I have my license and masters degree in social work, but I had never stood in front of a classroom of wide-eyed students. It reminded me of younger years as a performer: nervously shaking on stage with an intimidating opportunity to engage and captivate a hostage audience.
Good actors deliver performances that invite their audiences to connect. Their words spark a conversation, a feeling, regardless of whether or not words are exchanged. Teachers have a similar platform to inspire and impact their students' lives.
A room filled with a variety of ages and ability levels, the challenges of a new culture and environment, and circumstances you've never before faced makes an interesting soup of obstacles as you aim to develop relationships with your students. Your class is your audience, and it's up to you to start the conversation.
General tips and suggestions
When I first arrived at Matepani, the academic program was fresh in development. Until two or three years ago, formal classes didn’t exist. My social work skills were immediately put to work.
I realize not everyone enters these situations with training or awareness needed to evaluate and consider larger systems at play. Many volunteer programs (despite hefty fees) fail to provide necessary information for foreigners entering academic settings.
I’ve put together a few resources for those traveling abroad to teach.
1. ADJUST EXPECTATIONS
Don’t assume countries follow the same educational structure as your own. In the US, we emphasize competition, performance, and group work. In Nepal, I observed rote learning and repetition and working together in groups is a fairly new practice.
Ask questions. Talk to your students, listen to community leaders, help prepare lunch. Engaging conversations is a helpful learning experience for you and for them — I discovered some of my students had exceptional English skills; others were natural athletes, artists, musicians. I'd listen to stories of homesickness and watch them greedily eat dal bhat. It’s valuable for your students to translate and communicate what is commonplace for them, and you'll learn more about their everyday customs and beliefs.
Nepalis might be the most agreeable, kind people I’ve met. Their focus, diligence, and discipline is incredible to see. They don't really say no. There's this sideways head tilt I found incredibly confusing when I first arrived. I never knew if it was a shrug, an agreement, or a dissent (I came to learn it means "OK.").
As with any new experience, put on your patience cap and don't get frustrated. Cultural sensitivity is key if you're looking to make a real difference.
2. BRING SUPPLIES WITH YOU
Having an arsenal of materials to use for lesson plans and activities keeps learning fresh and fun. “Newness” stimulates eager minds.
When I arrived, my students had been looking at the same boring textbooks for years. I bought new ones for my classes, and whipped out paintbrushes and pipe cleaners to supplement English lessons.
Pack crayons, finger paints, stamps, stickers, whatever you can get through customs. Be prepared for little resources and materials to work with when you arrive.
3. BE MINDFUL.
It is not about you. It is not about you. It is not about you.
Empathy is my #1 takeaway from social work school. Put yourself in your students' shoes. Learn about their world. Learn about their home, where they come from, what they like.
I taught teenagers how to write a research paper. They had never heard the term research before, much less know about outlines, introductions, conclusions, thesis statements. I had to consider what exists in their world to communicate the writing process. I conjured analogies using sandwiches ("Your introduction and conclusion is the bread. You need good meat and lettuce for a tasty sandwich!") and soccer ("The introduction is the kick off, when the whistle first blows. The conclusion is the goal.").
4. MAKE IT FUN
Some of my students slept five to a tiny room, two in one bed. They’d wake up early for puja, and who knows what time they went to sleep. I'd watch them fall asleep in class, during puja -- even with drums pounding in the background. And I'm not sure if you’ve ever had to deal with bedbugs, but sleeping during an infestation is near impossible. The boys would drag their wooden bed frames into the afternoon sun, picking at cracks with small sticks in one hand and a match in the other. Try learning a language when you're sleep deprived.
All this to say that I think learning should be fun. Games. Prizes. Rewards. My classes were exceptionally hardworking and well-behaved when they knew I had stickers or Snickers in my bag. Rewards don't have to be material, either. "Fun Fridays" of song and dance performances work wonders.
5. LEARN THE LANGUAGE
Providing opportunity for your students to teach YOU is a great way to build rapport and trust. Even basic phrases demonstrate you’re making an effort. It will remind you how difficult it is for your students, too.
While this list isn’t comprehensive, here are some of the phrases I found useful during my time in Nepal. (Disclaimer: I learned from speaking to friends and browsing books I picked up in shops on the street. There could be mistakes.):
Kay gorrei cha? – How’s it going?
Tapaailaai Angreji aunchha? – Do you speak English?
Ali ali Nepali auncha. – I speak a little Nepali.
Mero desh Amerika ho – I am from America.
Maile tyo bujna! – I don't understand!
Hajur lai bhetera dherai khushi laagyo. – It is nice meeting you.
Sabai kurako laagi dhanaybaad. – Thank you for everything.
Pardaina. – I don’t want it.
Pookio. – I’ve had enough.
Jaun. – Let’s go.
Ek chin. – Hold on.
Ma pharkinchu. – I’ll come back.
Bhok laagyo. – I’m hungry.
Ke bhayo? – What’s wrong?
Yo ke ho? – What is it?
Shuva kamana. – Good luck.
Kamraamo. – Good job.
Sajilo – easy
Garo – hard
Purano – old
Halla – noisy
Dilo – late
Chitto – quick
Mahango – expensive
Raamro – beautiful
Sabai – all
Matrai – only
Ajha – today
Boli – tomorrow
Hijo – yesterday
Haapta – week
Ahile – now
Pachi – later
Pheri – again
Keta – boy
Keti – girl
Ketaketi – children
Bahini – younger sister
Bhaai – younger brother
Shathi – friend
Shathi haru – friends
6. CONSIDER YOUR IMPACT
You’re not just a teacher. You're a consultant, a representative of your home country. You may be one of the few native English speakers your students will meet.
Show respect for yourself, your work and your home. Dress appropriately. Different countries have difference social norms regarding modestly. Respect traditions whenever possible.
I collected some of my students' books to grade exams and saw, neatly copied, “ILY = I love you” and “brekkie.” I'm not sure how relevant these are to monastic settings...
Look to leave things better than how you found them.
I began a collection of journals with lesson plans, notes, and class rosters. If your school doesn't have a record, this is a great way to communicate among volunteers.
Plan in advance and put energy towards your classes. Structures gives students a routine to anticipate. You can do this through daily homework, regular exams, deadlines and assignments.
Nepal English Language Teachers' Association - Trainings, seminars, scholarships, conferences to serve English educators throughout Nepal. Established in 1992.
Teaching English as a Foreign/Second Language in Nepal: Past and Present - Academic paper from Arkansas State University exploring the history and present challenges of English education in Nepal.
OLE Nepal - Resources and trainings incorporating technology and content to benefit a variety of socio-economic classes and cultural groups.
Nepali English Teacher (an app) - A Nepali / English tool that includes interactive quizzes and flashcard game to improve vocabulary.
Fulbright Orientation and Policy Manual - Directed towards USA funded English teaching assistants, this resource is the grand-daddy of resource materials for the traveling teacher. Tips on banking and traveling, health and medical care, pack list, and background information on Nepali school environments.
UNESCO (Bangkok) Multilingual Education Data - Basic stats on spoken languages and class offerings in Nepali schools. Limited data and small sample, but you can get a quick glimpse of what's available in terms of resources in public primary schools.
English Skills - Sample tests and lesson plans and tips on teaching through Class 8. The site appears to be fairly new but regularly updated, and questions are encouraged.
Stay tuned for sample lesson plans and activities for beginning, intermediate and advanced students.