Monday, 7 December 2015

Teaching classes in India

Along the solitary roads crossing India’s rural landscape, small communities have sprouted near the roadside over the years. Rait is one such community, a cluster of houses and shops lying on the stretch of weathered asphalt connecting the larger cities across Himachal Pradesh. At the edge of the community is the government school, a collection of cement buildings painted with pink and green pastel colors that have faded with age and dust. EduCARE India recently began an educational program at the school to instruct students on topics related to health, environmental issues, and disaster management. Engaging with the students and faculty has shed some light on a number of the challenges associated with providing education in rural India, linked to both status as foreign educators and to general difficulties with providing education in resource-poor environments.

While the school has classrooms and scientific laboratories available for use, many of the classes are taught outside on the basketball and badminton courts in the center yard of the school’s two and three story buildings. The frequent power outages that affect Rait may be a nuisance indoors as intermittent loss of lights and functional fans can be disruptive. However, classes taught outside have their own difficulties as well. Even in late November, the midday sun can be exceptionally hot on the students’ layered school uniforms. It can be difficult for students to hear the instructors in the open setting, particularly when teachers may be competing with students and teachers in nearby classes to be heard. The teachers at the school typically have the students sit on the ground in long, narrow rows separated by gender while they remain at the front of the rows in a chair. Those sitting furthest from the teachers may not be able to hear much of what is said, and splitting up boys and girls does not necessarily help reduce distractions.

Limitations in available school supplies are also evident at the school. Instructors can be seen relying on a single textbook with no blackboard, projector, or visual aids, while students manage writing in small notebooks resting in their laps; any tables and desks at the school are only available in the indoor classrooms. Though tangible materials are in short supply, potential sources of diversions are not. With no physical separation from other classes and with the attention of teachers focused on sometimes oversized classes, it is often easy for students to hold side conversations with fellow classmates sitting in the same class or wandering around the school grounds during their free period. No class is without distractions, but the outdoor setup of the school nevertheless makes it particularly easy for less-than-interested students to let their minds wander as they watch a nearby game of basketball or gaze at the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas floating in the ethereal haze at the horizon.

The pre-existing challenges of providing an education at the government school are only amplified by the presence of foreign educators. As many of EduCARE’s project managers are not of Indian descent, the visibly different EduCARE staff was a novelty to the curious students, who generally had limited prior interaction with those from other countries. Class discussions often shifted to the nationality and lifestyles of the visitors from the actual content of the course, and students in other classes tended to divert their focus from their own schoolwork to the class of a hundred led by the EduCARE instructors. Language differences were a concern as well: for some students, English-speaking abilities were limited making interactions more difficult. Hindi-speaking EduCARE workers were needed to facilitate more effective communication.

In spite of the challenges, EduCARE staff identified some approaches that were effective in engaging student interest. Discussing how issues related to the students and their own communities tended to get more of the children interested in the conversation. Interacting on a more personal level by dividing the class into smaller groups was effective as well. Although teaching the large classes of students proved demanding, recognizing sources of difficulty and working to mitigate some of the issues helped make the experience a productive one.
Having a class outside in Rait Government School 

Craig Rothenberg - USA
Disaster Management Project Manager, Rait (Himachal Pradesh)

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