Alright, so I scrambled over mountains and went to my physical limit to teach English in Junbesi. So how was it? An adventure and experience I’ll always remember.
Junbesi has approximately 270 inhabitants and one “Secondary School” for ca. 200 students aged 4-20. Many of them have to walk to school for up to 2 hours every day – morning and afternoon – up and down the mountains – this alone I find a great achievement. The lessons start at 10am and finish at 4pm, to give time for the way to and from school.
The day begins with the morning roll call – the students are lined up by grade and say or sing the national hymn, followed by some light fitness exercise (nearly a dance) – see video:
Chunga, the school headmaster, welcomed me with a prayer shawl, and asked me to teach English to grades 8, 9 and 10, as well as change all manually kept records to Excel and provide IT teaching to the school teachers.
I am not a teacher by profession, but TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certified, have read a number of books on the subject, and gained my first experience in Myanmar. So I was full of missionary zeal to bring the modern teachings into Nepal, and those say: Students need to speak, speak, speak to learn a new language, and teachers should remain in the background, other than introducing a new topic or grammar structure and supporting and correcting the students. That collided head-on with the general Nepalese way to teach: Here, the teacher talks most of the time, and the students mainly recite, often in a group, and hardly ever actually speak individual sentences or practice free speech.
So, there I was standing in front of my classes, and the first thing I noticed was that they hardly understood a word I was saying – my accent was different from the local teacher’s. This problem could be addressed by slow, clear pronunciation, but then the real shock hit them: I actually expected them to speak! Shock, horror. The result of the teaching methods: Even after years of English lessons, the students could hardly speak one sentence without a lot of encouragement (this problem is reported from other countries as well).
An additional challenge was the natural shyness of the students: Especially the girls often turned completely away from me, face hidden in the scarf, mumbling something – to get them to speak to me and clearly was not easy. And I learned that you can’t sit boys and girls next to each other for speaking exercises – they will not even look at each other, forget about speaking – no chance.
But that’s why I was there, to have new ideas and implement new methodologies. The following weeks were sometimes a bit painful for students, local teacher and Teacher Dorothy. Now and again I was tempted to use old methodologies and encourage the students to speak by means of gentle hits with the broom standing in the corner (I could just about stop myself from doing so…). Instead, I used all the newly learned methods – role plays, pair work, use of Internet, games, pictures, stories, and what else I could think of – I must admit that at times, I could have bitten into my desk from frustration, and I fully sympathize with the teachers of this world now.
Thankfully, the students were baffled but willing, and slowly they started to speak more, and also the teacher agreed that these new methods were useful – but 4 weeks are of course too short to really make a lasting impact.
It’s beautiful, when after 4 weeks one feels like part of the whole, and when the students (that is those that managed to overcome their shyness) put prayer shawls around my neck (for good luck and a happy journey), and the bravest thanked me in English, and the teachers threw a good-bye party for me, I felt very happy.
For this reason I am volunteering, and would recommend it to others: Even if you can make only a tiny bit of difference, it’s worth it. And at the same time, you are part of a different culture, part of a different live, with unforgettable memories.
After 4 weeks I can say that – even though or maybe because not everything was the way I expected it to be – I’ve learnt a lot during my time in Junbesi, and I got a lot back, and I am already planning my next stint as a volunteer at a school, this time probably in Indonesia.