Wednesday, August 12, 2015

International Field Experiences: Looking Back and Moving Forward!

This spring and summer TGC teachers traveled around the world to Morocco, the Republic of Georgia, Brazil, India, and the Philippines. We will be celebrating their adventures this August with highlighted blog posts, teacher memories, photos, and more. Please join me as I kick us off and reflect on my experience in India! 

Emily Lester

Program Coordinator

It was about 2:00 AM, and as we exited the very modern airport into the humidity of the Bangalore night, a welcome change from the twenty or so hours of in-flight recycled, forced air. A dog wandered past our group through the crowds of families and drivers with name placards waiting to meet their arriving parties.  We found our colleague from The Teacher Foundation who led us to a bus covered in blinking lights, decorative garlands, and a banner across the front reading "Praise The Lord" - our ride to the city.  

Maya Menon, the Director of the Teacher Foundation in Bangalore, told us that India is best understood as a paradox.  In our introduction to Indian education, society, and culture, we would see infinite combinations of contradictory features in each sector: extreme wealth and extreme poverty, high quality schools and those without properly trained teachers or necessary resources, the very conservative and the very liberal, progressive politics alongside remnants of the caste system, and the list goes on.  India is the second-most populous country in the world, next to China.  India has the world's largest youth population.  There are fifteen official languages, and India is one of the five major emerging national economies.  Spending almost a month in-country, I visited five cities in four different states; and, over a month later, there are a lot of characteristics and facts I can name about India, yet I still find my tongue completely tied in my efforts to make any summative statements about my experience there. Maya was spot on.

We must be careful about the narrative we tell of our homeland as well as that of the countries in which we travel.  In our preparation for travel as well as in our debrief of the international field experience, we discuss with the TGC fellows how important it is to reflect on and process the experience in order to best be able to share it with others.  I find that it is equally as important to avoid oversimplifying such complex places and to avoid making sweeping generalizations about an entire culture or population of people.

I'm not sure that I can pinpoint the moments of this journey that will provide the best lens into the International Field Experience in India, but I can tell you what stood out to me.... 

Melinda Carpenter (Summerville, WV) is up first!

After a morning of observing classes and talking with teachers and administration at the Shastry Memorial School, a private school in Bangalore, we gathered outside where students were gearing up to compete in a round of Kabbadi, a game native to India.  First, the girls played and then the boys. Before I knew it, they had our teachers up from the sidelines and playing along too! My first emotion was sheer panic that someone would break an arm or sprain an ankle and would require some sort of airlift evacuation to a hospital.  My next was one of amazement that these teachers, in spite of the 90-degree heat, being dressed in slacks and blazers, were jumping up at the chance to play a game of tag with these students they had only just met. One after another, most of the teachers took a turn learning and playing the game with the students. 

This instance is only one of the many that I observed of these teachers' deep desire and enthusiasm to be with young people.  Robert Lurie (Lansing, MI) said the one thing he wanted more of during his time in India was direct interaction with students. On the sidelines of the Kabbadi matches, I listened in as he sat with a group of young ladies and asked them about their impressions of the United States, about what they want to be when they grow up, and where they hope to travel.

Many of the teacher-student interactions we saw were very formal.  The Indian teachers and administrators so obviously care about their students, but there is a clear distinction that reinforces the power structure and defines the teachers as the holders of knowledge with the students as the recipients.
I think we surprised everyone when we moved for the students to be in the photo! [Seen here: Erik Remsen, Rutland, VT, Robert Lurie, Lansing, MI, and Mr. A P Joythish, Principal, KV Malappuram]

Teachers around the world are often so much more than a teacher to many of their students (see definitions for parent, mentor, coach, advisor). This rapport and relationship with students is a major factor in facilitating learning and community building in the classroom.  When students are part of a learning environment in which they have a vested stake, there is more opportunity for productive collaboration and learning to take place.  In student-centered teacher training programs, pre-service teachers are learning to center their interactions, content, environment, instructional strategies, and assessments around the students.  The belief is that this type of participatory approach enables students to feel empowered and invested in the creation of their own knowledge base and to acquire collaboration and critical thinking skills to help them enter the 21st century workforce.   

This is not to say that all teacher-student relationships in India are based in this sort of formal, hierarchical structure (the paradox, remember?).  Sree Devi Gundapaneni, a teacher at Jubilee Hills Public School in Hyderabad, walked into shops with me as we waited for our movie to start one Thursday evening.  As we walked, within the span of about one hour, we ran into two or three of her former students.  These  young ladies approached her with hugs and smiles and talked with her about their college plans and the goings on with their lives.  She clearly cares for her students, former and current, in a way that extends beyond their performance on end of year exams, and is so obviously loved in return by her students.  This type of passion and care is what I saw among my fifteen travel companions, who each day were busy blogging responses to student questions, Skyping their home classrooms into their visits in India, and making plans for new lessons and activities for their return to the new school year. 

A truth for me, which has only been reinforced by this experience, is that teachers around the world are doing the most difficult and most important work.  Although the pedagogy and strategies may differ regardless of country of origin, teachers do their work with a passion and willingness to grow, learn, and improve their craft.  By participating in programs like TGC, I hope that teachers are encouraged and motivated to continue building the global community in which they work and live so that their students have the opportunities and exposure to develop the skills and knowledge to succeed in it as well.

To see where the TGC fellows in India are from, check out the map below! You can see where they went and check out their travel blogs here!

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