Taking the wooden rod from my hand the little girl says, “No, mam. To the student. You use.”
Pretending for a moment that the desk is the student she gives me a demo.
Indeed teaching English in a foreign country is an experience.
Since 2004 I have taught English on a voluntary basis in a private school in Mysore, India. It is part my seva and gives me a lot of joy. I truly feel in a small way I am contributing to their future.
In India, the educational system is fiercely competitive with quotas (limited seats) and many children may not get the chance for an education beyond the twelfth standard (North American’s equivalent of twelfth grade).
As a teacher walking into their classroom I have a few strikes against me.
First, as a foreigner I am an analogy. Certainly in the beginning I am not sure if they’re listening or checking out my apparel. The body language, facial expressions and nuances are a great distraction. Second, if they use inappropriate words in their own language I am none the wiser.
So I prepare myself with a lesson in grammar, which is not as a dumb as an idea as it may sound. English idioms and phrases (those which we usually take for granted) make little sense and defy many of the rules of English grammar.
Expressions like, “falling in love,” “more or less” and “some like it hot” are just a few of the oddities. One student asked me, “Miss, what is hot?” Difficult to explain for sure—hot what? Hot outside? Hot sauce? Hot people? What are “hot” people…horny people? And believe me if you’re talking to a seven-year-old you might not want to head in that direction.
To be on the safe side a very nice lesson in English lyrics will suffice. Before starting, however, two little girls approach me about the words “brave” and “beauty.”
“Madam.” they said. “Much confusion is there.”
With 62 other heads bobbing up and down in the classroom, I am told “strength is there” by one of the teachers.
Their classroom is an archaic assembly of wooden benches and attached table tops. An orange drape covers the window to shield the sun. In the centre of the room a rickety fan wobbles sideways. The children laugh at me when I look at it.
“Are these the words?” I ask, pointing to the board.
They nodded eagerly with, “Yes, miss, yes, miss, yes miss” echoing around the room. In India, “madam,” “miss” or “auntie” is the protocol. “Hey you,” Morton” or “Heather” are not. Only the bold and namely the boys go for that. If their teacher catches them, a slap on their head corrects it.
In India, this is tolerated. The year I conducted a two-year project on Yoga for children in Indian schools I observed teachers slapping the children.
“It’s allowed,” I was told. On the surface I nodded, but this is not tolerated in the West.
“Hitting? Now, this is archaic.”
It was exactly the same in Korea. They welcomed hitting as a method to gain control of the children. After teaching I returned to the office where five little Korean kids stood with their arms over their heads. As I excused myself to get around them, the school’s supervisor, with her degree in fashion design, looked pretty smug about the whole thing.
A Korean father also told me, “And if my kid gets out of control just give him a slap.”
In India it’s not different. What surprised me is the way the students approve of it. When we started the lesson, one little girl got up from her seat to pass me a stick lying on the table.
I only looked at her blankly. She decided to help me out by taking my hand and placing it onto my palm.
“Here, madam…you use it…” Seeing that I was still confused she offered a demonstration.
“Like this, Madam!” and she slapped it on the desk. Tap, tap, tap.
Instinctively, I grabbed the stick from her and hit the table. Maybe it did work to quiet the class down.
“No, mam. To the student. You use,” she said.
I became silent. Now the girl looked confused as I put the stick down.
Another child piped up, “You beat.”
Looking at a sea of 124 black eyes, I wanted to hug them not beat them.
If I were a sick person I might even take advantage of the situation but I’m not. As my thoughts overpowered what was happening I did not notice one girl had slipped out to call for a teacher.
An Indian teacher entered the classroom and shouted, “Silence!” The children hovered at their desks but one boy did not stop. She went over and slapped him. He shut up.
“You take the lesson?” she asked.
“Yes.” I said meekly.
“Okay,” she replied and left.
I returned to the blackboard and pointed to the words, “beau-ty” and “brave.”
The lesson continued.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger