On teaching, children and a short month-long volunteer experience

(Has anyone noticed how terrible I am at coming up with titles?)

Today’s post is a condensed (yes, it was even longer) form of an essay I wrote for a job/fellowship application. I have since accepted another role, so here I am reposting this to the blog. In November last year, I took up a month-long volunteer position at an NGO called Door Step School. An English teacher at the Community Learning Centre – exciting. 

My meticulous lesson plans crumbled when I stepped into the classroom and found myself surrounded by thirty little monsters yelling incoherent strings of rote-learned ‘missmynameispooja’, ‘hellogoodmorningbye!’ So on that first day, all I did was observe the other teachers handle the class with expertise, a healthy combination of strict and loving. 
Door Step School works towards bringing literacy to the marginalized sections. Some of their biggest projects include day schools for children at construction sites and the innovative School on Wheels initiative. The Community Learning Centre which I joined also had children of construction workers. They had been successfully enrolled in government schools. Now the Centre provided them with a support system to ensure they stayed in school and could manage the school-work. 
The counsellor at the Centre asked me to set up the base for English teaching that the next volunteer teachers could build on. My first task was to build a bond of trust. To really get through to the children, I needed to understand their contexts, the experiences that had shaped them. But all they had were questions for me! So I began to share. I told them about my house and my school, they took real delight in stories of my pet cat, and gradually, they opened up to me.
spelling activities with some 3rd-graders
I didn’t realise someone was taking photos, but it did not get past the kids!
We chatted about big and little things – the holiday decorations in their slum, someone’s birthday, their tiffin that day. When they shared their problems, their worries stayed with me, often long after the school hours. My first lesson hit hard, but it was also the most important – learning not to pity them. As our friendship blossomed, the issue of discipline slowly dissolved. As with all the other children I have taught, I planned my classes around the knowledge that eight-year-olds tend to be impatient and need to be constantly engaged. 
All the ‘English’ that these eight and nine year-olds knew was reciting the alphabet, unable even to distinguish one letter from the other or decode the individual sounds. To make it worse, they were too apprehensive to speak up. I don’t know English, they would reply in Marathi to any question I posed, until I had an idea. I drew a picture on the board. Cake! Car, scooter, table, chair, computer, the words came tumbling out. 
outdoor lessons were my favourite (though I’ve managed to look morose in every picture)
I visited the government school for a storytelling activity. Sitting in that ramshackle excuse for a classroom, with a group of bright twinkly-eyed children enthusiastically talking about their school, I realized with a new light how shameful and infuriating it was to rob them of the opportunity to learn. I decided to scrap my plan for the session and ask them what they wanted. That day we learned some twenty English words they were curious to know. 
Equipped with a set of phonics books, I arrived in class one day and taught them how to write their names. Sound out words from colourful storybooks. Suddenly, spelling stopped being gibberish. Car became c-a-r and different from c-a-t. I made little paper chits with capital and small letters and made them match pairs. Some games worked, others did not. With time, I developed an intuitive sense of which activities would be successful with whom. 
A month sounds too little in the big picture, but I am glad I powered through. I believe I made a difference. By the end of my volunteership, more than anything, I sparked in the children an interest in reading. And there was another outcome. I emerged from the experience ready to face and adapt to newer challenges. Today, I want to teach and learn from it, and do this forever.

9 thoughts on “On teaching, children and a short month-long volunteer experience

  1. What a terrific story.

    This was such a positive endeavor. Teaching is such a wondrous and beneficial thing to do.

    On top of it all, it is super that you got so much out of this experience. I teach adults under much less challenging conditions so I experience just a tiny bit of this.

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  2. Awesome Priya. I know how tough it is to teach children, and that too a foreign language. Facing challenges, successfully or unsuccessfully, shapes your character. Kudos. Deepaa Anandh

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  3. Thanks, Deepika. I was only in the city for a month, but I soon hope to more of this, and for longer this time. 🙂

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  4. It's wonderful you got so much out of this experience and enjoyed your time with the children. Yes, first time in the classroom is hard but then it gets a lot easier and definitely more fun.

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  5. Hi Priya! Nice to read about your volunteering experience with Door Step School kids.

    I believe a volunteer functions like a window for these kids. A window that opens up to a different experience every time!

    You’ve mentioned a very fundamental and important aspect of volunteering – learning not to pity the children you’re working with. People take years to realize that, and there are a few who never get it. You’ve nailed it in just one month of volunteering, a quality that must be appreciated.

    Now that you’ve become friends with this group of kids, why don’t you continue what you started, by putting technology to work? You may hold a monthly interaction with them through a video call or something like that. It would give you an opportunity to make a difference in their lives over a longer period of time.

    All the best!

    Like

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