Most of a lost post from Bhaktapur on teaching

(Doing a little house-cleaning, and too tired to write anything new, I found this post stuck in the drafts folder, from when the internet connection went out before I could post or finish it.  It is from the last week in Bhaktapur, after we got back from our vacation week in Pokhara.)

On the first day teaching again after our Pokhara Spring Break ’11 it felt weird to walk into a classroom, stretching the stiffness out of teaching muscles (took about 10 minutes).  It was funny, touching, and a bit maddening how even the most chaotic class would go still and somber when I told them the next day was my last with them.

Yesterday was my last at Kalika, and as I walked out the gate there were little voices shouting “goodbye Tilak sir” (my Nepali name…did I ever tell you about that?) and little hands waving out the windows of the school bus.  Today was penultimate at Himalayan, and I was surprised and touched by how many kids said they would miss me.  The entirety of Class 7 wanted my autograph, even the girls who, up until now, I have barely been able to entice into uttering a word.

When a teacher walks into a Nepali classroom (at least at both our schools) the students all stand and say together “good morning teacher and namaste!” and when you leave say “thank you for teaching us teacher and bye-bye.”  It didn’t take too long before I really heard the thank you as genuine.  The kids here are a delight.  Their enthusiasm and good natures put smiles and happiness in every single day.  And they only drive you insane 12% of the time, not bad.

(One day we rode the school bus in the afternoon while it took the kids back to the farms outside the city, where many of them dropped their bags and went to work in the fields.)

I am guessing the classes are not that different from Western schools; peer influence is crucial and pivotal, the girls mature faster than the boys, when they are interested they participate wholeheartedly and when not interested/understanding their attention goes right out the window.  The differences as I see them now revolve around two things: the atrophied creativity of students in a system that relies entirely on rote memorization and repetition, and the increased physicality of a culture in which students are always smacking each other and teachers often punish students physically.  Yeah, the teachers here hit the kids.  Pretty hard and reliably often.  A solid portion of teachers carry sticks all day.

I don’t agree with the corporal approach, but to be honest I was tempted once or twice because that is the fundamental structure they know, and so my words were ineffective (again, this was only in one or two cases…I’m looking at you, Himalayan Class 8).  The worst manifestation of it though is when teachers hit a student for a wrong answer.  Making mistakes in inevitable, especially in a language class, and if you punish a student for a mistake, s/he just stops trying in order to avoid them.

I think that is part of the reason behind the utter epidemic of copying that goes on in these schools.  When I collect homework or classwork (or even during K’s poetry contest, pictured) I’ll get the same words written in multiple student’s notebooks, sometimes even in the same handwriting!  They are clearly not grasping the function of homework.

One thing that I imagine is different from some western schools but not others, is that disinterested or un-included students fall by the wayside and fall further and further behind.  There is no awareness or technique for dealing with learning disabilities here, nor for helping if a student just falls behind.  They come to school six days a week, 50 weeks a year, and to be honest the teaching method would bore me to tears too.  I am actually amazed by the kids who are still checked IN, when the school environment feels more like a daycare than a school.