On Teaching

I taught my first English lesson the evening of my arrival in Setrawa. Having had no previous teaching experience, I asked Rekha, the Sambhali school’s local teacher-translator, what she would like me to do. “Oh, they like singing”, she replied casually, before leaving me alone with the twenty or so five- to twelve-year-olds known as ‘the small girls’.

I quickly discovered that though they could sing the rainbow song (and could do so very loudly), they could not match the names they were singing to colours in the room. I chose one girl, wearing predominantly red, to be Red, another wearing yellow to be Yellow, and so on, then lined them up to make the colours of the rainbow. The girls began again, pointing at the Red girl (who simultaneously, gleefully jumped up) as they sang the word ‘red’, the Yellow girl as they sang ‘yellow’, and so on until the singing became so raucous that Rekha came in to restore order (the ‘big girls’ next door being unable to hear anything of their lesson!).  The small girls seemed pleased to have successfully interrupted Rekha’s lesson, though I was rather embarrassed…

Fortunately, the lessons that followed were, on the whole, slightly more organised and slightly less dominated by a high-pitched chaos. I even attempted some grammar. In an effort to demonstrate that “You my house come!” – apart from being an imperative when it should really be a question (but then that’s a rather more cultural than grammatical issue) – did not fit the required Subject-Verb-Object formula, I asked the class of older girls to form simple sentences using this table:

SUBJECT     VERB            OBJECT

I                      to sing          chapati

She                to swim         in the sea

Rahul            to read         a song

We                  to eat            a book

I gave them the example She reads a book, then picked on Dimple, who happened to be talking.

‘Dimple, a subject and a verb, please.’

‘Oh! Ah…I…I ee-swim!’

‘Good. I swim,’ I repeated, exaggerating its stand-alone ‘s’. Now chose one object, the right one.’

A pause. Nothing.

This is a book, kitab,’ I continued, holding one up. ‘And this is the sea,’ I pointed at the Atlantic Ocean on the classroom map. ‘Blue. Wet.’

Still nothing.


‘Yes, yes. I…ah, I…’

‘I, I what?’

‘I swim chapati!’ she announced, beaming triumphantly.

And so my blog was named.


Helen and I try to give our lessons an oral focus; we try to make them active. In a sense, we try to make them as different as possible from those taught the local schools. It would seem – from my experience at least – that the British left not only a legacy of Just William-esq school uniforms, but of their then  teaching methodology (now out-moded and largely discarded), and that India has acted as a time-warp, preserving both. The result? Setrawa’s schools rely on a bland, yet stultifying concoction of learning by rote, copying from dusty blackboards, dictation, and loud, militaristic chanting.

It is not only how, but what these pupils are taught – at least when it comes to English – that baffles me. Flipping through one of the girls’ uninviting, monochrome English textbooks reveals an ecclectic mix of largely uninstructive and irrelevent teachings: while page 35 shows you how to compose (and answer) a formal invitation (Mr. N. Sharma requests the pleasure of your company…), on page 36 you find a ‘Literature’ test: 1.) What are the primary characteristics of a poem? 2.) Define irony. Etc. Ad Nauseam.

It is not hard to compete with this book for the girls’ attention. When teaching animal names to the younger ones, we played charades; when doing To Be and To Have with their elder sisters we described Bollywood heroes (Hindi for ‘male film actor’) – ‘He is tall and has big, brown eyes’ etc. – with the aid of 50-rupee, A3 posters. In an attempt to make fruit and veg. exciting, we turned the classroom into a marketplace and had the small girls buy items, in English, from the shop-keeper big girls. Once the small girls had found their feet, they began – in true Indian fashion – to barter with the shop-keepers!

Though it may sound perverse, I often feel that the teaching – or rather the learning – is more important than the English. That if they can begin to think for themselves (something that, frankly, their schools are failing to encourage), and can begin to enjoy acquiring and processing new information, then, well, that’s something.


Depleted evening English class, mid-Winter


classroom, with Christmas stars

Classroom, with Christmas stars (left)


~ by Griselda Murray Brown on January 29, 2009.

One Response to “On Teaching”

  1. having teaching experience abroad would be great for your future Gris! i totally get what you mean by the way they teach English there, its pretty similar in lots of other Asian countries, hence most people’s English aint that great, which is a shame. and you’r right about learning being more important than the subject itself. i defo enjoyed art and art history more than i did for maths lol!

    enjoy you last…is it 2 more months till you return home?

    take care,

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