuesday, I have only one class to present. Thursday is my busy day and even then, it doesn’t equal what I would be teaching every day at Andover High this semester.
When I’m not teaching, I usually hang out in an empty classroom, the computer lab, or the staff room to work on lesson plans or come back to the apartment to work. Compare this schedule to my teaching load at Andover High where each day and I would be teaching 3 classes that are 82 minutes each (246 minutes a day) for a total of 20.5 hours a week. So I’m being asked to teach less than half the time that I would at Andover High. This also means that Sreeja is teaching more than twice as much at Andover.
The big shocker when I heard of the details of my assignment was my class sizes. My 9th standard class consists of 12 students, my 11th standard class has a total of six students, and I have four students in my 12th standard class. So yes, I am teaching a total of 20 different students here, about a quarter of the number of students I’d be teaching right now in Andover.
Given the class sizes, meetings with students often feel more like tutorials than traditional classes. I’ve had to adjust a lot – many of my lessons from home are based on online videos, animations, models, posters, and other resources not available here. I try hard to diversify my lessons and avoid period long lectures, but the combination of limited access to the things I usually use as well as high level of comfort most students feel with the lecture/Q+A format makes sometimes results in teacher-centered class presentations that I’d not typically make at home. I’ve needed to bone up on some biological details that I hadn’t previously mastered and in that regard, I’ve been filling a few holes in my personal store of biological knowledge.
I have truly enjoyed the students here – they all such great kids. Most of them are working hard to meet personal and parental expectations. I will never grow tired of hearing “Hello, sir” with their radiant smiles and friendly dispositions. The kids here exude a much greater sense of innocence in the manner in which they respond and view their world, or at least that’s my impression. Socially it’s quite different here in that there’s an understood separation of the sexes in India both among the kids and adults. The segregation is not absolute, but since I’ve been living here among these teenagers, I’ve yet to see a public display of affection between students of opposite sexes and neither drug or alcohol use nor even smoking has come up as a issue even once. A high level of camaraderie exists among students and their friends and it’s normal to see two girls walking holding hands or a couple of boys with arms around one another’s shoulders. Compared to my sometimes sexually overt American high school students, the Indian kids truly keep it under wraps. It’s been quite refreshing.
After I return from the Christmas break, I’ll have only three weeks of classes left to teach (though I just found out that my 9th standard students will be on a trip of one of those weeks…so it goes). All in all it’s been an enjoyable teaching experience. While hardly stressful, it has required me to be resourceful in the absence of many of the resources that I normally have access to. I have enjoyed sharing with my colleagues – one of the other biology teachers regularly sits in on my classes and seems to really enjoy observing some lessons that she might use herself.
So far, the personal experience has been memorable because of all of the amazing places we’ve been and people we’ve met, but what I’ll take away professionally has been the opportunity to experience what my life can be like when it isn’t completely dominated by my work. The greatest challenge of reintegrating into my life back home will be to apply the lessons of my experience here in an effort to seek a greater balance in my professional and personal life at home. If I can make progress in this area, it might be the most lasting benefit of this whole experience.
Here are some pictures of my students in action:
(pictures to follow)