Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

How to Be a Superhero

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

There are a lot of ways to become a superhero. This is one of them.

If you want to be a superhero, all you need to do is decide to come to India to do a voluntary teaching project. You’ll need to work hard in the UK to raise/earn enough money to fund the trip. You’ll need to think about the cultural differences and the teaching before you come.

Once you get here, you’ll need to live with a host family and teach in a school for about 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

And, if you don’t make a complete mess of it, then you’re automatically a superhero.

What you don’t need to do is to make things any harder for yourself than they already are. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone.

We had a volunteer out here recently who did well with her teaching. But she put far too much pressure on herself. She expected the kids to be silently hanging off her every word. And let’s be honest, that doesn’t happen to any teacher! Of any age, in any subject, in any country, anywhere! And it certainly doesn’t happen with lower primary in India when the teacher is a foreigner with white skin who only speaks a strange and funny language.

Now putting pressure on yourself can be a good way to ensure that you’re working to a high standard. Some people perform better under pressure. Some people enjoy the challenge of taking things to a higher level. And all of this is admirable.

Unfortunately in this case, the volunteer put too much pressure on herself and ended up not coping well. She lost her patience in a lesson, and the team leader, who had been observing (and helping a bit) asked her to leave the classroom. Which she did.

We spoke to her afterwards about what had happened and why. And she admitted that she does put too much pressure on herself.

The really great thing for her is that she has this amazing learning opportunity. She now understands, in a really practical way, how badly things can go when she demands too much of herself and doesn’t ask for help and support when she needs it. And this learning opportunity is one that very many other people don’t get.

This one incident doesn’t make her less of a superhero. It doesn’t erase all of the other lessons that she had taught. It doesn’t make her a failure.

India is tough. It pushes you to breaking point and beyond. Those of us who have done it before don’t get off any easier, if anything, India has a much better sense of which buttons she can press to break us. But for all of us, we have to concentrate on the reasons why we are superheroes. Focus on the good stuff that we do. Learn from the mistakes, but not dwell on them.

And that goes for superheroes all over the world, not just the ones that come out to India to teach.

When A Phone Rings In Class

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Here’s a dilemma for you all.

You are a volunteer who is visiting a school.

You are scheduled to teach a lesson with a particular class every day at the same time.

You have been doing this for a few weeks.

The class teacher is usually in the room during the lesson.

Sometimes he helps.

Sometimes he just watches.

One day he takes a phone call. In class. During your lesson.

He asks you to keep the noise down because he is on the phone.

In class. During your lesson.

You have several choices at this point as to how to react.

  1. You can tell him to take the call outside, you’re teaching a class.
  2. You can ignore him and just carry on teaching as before.
  3. You can get angry, shout and him and storm out in disgust.
  4. You can ask the students to start whispering the next bit of the lesson so that you can continue teaching, but not disturb his phone call.

There are lots of other options at your disposal too.

Option 3 is definitely not the best of the four. Option 4 is my personal favourite.

If you choose option 1 then there may be some repercussions.

The teacher in question may decide at some later date to reassert his power.

(Don’t forget that the main reason why most people go into the teaching profession here is so they can get respect and have power.)

He may decide that on another day he will have a competition during the time that is usually set aside for your lesson.

He may decide that this competition cannot be done at any other time and that you are not to teach his class today.

He may tell you that he had already informed the head teacher about this (though there is a chance that he didn’t because he is in an ongoing power struggle with the head teacher too).

But it is always best to remember that we are guests here. And while the guest is god and there is a certain amount of liberty that we can take as guests, we are still only guests. We are not qualified, local teachers. And we are often younger than the local teachers and we are usually female. And all of these things mean that we should remember our position in the respect/power hierarchy here. So a polite, friendly smile and gentle acquiescence is usually more effective than any form of confrontation, no matter how gentle/justified it may be.

Going Home

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I’m going home (for some definition of home – in this case, London) in September. My flight is booked for the 29th.

There are several reasons for this.

I knew when I booked my return flight for February that there was very little chance of me going back on that date. But I really wasn’t sure what things were going to be like out here (from the point of view of productive work for me to do). Plus, there are issues in my Indian family and I wasn’t sure if or how they would affect things. And I wasn’t sure how much I was going to miss the UK. And I wasn’t sure when/if I was going to run out of money.

And the result of all of these considerations is that heading back on the 29th of September is the right thing to do.

The Behaviour Management programme that we have been running here has been a great success and we want to run a follow-up programme with these schools and the same programme (with some improvements) in new schools. We’d like to do that at the start of the next academic year, which is June 2015.

In order for me to be able to be back here in June next year, I need to go back to the UK early so that I can earn some money to fund me through next year. If I go back in February, I won’t earn enough before June to be able to come then.

Plus, I am missing the UK and my friends there (as well as all the usual things that I miss: clean feet, tea with no sugar, bread, cheese, toast, brushing my teeth with tap water, hot showers). Of course, these are all important but I’m used to missing them all and they’re not enough to make me actually want to change my flight.

But there is a new element in the mix this time. Dancing. I have REALLY been missing it. And there is a showcase in London in October. Now, there are lots of different dancing events all the time, so missing the London showcase would not be the end of the world, and that’s not something to change my flights for. But since I was changing the flight anyway, arranging things so that I’ll be back in time for the showcase seemed sensible. 🙂

The issues with the family here are certainly having an effect as well. Not to the point that I want to leave, but the issues are a definite source of worry.

So here is my plan for the next two months. The current batch of volunteers finish up at the end of August. There is a Keralan festival (Onam) at the start of September, then I’m hoping to take Johnson and Lisba to Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks for a holiday! (And for me to meet up with lots of my Sri Lankan friends.) Then back to India for the end of September and my flight back to the UK on the 29th.

Then it’s London and working and dancing and catching up with people till the start of March. Then Cambridge and Easter Revision till the end of April. Then back to India again in May or June to do it all over again!

And everything in this plan makes me very happy! 🙂

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 5 – Reflection and Critical Thinking

Friday, August 1st, 2014

During the programme it struck me how difficult it was for the teachers to reflect on their own practice and how difficult it was for them to engage in critical thinking.

Knowing what I know about the Indian education system does mean that I shouldn’t be surprised by this.

The Indian education system teaches you not to think.

The teacher tells you the answer, you memorise it, the teacher asks the question, you give her the correct answer or you get laughed at, shouted at, or slapped.

These teachers are the product of this system.

So, on the whole, they found it very, very difficult to engage in reflection or critical thinking. These are just not skills they’ve had to use before.

The next time we run this programme we’ll have to do something about this. And I don’t mean removing the activities that require these skills. I think we may need some time at the beginning of the sessions to explain and practice these skills and we’ll then need to ensure we can provide additional support for participants when we are asking them to think and to reflect.

I have no doubt that these teachers are capable of reflection and critical thinking, it’s just that they’ve not done them much before so have not had enough practice.

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 4 – Why Positive Behaviour Management Is Better

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I was particularly struck by the reactions of the teachers when we did the section on why positive behaviour management is better.

We asked the teachers to think up their own ideas first, then share with their small group, then we asked someone from each group to give us some of the ideas they had (think/pair/share). While they were sharing we drew a mind map on the board with several different categories: educational, psychological, historical, legal, constitutional, moral, international and gender. As they gave us ideas we put them up in one of these sections. Everything they gave us was either psychological (damages the child’s self-esteem, etc.) or educational (students can’t learn well with fear, etc.).

After they’d given us all of their thoughts, we asked them if they could think of anything fitting into the other categories. We gave them some prompting and some help. They told us about the Right to Education Act when we prompted them about the legal side of things. (Physical punishment is illegal in Indian schools and has been since 2009.) We filled in lots of the other gaps. International: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Historical: India gained independence through non-violence. Constitutional: the Fundamental Duties of Citizens as laid out in the Constitution (and printed inside every textbook) says that all Indians should abjure violence. Moral: all the religions say we should cherish and protect our children.

The biggest point was gender. I asked them why they thought physical punishment in schools could be a gender issue. They said that they didn’t discriminate in school against girls. I said that was very good, but wasn’t quite what I was after. I then wrote on the board in big capital letters “PHYSICAL PUNISHMENT PROMOTES DOMESTIC VIOLENCE”. I asked whether more boys or girls were caned, they said boys (a lot more boys). I said that what we are teaching our boys from the first day of first standard (year 1) through to 10th standard (Year 10) then Plus 1 and Plus 2 (A Level) is that if someone says or does something you don’t like then you hit them. And what happens when these boys get married and their wife (or child) says or does something that they don’t like? They hit them. Physical punishment in schools promotes domestic violence. And domestic violence is predominantly a crime against women. That makes this a gender issue.

Some of the teachers looked like they’d been kicked in the guts. Some looked like they were thinking “Oh no, I’m creating my husband!”. They had simply never made the link before between violence in school and violence in the wider community. Well, they have now!

Note: I do not for a second believe that physical punishment in school is the only cause of domestic violence, but it is certainly a contributing factor.

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 3 – The Teacher Sessions

Friday, August 1st, 2014

We tried to use lots of different teaching techniques during the sessions with the teachers (individual reflection, pair work, group work, role play, gap fills, peer teaching, think/pair/share, carousel, loop cards, ball games, discussion, lecture-style explanations, etc.).

We tried to use the techniques that we were talking about. So each group of participants made a sticker chart and we gave stickers to the groups that were quietest first, or who came back from tea break on time, or who did well academically, etc. and we used 3-2-1 silence with them as well to show them how to do it with the kids, etc.

The topics we covered were: advantages of good classroom behaviour, types of disruptive behaviour, causes of disruptive behaviour, existing behaviour management strategies, why positive behaviour management is better, teaching strategies/techniques that help with behaviour, behaviour management strategies/techniques.

The teachers, on the whole, responded really well. They were engaged. They enjoyed the activities we did. They participated in the discussions. They mostly seemed genuinely interested in reducing physical punishment. Some, of course, were not very engaged and seemed resentful that anyone would have the audacity to suggest to them that there might be an alternative to shouting, scolding, striking. But, nothing that we can do is likely to change them. So I don’t see them as an indication of the failure of the programme.

I am hoping to get into the schools to do some team-teaching with more of the teachers and to see what changes, if any, they have taken into the classroom.

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 2 – The Programme and Logistics

Friday, August 1st, 2014

This programme is being jointly run by VESL (in the UK) and VESS (in India). The overall programme has several elements and we got some funding from The Canning Trust to help us with this.

We started by painting the inside of every classroom in the three schools. As a consequence of this the school management managed to find money to pay to paint the outside of each building!

We ran a set of workshops for teachers to teach them alternatives to physical punishment.

Each teacher is to run a half hour session with their students each week for the entire term. We are providing the lesson plans for these sessions. They cover team work, communication, respect and expected behaviour in a classroom.

We have bought reed mats for each school so that the teachers can rearrange the classrooms and have the students work in groups on the floor. At the moment the furniture consists of wooden benches and wooden desks that seat about 5 students at each. So the rooms are either in a horseshoe (which is ok) or just rows of desks (lecture style) which is not so good. The floor is bare concrete.

We will be liaising with the schools to arrange cleaning and painting of the toilets. And we’re also going to be funding a PE teacher.

Teacher Sessions

The initial sessions were two hours each and happened between 2 and 4pm during the week. This plan had been suggested by one of the school managers. So half the teachers would come to our session on Tuesday (while the remaining half taught all the classes) and then we would get the other half on Wednesday.

So we would teach the same session twice with the two different groups.

We did two different sessions in the first week and one session in the second week. (We had planned to do two sessions in that week too but one of the schools had a PTA meeting one afternoon so those teachers were unable to attend.)

After the second week, the teachers decided that they would prefer to have the sessions on the weekend so we did two sessions (four hours in total) on the following two Saturdays (for all the teachers together). We then finished up with a final two hour session that was meant to be 1 hour to conclude the academic programme and 1 hour for giving out certificates/prizes and listening to speeches, etc.. Though that ended up being mixed together since one of the priests (a prize giver) was half an hour early and 9 teachers (half of the attendees that day) were an hour late.

So we did 16 hours in total.

We also decided to use one of the classes in one of the schools as a case study. So I go in there twice a week and I team-teach the student sessions with the class teacher. These sessions have gone well. We chose this class because it was one of the most difficult to manage. However, during these sessions the students have been exceptionally well behaved. I think this is due to three things. The first is that the class teacher is in the room and is team-teaching the lesson, so the students know that this is something important and a part of their learning routine (for some very, very broad definition of ‘learning routine’). The second is that I’m doing interesting games and activities with them. And the third is that we are actually teaching them how they should behave in class and why. So I think they are better behaved with both of us there than they would be with only one of us. Whatever it is, they are a fantastic bunch of kids who have come a very long way in only a few weeks (e.g. they now put their hand up silently to answer a question).

Positive Behaviour Management Sessions 1 – Overall

Friday, August 1st, 2014

We are running a programme here with 24 teachers from three primary schools about positive behaviour management.

And this is, without doubt, the best work I have ever done. And I mean ‘best’ in two senses. I mean it in a moral sense and in a quality sense.

Morally, this is good work. I am working to stop teachers from using physical punishment in schools. And that has far-reaching consequences.

From a quality point of view, this is also the best work I have ever done. My lesson plans have been comprehensive. The activities have been well-thought out and useful. Of course, it hasn’t been perfect and there are changes I would make for next time, but overall, I am really very proud of this work.

I’m not sure yet of how much, if any, change will be seen in classrooms. I do think we have changed the way that most of these teachers look at their teaching and their interaction with students. We have given them some techniques that they will use (e.g. 3-2-1 Silence instead of shouting or banging a cane on the desk to get the attention of the students). We have made links between physical punishment in schools and domestic violence in the wider community.

We have sown some seeds. And perhaps what we’ve done has stopped one or two teachers from using the cane once or twice. Perhaps it has strengthened the teacher/student relationship for some of these teachers (and their students). Perhaps it has laid some groundwork that will make it easier for the next person who comes along with a similar aim.

Volunteer Achievements

Friday, August 1st, 2014

I was walking along the highway the other day with a volunteer. We were on our way to a finance place (private bank thing, Western Union agent, money exchange centre, etc.). She had some pounds and she wanted some rupees.

Anyway, we were chatting about teaching and host families (which is pretty usual).

She was telling me with delight that while she hadn’t actually managed to wash her plate, she had managed (twice) to get it into the kitchen before it was taken from her.

Now, those of you who have had experience living as a guest/family member in a culture like this will be sitting at your computer screens giggling. Most of the rest of you will probably have no idea why this is noteworthy or funny.

So let me explain.

The culture here is very much about showing respect for the guest. So it is not appropriate for the guest to take their plate into the kitchen or to wash said plate.

We, as volunteers, are guests in the host families. But we are also a part of the family.

So there is a gentle tug of war that happens in most host families. The volunteer tries to wash their plate and the hosts try to stop them. It is always done with a big smile on both sides. (In some families, the family insists that the volunteer washes their own plate as a sign that they really are part of the family, so us trying to do this is not us being stupidly culturally insensitive.)

Managing to get all the way into the kitchen with one’s plate is a massive achievement!!

There are other similar achievements that others may think are decidedly odd. But which are certainly achievements in this context. For example: skipping a meal, being able to leave the house without having one’s hair redone or without having to change one’s clothes, being able to sleep in beyond 8am (even on a weekend), being able to dish up rice and curry for oneself, not having to pay extra for the auto home, successfully using a squat toilet for the first time, etc.

There are also volunteer achievements that probably do make a lot more sense to everyone reading this. Things like being able to have a conversation with the host family about your own family, getting oneself on and off of the right bus in the right place, successfully teaching The Wheels on the Bus to a class of students, having a wonderful lesson where all the activities work and the behaviour is good, etc.

And a wonderful part of my job is that I get to hear these achievements and I get to celebrate them with the volunteers! 🙂

Issues With Volunteers

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Our first batch of volunteers this summer consisted of 5 volunteers and one team leader. They arrived in June, they did 4, 5 or 6 weeks and they’ve now all finished. The second batch (7 volunteers and one team leader) arrived in July and will do either 4 or 6 weeks.

Johnson thinks he has worked with about 50 different volunteers here in India. I think I’ve probably worked with close to 100 in Sri Lanka, Thailand and India.

Now, I’ve seen some issues with volunteers in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Some issues to do with the volunteer being deliberately negligent or unpleasant (being rude to teachers, leaving the project early (without good reason) because they wanted a longer holiday). (Some volunteers work very hard for 3 months and towards the end of their project decide they’d like to see some more of the country so ask if it’s ok to finish a few days early – this is usually absolutely fine and is not the same as volunteers abandoning their project.) Some volunteers who have just done slightly stupid things (getting drunk on a weekend away then getting a lift home on a motorbike and falling off – nothing more serious than some scrapes and bruises, fortunately). Some volunteers who have really struggled to cope despite their incredibly hard efforts (really debilitating homesickness). We’ve had issues with hosts and schools making things difficult for volunteers. We’ve had volunteers suffer with health problems (dog bite, appendix removal, infected mosquito bites, fever, etc.).

Having said all that, the vast majority have had no problem more severe than a host mother who force-feeds them curry for breakfast every day. 🙂

Johnson has not seen major issues here in India. Some sick volunteers and a few minor issues with hosts or schools is about it.

The first set of volunteers this summer have caused us a lot more work than the average batch of volunteers. In some cases this has not been the fault of the volunteers, in some cases it has. And some of the volunteers we’ve had in this first batch have been fantastic.

So, the problems that weren’t their fault. There was an election recently in India. The new government is much more nationalistic than the previous one and is cracking down on visas issued to foreigners working for NGOs. Which would be us. So three of the volunteers had problems with their visa not being granted quickly. They were asked for further information, and then for even more and in between each request there was a wait. So that meant that two had to reschedule their flights for two weeks later than initially planned. The other sent us a text just after he checked-in saying he was on the flight. He had collected his passport and left straight away to go to the airport.

Then we had problems that were the fault of the volunteers. While I understand the difficulties that they faced and I certainly have some sympathy for them, I think the way they dealt with the situations they faced was not appropriate.

In the first instance, we had a volunteer who had signed up for six weeks but then quit after four. Now, granted, he had had some difficulties but each time we had offered him support and asked how he was going, he said it was ok. By the time he said he wanted to quit he had already arranged for his girlfriend to get a visa and a flight and come out to visit him. He said he wasn’t enjoying it as much as he thought he would. He also said that since some people were only doing four weeks that it wouldn’t matter if he left after four weeks. (His sister was saying almost exactly the same thing at the same time in Thailand explaining why she was abandoning her project two weeks early and why she had already booked onward travel.)

My use of the word “abandoning” probably gives you a very good idea of what I thought of this.

The other problem we had was a volunteer who found the whole experience incredibly challenging. Now this in and of itself is not a problem. But when a volunteer fails to cope and reverts to being rude and disrespectful to those around him, then this is a problem. The volunteer in question was telling stories about the other volunteers that turned out not to be true. He was telling them things that we had not said. He made inappropriate jokes and comments in the house. He was disrespectful to the host family. He had issues with me and chose to deal with that by telling my host family bad things about me. He was angry and disrespectful to the head mistress in the school. He gave some gifts to some students and not to others. We found out at the end that he had had moments of becoming angry with and shouting at the other teachers and in some cases, the students themselves. We tried to speak to him throughout his project to offer him support, but he interpreted our offers of support as criticism. He threatened me on one occasion when I went to speak to him. He effectively shut down communication between us. He had, however, been doing a brilliant job of teaching when he had been in the classroom, it is just unfortunate that he failed to extend this professionalism to his time outside of the classroom.

Another volunteer in that batch had some issues in school and at home. And she was absolutely brilliant! She talked to others about her problems (not to moan or complain but just to process what was happening and get support). She kept us informed about what was happening, even when she didn’t want us to say/do anything. She asked for our help to intervene in a couple of instances (which we did). She contacted us to thank us for our intervention. Every problem she faced she faced with enthusiasm and determination. She solved what she could on her own. She asked for help when she needed it. She was brilliant. And her teaching developed a lot during her six weeks as well. Definite gold star for her!

The second batch have finished their second week. And of course there have been minor issues, there always are and this wouldn’t be so worthwhile if it wasn’t so challenging). But they are all doing exceptionally well so far.

So I’m really hoping that this last batch of VESL volunteers will be a return to normal operating procedures for us. They will have their moments, but overall, they will be great fun, a pleasure to work with, and an asset to the schools and communities they are in. 🙂