Teaching Spoken English in India

The clanking of desks on the hard tile floor is what sticks with me the most. It was August of 2011, and I was about to give my first lesson as a teacher at the College of Micronesia in Pohnpei, a small, green place in a big, blue ocean, thousands of miles from anything…and I was scared to death of what I’d gotten myself into.

When I accepted the assignment to teach there, I did so as a challenge to myself, as much as any other reason. I had never taught. I had never even taken classes in teaching. I had never lived outside of my home state of Pennsylvania, let alone, outside of the country, let alone, in a different hemisphere. I had, however, soldiered through enough years of school to earn a master’s degree and had occasional, if erstwhile, adventures in far away lands.

Nevertheless, here I was, as far outside of my comfort zone as I could possibly be, seeking the answer to life’s great riddle. I thought that if I didn’t at least give teaching a try, I would live to regret it. This was my try.

Like many, I had a fear of speaking, particularly in public, bordering on the extreme. This fear was at times debilitating – professionally, even personally. Facing it down in the most audacious way I could imagine – becoming a teacher, someone who speaks in front of people all day, every day, would be the biggest gambit possible in my quest for self-actualization.

The haunting of that fear was building inside of me as the din of the desks reverberated through the thick tropical air that lay still in the classroom despite all its windows being pulled open. The power was out, as was often the case at COM, so the windows were ajar, allowing natural light to filter in, filling the room with a cool and strangely calming mid-morning glow.

As students continued to shuffle in, the cacophony of conversation rose, canceling out any sense of individual words or phrases of a language I hadn’t even begun to understand. With a motionless ceiling fan above me, a blackboard at my rear, and only a clock hanging on the back wall of the room, I was alone on an island there, in more ways than one.

And then, it was time. With a blind bargain, I let fly the words known all too well to teachers far and wide: “Ladies and gentlemen…may I have your attention, please.” The phrase echoed resoundingly around the bare walls and by the time it dissipated, the room was silent and all eighty eyes were on me.  I was actually taken aback by the resolve in my voice and the authority it ascribed. In that moment, I faced down my greatest fear and in one fail swoop, overcame it. I had found a voice – my voice, in fact. And it would be that voice, however flawed it may be: at times stuttering or incomprehensibly fast, and always monotone, that would form the basis of my confidence moving forward.

That was my first day in the classroom¹. Over the ensuing academic year, I would go on to teach Micronesian college kids the ways of a business world they would likely never make it off the island to see, but I truly believe that my work made a difference there, for reasons beyond the content on which I lectured. Upon repatriation, I earned another master’s degree (MEd, this time) and my teaching certification, and taught – quite happily, may I add – for a couple years, before jumping on a plane with my gal to travel the world.

And that brings us up to speed with where I am today: Chennai, India. Having nailed down her volunteering well before lift-off, Jenna’s gig with Unite for Sight was the real reason we are in Chennai. After extensive research on the subject, the best I could find was, one: a volunteering option to live and work on a yoga retreat/kitten rescue/reforestation commune in the bush, hours away from Jenna, and, two: a polypurpose NGO called Chennai Volunteers (“CV”). I had hoped to find something more concrete than simply showing up and heading into the CV office with a look of, “Whatcha got for me?” painted on my face, but over the course of the preceding months of travel, nothing else had materialized.

So, as tempting as kittens and communes in the bush may have been, I chose to check out CV. Luckily, they were very flexible, and after only a 15-minute meeting with one of the volunteer coordinators, I was put to work in classrooms right away. Most of the times it was with great support, others, not so much. My first day teaching in India was one of the latter.

I took a tuk tuk to the Mary Immaculate Middle School², whizzing through the streets of Chennai among a cacophony of horns and engines screaming at various pitches. Luckily, the GPS on my phone was working, and I had pinpointed the general location of the school, so after about 20 minutes of bouncing around in the backseat of the motorbike carriage, I’d arrived. Wandering into the grounds, I was eventually pointed in the direction of the administration building. Perhaps it was a result of the nervous energy building up inside me, or it could have been the stifling heat, but I began to feel my cotton t-shirt clinging to my lower back.

The hour was quickly approaching when class was to begin and still no one from CV had shown up or could tell me what I’d be doing. The bell clanged, 1:30 came and went, and still nothing. The ladies eating their lunches across from me in what I guess could be described as a teacher’s lounge shared in my awkward discomfort, if for a different reason (i.e., What was this awkward foreigner doing here?).

The headmaster walked into the room followed by a coterie of other adults and, without pause, asked how I thought I could possibly teach the kids, what with the formal and proper pronunciation they had taught the kids. “They’ll never be able to understand your American English!” he chimed. Shaking his head, mocking my pronunciation of r’s, he walked out.

“What a hater!?” I thought. I’ve only known haters as fuel to prove myself. But there was a moment while he was speaking, and again directly after, that I did consider his words, which made me feel even more nervous and out of place than before. Then, about five minutes after class was supposed to have started, a woman came and ushered me upstairs, past the crumbling walls and concrete railings, to a classroom with about 20 middle school-aged boys.

The teacher sat in the back of the room, scarcely picking up her head when I walked in. But the boys couldn’t have been more interested. The looks on their faces ranged from wonder to delight, as their eyes followed me as I walked past the windows along the side of the classroom, darting back to their friends and back to me frenetically.

Maybe I represented something new (or an opportunity to fuck with the sub, who knows?), but a palpable murmur moved in waves around the room as I walked in. The teacher’s head rose from her grading as I approached and she told me that since no other volunteers had shown up today, the class was mine to do with whatever I wanted.

“Whatever I wanted?” I pondered the vastness of that for a spicy second (everything in South India is spicy) but was quickly taken with the concern that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. CV had told me that I’d be met by someone and they would give me materials and direction. “Whatever I wanted,” was not what I had mentally prepared for. Not at all. So, I started…slowly. Speaking slowly, loudly, and with the most Indian of accents I could muster, I asked them their names and ages. We moved on to food and sports words, speaking, writing, and then acting them out; and by the end of class, I had them dancing “Thriller” like me, Michael Jackson. The world over knows and loves MJ – why not change my last name for an hour?

This wasn’t necessarily the most difficult or trying day, but it was my first. I must admit, most days were much better than this; never again would I be left alone at a school, and in most cases, we volunteers were given some sort of resource with which to engage the kids.

Most of the rest of my time volunteering would be spent at the Seva Sedan Middle School, an offshoot school for less-advantaged girls attached to the esteemed Lady Andal School, nestled between the Coovum River and the swanky (by Chennai standards) Harrington Road, home to other such schools as well as hospitals, embassies, and cafes.

The girls there were by and large very well-behaved and fairly English proficient (English, although an official language of India is nearly unanimously a second or third language for everyone, after their regional  mother tongue, which in this case was Tamil). They all wore the same purple uniforms and all had their long black hair in the same looped and braided pigtails. It was all very cute but I could hardly tell them apart, considering I worked with different students nearly every class. Like the boys on my first day, these girls were all smiles when they sat down with me on the floor of the large prayer hall in which class was conducted – I think I was just a curiosity to these kids, even more than they were to me.

The headmaster I met on my first day teaching in Chennai was actually partly right – my accent was a bit of a hindrance. Realizing this very early on, I adopted a classroom accent that was part Apu from the Simpsons and part Tamil, as best as I could fashion it. After a few days of speaking like this, I begin to think in this accent as well, and it was then that I realized how offensive it would be if I were to speak like this to an Indian (or anyone, for that matter) in America. When in Rome, I thought.

So, in my very broken Indian accent, I led small groups (4-10) in the practice of their spoken English. To establish a level of comfort among the group, which was different every class, I’d always begin by telling the girls my name and then asking them their names, repeating them back to choruses of laughter when I’d get the pronunciation wrong, which was almost every time. And to prove my bona fides to them, I’d explain that I was an English teacher in America, to which they swung their heads side to side, signaling, in Indian body language, their approval.

As far as instruction went, sometimes I’d read them stories interspersed with frequent questions, other times, I’d lead them through worksheets and oral activities bent on speaking to a partner and then sharing out with the group. Invariably, when something was lost in translation, the group would erupt in laughter at my bumbling of the English language as they knew it; and since laughter is the most wonderful of infections, I couldn’t help but join them in it.

As each class was winding down, the students would often plead with me to sing them a song in English. And, for whatever reason, the only one that came to mind was Neil Young’s “Helpless”, so that’s what I sang a few times. They muted their laughter with broad smiles just enough for me to make it through the chorus, afterward saying, “Very beautiful, Mister Michael,” even though they didn’t understand a single word of it, what with it being in an American accent and all.

About a week before we were set to depart Chennai for greener pastures, I was disappointed to learn that the program with which I’d been working was over for the semester, as students would be studying for their exams leading up to their winter break. In total, I was only able to volunteer with CV for two and a half weeks (of the four weeks we were in Chennai), but it was really one of the silver linings to a month that otherwise struggled to live up to its billing.

Where do I go from here? Well, the time I shared with all those kids in Chennai galvanized my excitement to work for a solid month in an orphanage in Kenya, which will begin at the end of January. The fact that I was able to find and carry out meaningful volunteer work with minimal advanced planning and hassle, has already led me to seek other such opportunities as our travels continue. And as far as teaching when I get back home goes, this just made me miss it that much more. Arizona public schools, I’m coming back to ya!


¹At least, that’s how I define it. I’d guest lectured a few times and taught a few very small and informal classes at the local community center, but the classroom in Micronesia was really where I found my voice. From there, I went on to teach two semesters of Small Business Management and Marketing at the College of Micronesia’s Pohnpei Campus, which I detailed to some degree here.

²Lady Immaculate School and Seva Sedan School are both private middle schools that, through government funding and private donations, provide education to children from some of Chennai’s slums, in addition to those living in the neighboring community. To donate to Seva Sedan School, click here. To donate to Lady Immaculate School, travel to India and hand a wad of bills to that wise (but hating) old headmaster.

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