Jeril Philip - 80

AUG. 11, 2020

Curtain Hug

It was the year of 2017: a year that had been unexpectedly tumultuous and rewarding at the same time. Whilst recovering from the rather traumatic experience of a large majority of the class failing in the Physics Unit Test (including myself), our course was presented with the somewhat unwelcome news of a volunteering activity being a requirement in the curriculum that year.

I must admit that my first thoughts went along the lines of: “perfect! with all the unnecessary and occasionally painful histrionics at home eating away at my self-study time and opportunity, this is going to make things even worse”.

We were then told that the volunteer work involved spending approximately 20 hours at an NGO next to our school called Pratyek. It was run by Dr Steve Rocha (an individual well-known for his outreach activities – especially among the young and underprivileged). It would involve each student teaching basic concepts of English grammar and composition as well as Mathematics.

Having observed students at the Language Lab (a place in our school that had staff dedicated to strengthening language skills through demonstration and exercises) and having wanted to try and replicate the same at some point, my wariness resolved into a curious expectation over the next few days.
Looking back, I am glad and grateful for the good fortune I had that allowed some unresolved curiosity helped me overcome that initial anxious phase.

The day finally came where a group of 10 people (based on roll number ranges) were assigned to the task for two weeks.
My expectations had grown into vivid visualisations where I imagined that I would be able to use all sorts of teaching implements, engaging anecdotes and captivating, elucidatory diagrams drawn for the students on blank sheets of paper placed atop off-white tables.

Staying true to my old (persistent) habit, I had escaped into the grandeur of concocted dreams while failing to factor in reality and its demands (which in this case could have been easily ascertained by simply asking the teacher/ students who had already completed the task).
I was greeted with mats laid out on the floor, a book I was told to refer to strictly and a set of four students with such a high standard deviation of age that any effort to appeal to the senses of one age group would be rendered useless for the rest.

I started teaching them basic English grammar: the students were often tired since these classes were usually held after their school times but were persistent. Attendance was not an issue since the prospect of receiving a meal after the classes ended (arranged by the NGO) kept them motivated to keep coming. Despite time constraints, I tried to develop activities that would spark more interest in the subject. Many observations led to a re-affirmation that it was like teaching four separate individuals instead of teaching a group of four students.

The greatest challenge throughout the two weeks was modifying pedagogy and content to match individual variability, especially since the lack of remediation and aided instruction had left the students with significant gaps in what they had already learnt.

The students (a boy studying in grade 3 and three young girls in grade 1, 3 and 8 respectively) as individuals were a delight too, albeit in their own unique and sometimes annoying way.
Despite having a lot of practice, I wasn’t exceptionally comfortable sitting on a mat with my rather oddly-shaped (personal, non-medical evaluation) legs awkwardly folded and my spine struggling to stay erect while explaining concepts on paper.

This discomfort did not go unnoticed by the ever-observant young boy in my class, and when he grew tired of asking questions about my place of origin, that is what fancied his attention next.
All the kids seemed intelligent in their way, and I can only hope that none of them (especially the three girls) ended up as yet another statistic of human potential squashed and wasted by societal limitations and constructs.

When the two weeks came to a close, I realised two things about the goal of learning about teaching that I had in mind:
No matter how glorious many representations in popular media paint it, the core elements of teaching students are just plain, hard work that takes months and sometimes years to build. Expectations are often far from reality. While it is great to plan a teaching session well ahead of time, it is also necessary to factor in the practical limitations that might affect the implementations of those plans.
Continuity was necessary, and so was establishing a cordial yet personal relationship between the student and the teacher. Shifting teachers every two weeks/ month seemed non-ideal.

However, the most significant learning for me was the realisation that despite initial setbacks (caused by my own unnecessarily heightened expectations), I had a lot to give when it came to teaching a concept that allowed for maximum comprehension.
The search for an opportunity to teach has been running in the background in my head since then, and although it remains unfulfilled, I am sure that when the time comes, I will be able to add some value to some student’s/students’ life.

The prospect is exhilarating, but I’ll keep my expectations tethered to reality for now and leave them unexpressed yet somewhat alive between the spaces of this final sentence.