PART I: STARTING WITH TFI
When I decided to spend seven months in Pune, I agreed to a part-time apprenticeship for Teach for India. This meant I’d assist a low-income school by tutoring individual children, grading papers, and leading after-school activities. From the start of the program I had no inflated misconception about any “great charitable work” I would undertake. Educational inequality is a far too deeply rooted and complex problem for any well-intentioned teenager to easily impact. Yet I was still optimistic that maybe I could inspire a few children.
During my first bus ride to Bhosari, I felt eager to meet the students. I sat in the back seat for nearly an hour, watching countless locals and shops pass in a blur, and thought about all the students I would meet. I thought about their likely diverse backgrounds, in a city as large as Pune. Yet I wondered how I — an 18 year old from America — could bond with any of them. I wondered what my role would be.
As I passed through the school’s open doorway, underneath the large blue sign titled SANT SAI, I felt out of place. I found the 6th grade room with my Teach for India fellow. And after a brief polite exchange, I quietly observed his teaching from the corner.
For hours, I followed my TFI (Teach for India) mentor and observed his classes. The students were all visibly curious why a random American was sitting amongst them. But they were all open and friendly in their curiosity. They cheerfully asked questions about the US and showed me their favorite drawings and toys. The school teachers too, politely introduced themselves and offered me fruits and candy snacks. Their kindness eased my nerves more than they probably knew.
By the end of the first week, I felt far more comfortable in the classes. I felt welcome and trusted by the students and staff. However in my role as a teaching-assistant, I still felt less useful than I expected, more a superfluous staff member than anyone really contributing to the school.
During the same time, I began to fully notice the severity of the school’s conditions. The desks were rusted metal. The student benches were thin and uncomfortable. The two bathrooms stunk terribly. The power would shut off for entire periods. Although the staff seemed devoted and hardworking, the sheer lack of resources hit me. I would feel pangs of guilt for my own upbringing and the educational opportunities. I realized that I didn’t want to just be a teaching-assistant, shadowing my mentor to each class. I didn’t know how — but I wanted to do more.
The following Sunday, my TFI mentor called me to his apartment. As he previously explained, the two other TFI fellows had recently quit. The school had been searching for permanent replacements from the surrounding community. But no one had volunteered.
Inside his room, he updated on the situation. Then he told me the real reason for meeting: the school asked if I could teach 6th grade History and Geography, starting the very next day.
Although stunned, I was thrilled at the thought. Finally I could work at the school with a real tangible purpose. I could make class fun and exciting. I could instruct them in the ways I wanted, through the dramatic stories and overarching morals of history, rather than rote memorization.
I told my mentor I was interested. So he gave me TFI materials, including a course syllabus and textbooks, to help me prepare.
I returned to my apartment that night and read the textbook chapters. I knew little about geography and even less about ancient Indian history. But with my distant memory of my middle-school classes, I wrote and rewrote engaging lesson plans. I incorporated student questions and activities. I prepared rewards and a quiz game. Then I packed my bag with red pens and pencils and set my alarm for 6:15.
The next morning, I walked into the 6C classroom. After greeting the students, I announced that we’d be starting a chapter on world religions. While speaking, I heard mutters amongst the desks.
“Shhh we need quiet. One two three eyes on me”, I called out.
Half the kids responded. The talking continued in the back row. I walked towards the noise.
“We’ll try that again — one two three eyes on me”
Even fewer students responded. The noise began to rise in the front.
“Hey everyone — we need quite, we need quiet”
A boy in the left row shouted something.. The students started laughing. Two of them began to climb over their desk.
“Everyone back in their seats.”
Multiple asked me for the restroom. I told them to sit.
I tried to restart the class when a fight broke out between three boys in the right row. I went over and separated the kids. Meanwhile several students left their seats to go to the restroom.
More surprised than angered, I slammed my book on the desk and shouted for the students’ attention. As I shouted, three students giggled in the back row. I felt terrible for yelling on the first day. Yet I also felt annoyed at the back row, which still wasn’t listening to me.
With the partial attention of the class, I suppressed my frustration and started the lesson.
Again students interrupted the lecture with questions and screams. Other students raised their hands and said they couldn’t understand my accent. Students in the back said they couldn’t hear, while their classmates laughed and screamed.
I shouted several times over the talking— but each became less effective. Soon the kids began to laugh and imitate my shouts.
I returned to the board when the bell suddenly rang. We’d barely started the lesson.
The next few classes of the day were disappointingly similar. Students shouted while I spoke. They fought with each other. They switched their seats. They cursed at each other in Marathi and Hindi. I left each class more hopeless than the last.
After the last period, I walked passed a line of silent classrooms with attentive students. I sat in the teachers meeting and glanced around the room. The other staff members were far older and more qualified. The TFI fellows in particular had undergone months of training. Everyone besides me was a native Indian. I felt entirely out of my depth.
I went home agitated. I sat at my computer and stared at the screen knowing I still had to prepare lessons for the next day. After a rewrite of the now seemingly absurd lesson plans, I went to bed.
PART II: FIVE WEEKS LATER
Over the next five weeks, the classes didn’t improve. I now feel a deep frustration in the face of that continued failure. On the same now monotonous long-hour bus ride to school, I am repeatedly bothered by the notion that I’m failing these kids at a pivotal time in their education. In particular, I think of the ones that take excessive notes in the corner desk, reading the textbook in their free time, saying “bhaiya I cannot understand” or “bhaiya I’m bored. I’ve read this already”.
The failure is not something I can easily shrug off. I’ve filled two notebooks with failed lesson plan ideas. I’ve bruised and cut my hand after slamming it against the metal desk. I’ve tried time and again to discipline students by sending them out of the room, telling them to put their heads down, and speaking with them after class. But their memories are short and my efforts usually fade into the usual chaos.
As I pass daily underneath that same blue SANT SAI sign, I find myself questioning my purpose in the school. I frequently ask the other teachers for advice. They tell me to be stricter, to hit the children, or to be more honest, to spend more time with the children. But with each request, I feel my initial belonging at school dissipate into open judgement. I feel that I’m a stranger, even when the others greet me with a smile. And I feel personally disappointed in myself, when I compare the failure of each passing day to my hopeful expectations five weeks ago.
I don’t want to resolve this post with a unrealistically happy ending. There are some good parts of the school day and those are important to recognize. But they do little to absolve the much greater and pressing frustration of the classroom. If I was completely honest, I would say that this experience has mostly taught me one thing: how to be resilient amidst constant personal uncertainty. From my first day in September, I came to the school uncertain of the impact I would make. I was anxious about how I would be able to relate to the children and adult staff. I came with a desire to do good but more often felt that I was doing the opposite. As of today, I haven’t resolved any of those doubts. And that feels awful.
But I didn’t come to Pune for comfort or belonging. I came because I wanted to learn more about myself in the context of the larger world. And my frustration is merely the ongoing part of that process. Even after the worst days, I still return because I have faith that some greater good will come out of this experience. Whether it comes as the classes improving or some other impact, I don’t yet know. But I still have faith that greater good exists.