Empowerment through Education: Teaching in India

In this blog post, Megan Smith (English Teacher, Excel in Key Subjects) recalls the experience she had teaching in India.

In June last year, I stepped on a plane with my boarding pass in hand – the destination read ‘New Delhi’. Whilst this was not to be my first time teaching abroad, having taught for a couple of years in Hong Kong and Mainland China in the past, I knew that teaching in India would be a whole other kettle of fish.

As I left the airport at Delhi, I walked into a cacophony of colourful sights and sounds – I was met with a symphony of tuk-tuk horn beeps, which incidentally would ring consistently in my ears until the moment I stepped back on a plane months later. Unlike any other country I had visited before, I was immediately struck by the extreme divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ out on the Delhi streets. The blacked-out windows of Mercedes traversed the very same roads as dirt-cloaked street children, and the brightly-lit shopping malls cast their neon rays over the areas where the street-sweepers slept.

During a weekend class in one of the orphanages on the outskirts of Delhi, I was met with a moment that will forever change my outlook on education. Having taught a class full of lively, energetic ten-year old boys for an hour, I allowed them to go out to play in the small yard outside the classroom. At hearing the sound of the bell, the boys, many of whom had been abandoned in their early years on the streets of Delhi, didn’t do what I had expected. None of them raised their eyes from the books from which they were copying, none of them dropped their pencils with which they were writing, and none of them seemed remotely interested in leaving the classroom.

At first, I thought that perhaps they were being polite as I was a new teacher, and wished to be reassured of my permission before they left the room. So, I tried to gain their attention with some loud claps, and point exaggeratedly towards the yard, ushering them to go and enjoy their playtime. Again, nothing.

Becoming slightly confused about the situation, I employed the aid of one of the local teachers who spoke Hindi, and asked to her to tell them they could leave the classroom to play. After approaching a boy on the front row, and exchanging a few words with him, she returned to me with a smile on her lips – ‘They said, they don’t want to stop learning’. The tragic irony of these words is that, unfortunately, these boys will never have the choice later in life to continue learning – further education, a college or university is but an unattainable dream.

Indira Gandhi, the only female Prime Minister of India, stated that ‘Education is a liberating force, and in our age it is also a democratising force, cutting across the barriers of caste and class, smoothing out inequalities imposed by birth and other circumstances’. When teaching in the UK, I am consistently instilling within my students that they can achieve whatever they desire in life – the only caveat being that they have to work hard for it. It is all too easy to forget that teachers in developing countries are still not able to preach the same mantra to their students in places where the cycle of poverty is still not completely broken.

Now that the months leading up to examination periods in UK schools are approaching, anyone with high-school aged children will be preparing to grapple with teenagers reluctant to complete homework or coursework. When faced with any such confrontation over the coming months, I would encourage you to relay the story of the boys in the Ashram – the boys who said they don’t want to stop learning.

Megan Smith MA. Cantab