Reflections on teaching in Kalimpong, India

This JanPlan, I traveled to India with 12 other Colby students to a city in the far north of the country called Kalimpong. The first time I saw Kalimpong I was shocked — it was completely different from any place I had ever been. Cars were rushing by, unaware of any pedestrians, people were selling things right off of the street, and because tourists rarely visit Kalimpong, we received stares.

Throughout the month, I spent my time interning at the My Peace Music Institute (MPMI), a nonprofit after-school academic program devoted to introducing young students to the benefits of music and the arts. During my time at MPMI, I saw students become inspired by music and recognized the benefit of the institute offering educational opportunities to which students may not have otherwise had access.

Before arriving at MPMI, I was unsure of what my role would be, whether teaching, tutoring, or acting as a classroom assistant. As a math major, I had requested to help teach mathematics in the classroom, but I quickly learned that I would be doing much more.

Shortly after our arrival, Ava Baker ’18 and I were introduced to Roshni, the 23-year-old Kalimpong-born manager of MPMI. Roshi was very kind and excited about our involvement, although it was clear immediately that there was a language barrier we would have to overcome. I had no idea  difficulty we would have communicating as I assumed English would be widely spoken, as it is one of India’s official languages. Nepalese and Hindi are the most prominent languages in the area; English, as it turned out, is rarely spoken.

Ava and I were told that together we would be teaching two classes: one in the morning and one after lunch. Within the set time frame, we were to teach predominantely music­—Ava is a music major and sings—then math, and English as necessary. Grade 1 material is very different from grade 4, as is grade 5 from 10. We were also told that during our time with the program, they had not hired a teacher. Ava and I would be leading the classroom, with only the help of each other.

Before this trip, apart from my experiences as a Teacher Assistant  here at Colby, neither of us had any real teaching experience. We quickly learned that since involvement in the program was optional, students would come and go as they pleased. This lack of structure was completely different from anything we had been exposed to in our schooling. In adittion, since it was their vacation, students were attending classes primarily to socialize with their friends. We respected the fact that these classes were over the break, and especially for younger children, vacation should be “fun.”

Day One was a day of firsts. We were introduced to the students for the first time (approximately 13 students in the morning, and seven in the afternoon), we taught math and music for the first time, and had the first feeling of being completely lost. Although I was knowledgeable in math, and Ava in music, we were working together to teach everything. At the schools the students attended, math did not appear to be a priority, and the lack of resources made teaching both mathematics and music difficult.

The most challenging aspect of the internship was the lack of organization at the institution. Since kids would frequently miss lessons and then show up again  other days, we had to begin each class with a review of the previous day’s material. To avoid repetition,  Ava and I would split up helping individual students who missed the lesson, while playing warm up games with the others. We had to pay particular attention to some of the younger students who found the material too advanced.

It was hard for us to define the classroom as a place of learning rather than a space for only games. We wanted the material to be fun, and used games to build relationships and help work on the students’ English. However, they were mostly interested in playing games rather than learning math or music. To overcome this, we established the beginning of our class time as a games period, and tried to make learning as fun as possible, while still making sure the students understood the material and stayed focused.

Despite some difficulties, working with the students at MPMI was one of my most rewarding experiences. Knowing that the students would likely not have had an opportunity to learn in this setting without our involvement made the experience even more meaningful. Instead of feeling that my lack of teaching experience was a detriment to their learning, I had the ability to connect with the same students each day and form relationships with every one of them. I experienced the feeling that I suppose teachers feel every time a student finally understands a topic, when their eyes light up with understanding: a truly rewarding experience.

Beyond academics, I had a lot of fun working with the kids and playing games with them. You quickly learn that kids are kids no matter where they are from, or what they have, and so as long as you are open to stepping outside of your comfort zone, the lessons you learn are endless. Teaching abroad may be difficult, especially when you recognize that school systems and expectations vary dramatically, but I would encourage anyone looking to teach to do so.

The classroom where Badali ’16 taught students in Kalimpong, Courtesy of Ava Baker '18

The classroom where Badali ’16 taught students in Kalimpong, Courtesy of Ava Baker ’18