Trial By Fire

I entered the classroom with my mentor and pulled out my notebook. It was the first day of my apprenticeship. Observation day. My Teach for India (NGO) teacher sat me in the back of the classroom and told me to take it easy.
Okay, sweet. I can do that.
The lesson had progressed smoothly. While my mentor scrawled problem sets involving the simultaneous equations on the board, I hushed a pair of boys who took the time to chat about WWE. Not bad, I thought. The entirety of the 8th-grade class seemed to be paying attention, and side conversation was minimal.
Piece of cake.
I approached a table and asked the students how they were doing on their practice problems. In return, I was greeted with blank stares. Unsure whether they heard my question, I repeated it. Again, I was reciprocated with confused looks. Fine. I picked up one of the students’ books and flipped through the pages. In the notebook, I found several sketches of his teachers and friends, the lyrics to One Republic’s 2013 hit song Counting Stars, and absolutely zero math work.
“Where’s your pen?” I asked in jagged Hindi.
“No pen, bhaiya.”
I fished a pen out of my backpack and tossed it to the 8th grader.
“Now maths,” I told him. “And stop drawing me. I don’t look like that.”
Inexplicably, after exactly 30 minutes, our classroom started to go haywire. Something terrible awakened in each of my students, and within seconds, half the class was out of their seats, paper planes were whizzing about, and fists were flying between groups of kids.
I didn’t know whether to duck for cover or call for back up.
Eventually, my first ever class with TFI had come to a close. My mentor gave me a signal, and we rushed out the classroom, leaving a room full of wild children behind.
In just under an hour at my new school, I felt crushed. Despite being an English Medium School, communication between me and the students was difficult and draining. Foundational knowledge for subjects was just nonexistent. In my mind, there was absolutely no reason for a class of 8th graders to have zero background in basic division while we delved into advanced algebra. Yet, here I was, unable to explain simultaneous equations because of a lack of prior understanding.
Luckily for me, I had my mentor. An anchor to keep me grounded. A beacon of light guiding me through troubled waters. I looked over to my mentor in hopes of some words of encouragement or a small pep-talk to ensure that we were going to be just fine.
“F*ck,” he shook his head. “That was f*cked.”
And with that, we moved on to our next session.
The rest of the day went as smoothly as you may have imagined. As we shifted from grade to grade, I realized that the language barrier for the younger classes was going to be a bigger problem than I had imagined. In an ideal world, an English Medium School would teach solely in English and the children would only engage in topics in English. The reality of my situation was that most classes utilized teachings in Hindi – a language I had just begun learning. It was a tough pill to swallow. All of my dreams involving teaching a class alone were squandered. At least, that’s what I thought.
After a couple weeks of getting acclimated to the classroom, my first true test materialized in a spontaneous fashion. A few hours before our class was slated to start, I received a call from my mentor.
“Hey, James. I won’t be coming in today. I need you to take over my classes. Thanks for understanding.”
Instant panic.
In a hurry, I gathered my math materials, Hindi notes, and any other resource that had any semblance of being useful for lesson planning. The following hours were used to hack together brief lessons for the three classes I would be teaching that day. Despite having just a little over a month’s exposure to the native language, I tried to incorporate some Hindi into my lesson plan. I thought of them as comfort phrases. Small strings of words that would make me and the children feel more comfortable in this unfamiliar situation.
Slowly working up the courage to get up, I eventually closed my laptop and entered the classroom.
“Hello, bhaiya!” I was immediately greeted by some of the children. I returned their greetings with a smile and approached the board.
“Today, class, I am your teacher,” I declared in Hindi, exactly like I had practiced just moments ago. “The topic is graphs and charts.”
I drew a few graphs on the whiteboard and labeled them accordingly. Intrigued that I would be teaching the class rather than assisting them from the sidelines, the students spared me a few moments of silence as I began my lesson.
I moved at a fast pace and tried to avoid any lulls in the lesson. I paused occasionally to use one of the Hindi words I had gotten to know quite well.
“Samja?” I asked the class. Most of the class nodded in response to my question which loosely translates to ‘understand?’
A wave of confidence rushed over me. They say that validation as a teacher isn’t necessary, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t help. I scribbled more drawings and practice problems on the board for the students to work on.
Despite my obvious struggles with Hindi, my class could see that I was putting effort into our communication. In return, they reciprocated my efforts by paying attention and asking for clarification whenever needed.
After thirty minutes, the class erupted into noise, as usual. But the wild shouts were replaced by questions about our current topic. Fisticuffs were substituted by hands in the air as the kids wanted to volunteer to answer the questions on the board. The whizzing paper planes were taken over by… well, more paper planes. I never said that I had this whole thing figured out.
But that's the beauty of it all.
As I spend more time in the classroom and dedicate more time to language learning, I know that I’ll be able to improve on an already satisfactory start to my apprenticeship.
For me, this was just the beginning. The initial step to a year of growth.
This was my trial by fire.