An Unforgettable Apprenticeship

Today I’ll be discussing my apprenticeship community, schedule, and environment. Over the past few months, I’ve been working as a teaching assistant with Teach for India at a local government primary school, which serves kids from Jr. KG (equivalent to Pre-K back in the US) to 7th Standard. Upon graduating, students need to find another school to continue their education, although whether or not they do so often depends on their family circumstances. My school building is shared with a Marathi medium school in the afternoon; our school runs from 7-12 AM, with a lunch break around 9:30, while the Marathi medium school runs from 12-5. The infrastructure is decent compared to some of the other schools in the area; though there are some broken windows and the floor is often quite dusty, there are mostly enough desks and stools for all the students, and each classroom has a chalkboard, cabinet, and functioning door. Though there’s limited space and no facilities for the kids to engage in much physical activity or sports, there was recently a basic stage built to hold assemblies, and there are also bathrooms and running water available. The school week is Monday-Saturday, with Saturday ending at 11 AM and being reserved for extra-curricular clubs and student performances.

A few of the kids and I stand for a photo in front of the school grounds during my first week here.

Teach for India has placed fellows in my school to be the class teachers for 5th, 6th, and 7th standard (akin to 5th, 6th, and 7th grade in the US), with each standard having two sections. I’ve been lucky to have had great relationships with all 6 of my TFI mentors, both at school and outside of it. There’s Rigzen and Juhi, who teach 5th Standard; Nidhi, (my “official” mentor) and Sakhee, who teach 6th Standard, and Sreyoshee and Madhura, who teach 7th Standard. There are also a few government teachers that I work with sometimes, most notably Akanksha, who helps co-teach 6th Standard. All of them are women in their 20s, and each has come from different parts of India (Juhi is actually from Nepal but came to India for college) to Pune. I’ve been able to learn a lot from their different perspectives of India as a result, and they’ve taught me about how life differs in India in different parts of the country. Their maturity and approach to life while simultaneously being approachable has been very inspiring to me, and they’re big role models for not only me, but the students. I hang out with them after school sometimes, whether by getting lunch, seeing a movie, or doing some other activity, and I feel comfortable with them like I do with any other friend – something I never expected at first, given we have nothing in common in terms of our ages or backgrounds.

My TFI mentors. From left to right: Rigzen, Nidhi, Madhura, Sakhee, Juhi, Sreyoshee.

My principal was a government school teacher for a long time – she was one of the first teachers assigned to my school when it was first constructed – and has worked her way up to her current position. She has a strong vision and desire to constantly improve the school, and cares a lot about the school’s reputation and perception to the local community as well as to government officials. Although some of the teachers feel at times that she is a little too heavy-handed with her micromanaging in pursuit of her goals, her overall presence has resulted in a positive school environment; in terms of infrastructure, resources, and student behavior, for example, my school is doing above average compared to other similar schools in Pune. I’ve been coordinating with her a lot recently in trying to finish my community project of creating a makeshift library for the school, and she’s been quite supportive in the process.

Jaya ma’am, my principal, making a speech to the students during an assembly.

My students are a hugely diverse bunch, although most of them come from economically and socially underprivileged backgrounds. With most of them between 10-14 year old, they range widely in terms of educational background and academic achievement. For example, the English reading level in my 6th standard class ranges between .5 (kindergarten-level) and 6, with the median being around 3rd or 4th-grade level; this wide range of English ability is particularly challenging for the teachers, since it affects their ability to teach other subjects as well. They’ll often teach a concept first in English and then re-explain in Hindi (or Marathi, if they know it) so that all of the kids can understand; however, there typically is still a gap in understanding since many of the students spend little time learning or using their native language in a school setting. This often results in part of the class being bored because they’re listening to something they already know, while another part of the class is confused by what’s being taught. The teachers try to combat this by separating the kids by level and holding extra classes after school, but it remains a challenge. Because of government policy, students are also not allowed to repeat a standard, so the problem is often never fully resolved.

What my class usually looks like, with Nidhi teaching at the front.

Another one of the major issues the teachers have faced is maintaining a disciplined school environment. Although all of the students are very kind, caring, and loving kids, they often have difficulty controlling their behavior in terms of talking during class and maintaining a quiet, orderly school atmosphere. This is in part due to the environment – having 40 kids in a relatively compact classroom, combined with a school schedule that lacks any recess or social time – as well as due to their backgrounds – many of them didn’t experience a formal classroom environment until 3rd or 4th standard, so they don’t always have a habit of following class norms such as raising your hand to speak or lining up orderly at the bell. Many of them also have a habit of shouting, even when standing right next to their conversation partner, and a particular fondness hitting, slapping, and wrestling each other (boys and girls alike), sometimes for no reason.

A quick wrestling match in the halls after lunch break.

Fortunately, their behavior is by no means malicious: their shouting usually stems from a lack of self-awareness and poor habits, while their physical aggression is usually pretty mild and has simply become a normalized part of school; there’s almost never a situation where a teacher needs to physically intervene. However, it does mean that the classroom can be a scene of complete chaos at times, especially given the number of students being managed by a single teacher. Sometimes it takes a few minutes simply getting everyone to quietly settle down in their assigned seats and have their eyes on the chalkboard, cutting into class time and making it hard to progress through the syllabus. Usually the situation’s solved by having one of the teachers intimidate them, shout at them, or discipline them (whether through physical means or otherwise), but it’s not something the teachers enjoy doing and it leaves them often exhausted by the end of the school day. I personally have had a hard time yelling at the kids myself, as I know they’re good kids at heart, and many of their actions remind me of the same mischievous attitude that I often had in school. Unfortunately, this has also meant that I’ve been unable to maintain an orderly classroom at times, and there have been quite a few instances where I’ve had to get one of my mentors to come bail me out and prevent the state of the class from further deteriorating. Overall though, I would characterize my students as wonderful kids who do have a lot of empathy for their teachers and are motivated to learn, even if they sometimes lack self-awareness and an ability to change their bad habits.

Akanksha restoring order to class during a day when the students were particularly overenergetic.

In terms of the system of education, there’s a lot more emphasis on rote memorization than what I remember from my public primary schooling in the States; many lessons will be taught out of the textbook, with students expected to simply repeat what’s been taught on an exam. The curriculum otherwise reminds me a lot of the material I learned myself during primary school, and it helps that the teachers try to make class interesting whenever possible, such as by instituting crafts projects to teach geometry. A local company also donated a few computers to the school, so students take turns leaving regular class for their scheduled computer lessons.

My students working together in small groups.

Extracurriculars and student hobbies at the school are limited by space and resources, so although it’s difficult to hold activities such as sports, many of the students are good at dancing and various forms of visual art. The school tries to show off their talents as often as possible, such as through a Teach For India inter-school competition called SHOUTT, which has events such as dance, poetry, journalism. Every school also holds a major event annually, aptly named Annual Day, where parents and members of the community gather to watch the students put on various dance performances and speeches. There’s often a lot of preparation that goes into these events; in November and December, for example, there were almost no normal academic classes being held, since there was first a two week Diwali break (early November), then preparation for SHOUTT in early December, and then preparation for the annual day, which happened the first week of January. Although the teachers did lament the lack of progression through the coursework during this time, they also understood the importance of these events to the students and the school community.

Some of the crafts the students made for the Diwali celebration.

In terms of “what I do” at school, my role in the classroom is usually to help answer the kids’ questions during class and make sure they’re all staying on task. I mainly stay with Nidhi and assist with 6th Standard, but I’ll usually go to whichever class I’d be the most useful in, even if that’s just overseeing a section during a work period while the teacher meets with our principal regarding some new initiative. A lot of my time has also been spent helping prepare the kids for their extra-curricular events, including SHOUTT and Annual day, and assisting with whatever other school projects are currently ongoing. The kids also love asking me about the world and what my life is like, so I spend time whenever possible just talking with them while they’re not busy. I’ve definitely learned a lot from my students as well – and from everyone else at school as well – about all facets of life and education here in India, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone for being so kind to me and for making me a part of the school community.

Rigzen and I spending time with the kids just this past week.

That’s all for now – I’ll describe in my next blog what else I’ve been up to besides this apprenticeship, and give you an idea of what a day my the life has been like.