Teaching English as a second language is definitely not as easy as I thought it would be. Actually, that’s not true. I knew exactly how hard it would be. I was anxious about having to teach for months before coming to India, because the fact of the matter is (and it’s no big surprise) — I’ve never taught English before. Okay yes Mom, I’ve tutored before, but it’s not the same thing. I’ve never been THE teacher in a classroom. Never Madame Hanna. Never the omniscient authority whose job it is to bestow knowledge upon a group of wide-eyed six year olds waiting patiently for instruction. Although they’re young, it’s still intimidating being the one in charge. Especially since I know I’m only a 19 year-old college sophomore. “I’m not qualified to do this,” I think to myself. “These kids deserve better than a lousy college student. What can I do? I’m not even a real teacher.”
But I’m getting more confident everyday. Not only are the kids quickly soaking up what I have to offer, but I’m learning too. About what it actually means to be a teacher and all the subtle intricacies that you don’t pick up on until you’re the one standing at the front of the class. Each day I enter the classroom with more experience and more wisdom than I had the day before. And so do they! Each subsequent day becomes easier because I can build off what we worked on the day prior. It’s so gratifying to hear them say, “Today is Monday June 13th!” when just a few days ago they were struggling with the days of the week. However I still have this small voice that whispers in my ear from time to time that says, “You’re not the right person for this job.” But I’ve come to two conclusions…
1) I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge that there is room for major improvement in terms of foreign aid. Most ESL teachers are young and untrained, including myself. Although enthusiastic and good-intentioned, they are simply not qualified, and usually only stay in a given school for one to two months at a time. Yes, something may be better than nothing, but we should be working towards more solid and lasting forms of educational support. At present, ESL teachers are bandages at best. They patch up the holes for a short period of time, and then fall off. It’s important that I acknowledge that I’m playing a role in the system that I want to see improved, else I’m playing a role in upholding its weaknesses.
And 2) I may feel inadequate and inappropriately named as a teacher because I, myself, have gone through an educational system led by professionals who’ve trained intensely just to carry the title of “teacher.” However that doesn’t mean I can’t serve my time here in a meaningful way. What little knowledge I do impart on these children holds value, even if it is in a small degree. And moreover, they’re getting just as much cross-cultural experience as I am. They’re learning from and interacting with an individual from an entirely distinct culture who knows a language far different from their own. It is a unique opportunity that I’m so happy to share with them. We are learning from each other everyday, and there is supreme value in knowledge gained through this sort of personal, intimately connected, experiential vein.
It’s a neat thing to be able to live out your childhood dream. One minute I’m taking attendance for my twenty-seven stuffed animals in a small pink notebook on my bunk bed, and now I’m in India with nine animate students who are definitely twice as cute as my twenty-seven rabbits, bears, and dolls. They are an exceptionally enthusiastic bunch, and I’m continuously humbled by their intense willingness to learn. However, my teaching time is not without difficulty. They are elementary school students, after all. No amount of cultural difference can erase the hardships that wily youth create for teachers. Jumping around wildly, not paying attention, and bathroom requests every two minutes, are a few examples.
But the difficulties I face are primarily rooted in cultural difference. The children do not have a solid foundation in the English language. They can count to infinity and spell any word you put in front of them, but those are the only two skills that are engrained in their little, budding minds. I’m trying to work on reading skills, mainly. I think that if they can read English, the road to language improvement will only get easier.
At present, their spelling skills are stellar, but their reading skills less so. I’ll point to a day of the week, Monday for example, and they’ll shout: “M-O-N-D-A-Y, Tuesday!” Sometimes it frustrates me when they don’t latch onto material as quickly as I want them to, but I have to remind myself that most of them are kindergarteners and I can’t expect the world.
Another difficulty I face is the fact that they’re unfamiliar with command words and phrases, like “Say…” and “How many…” and “Listen first.” If I say, “How many windows?” They’ll say, “How many windows?” They are excellent repeaters. It’s hard to explain or act out what ‘Say’ means, or ‘How many?’ or who, what, when, where, and why. Showing them the window and saying “Window,” they will understand without a problem. But more abstract terms, even the most basic ones, simply cannot be conveyed without a translator. This is why I am SO grateful for the local teacher. She’s one of the nuns at the monastery, and she is their teacher six days a week from 10 to 4. She’s able to explain to the children that which I cannot, and she’s one of the main reasons why I’ve been able to make so much progress. I’d be lost without her, and likely so would the children.
This problem I face conveniently illuminates another weakness in the system of foreign aid. Teachers who come from other countries often do not speak the native language, which makes effective teaching nearly impossible. Having a firm understanding of both English AND the native language is the only way to make significant progress with students.
An issue that I find hard to overlook is the fact that there is a single class for four different age groups. I have two 3 year-olds, two 5-year olds, four 6 year-olds, and one 10 year-old. That’s pre-school, kindergarten, first grade, and fifth grade all mixed into a single class. It’s hard enough catering to different ability levels in a class of students the same age, but the ability levels between ages is astoundingly difficult to manage. It’s like I want to work on something totally different with each age group but I’m forced to compromise because there’s just no time or space. And as such, the oldest students and the youngest students kind of just tune out for the two hours that I have with them. Different age groups require separate classes, it’s as simple as that.
Despite the minor hardships, class time is a blast. The children are not only excellent repeaters, but they are expert mimes. Sometimes we’ll go off on long tangents of clapping patterns or charades. They also ADORE when I draw pictures. When I present a new word, they’ll scream, “PICTURE! PICTURE!” It’s times like these I wish I hadn’t given up my drawing pursuits at age ten. Although my artistic abilities are truly sub-par, they always exclaim, “Wooooow!” in complete awe whenever I scribble a picture on the board. Although my cows look like walruses, and my humans look like aliens, they eat it up. Simon Says and the Hokey Pokey are also crowd favorites.
Most recently I taught them “Happy Birthday” in honor of my mother’s birthday on June 6th. I taught them the normal version, and then the version that goes, “Happy Birthday to you, you’re 102, you smell like a monkey, and you look like one too!” They are now obsessed with jumping around and hooting like monkeys, but whenever I say, “I see…NINE little monkeys!” They’ll scream, “We’re not monkeys!” And then continue the charade, laughing wildly.