I work as a teaching volunteer for an NGO called Make A Difference (MAD). Every weekend, around a hundred of our volunteers head to shelter homes across Trivandrum to teach English and Maths. Our objective is simple, yet daunting: to provide after-school support to the children in these shelter homes so that they can acquire the necessary certification to pursue higher education or career opportunities. In simpler terms, we want to ensure that our kids clear their tenth standard board exams with grades that enable them to fulfill their ambitions.
You might be wondering, ‘Why are tenth standard grades so crucial?’ Children in shelter homes are often forced to leave when they turn eighteen. They don’t always complete their schooling by then. Boys who leave shelter homes, more often than not, become drivers and watchmen whereas girls are often forced to take up jobs like tailoring or data entry. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? No, a steady salary of say, Rs. 10,000 a month seems okay at the age of eighteen. But what happens once you get married and have kids? It’ll be that same salary that’ll have to feed a family of four because regardless of whether you’re a fresher or have a lifetime of experience, your salary as a watchman is going to look more or less the same. The prerequisite for almost any steady job with salary increments now is a tenth standard pass certificate.
In the words of Renjith, one of our volunteers, ‘These kids have been through more traumatic situations than you and I could possibly even imagine. Considering what they’ve been through, it’s not surprising that education is probably the least of their worries. It’s more about getting on with their lives. It’s about survival.’ Coupled with a malnourished upbringing, it’s not altogether surprising that many of the children that we teach have learning disabilities to varying degrees.
The government schools that these children attend often don’t have the resources to provide them with the support and training needed to overcome these disabilities. I’ve also been told that the policy at government schools is to promote students up until tenth standard regardless of their actual progress at school. I can’t imagine that any sane government would actually implement such an absurd policy! I’ve also heard that it’s possible to score marks by answering the English paper in Malayalam! I guess that’s what it takes to muster an SSLC pass percentage of close to 90%. If this is the situation in Kerala, India’s most literate state, you can imagine how appalling things must be elsewhere!
As a result, the ninth standard kids that I teach didn’t even know the meaning of simple three letter words like ‘fat’ at the start of this academic year (before we started classes). Their school syllabus is pretty demanding; they are expected to study short stories like ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ by Alexander Baron. The gap that we’re trying to bridge, between where they stand and what is expected of them, is huge, and it’s nigh near impossible for us to set right years of apathy with regards to these kids’ education with just three hours of intervention every week.
Teaching them a short story is relatively easy while poems are tougher to digest. The toughest part for them however is answering the textual questions in English. Even though they might know the answers, getting them to put it across in English is very difficult, considering that most of them still have trouble reading. However, we’re making progress, slowly but surely. My kids have now learnt how to frame simple sentences. If you ask them a question in English now, they’ll be able to give you an answer in English, albeit sometimes missing an auxiliary verb or an article.
The most rewarding moments as a teacher aren’t always curriculum-related. When I started out this year, I noticed that there was a girl named Krishna in my class who was extremely reticent and lacked confidence. She was very hesitant about answering questions because she wasn’t as competent as her peers. But over the past few months, my co-teachers (Ajith, Ameya and Lekshmi) and I have managed to coax her into answering questions in class. Krishna now wears a smile on her face when I walk into class. She recently said that I looked like a junglee, because of my afro, much to the amusement of her classmates. Last week, she even asked if Ameya could help her out a bit more with spelling and reading. It’s moments like these, that keep us going back to class, week after week.
At times, the work that we do can get immensely frustrating. Sometimes the reality of how our weekend class actually pans out might be in stark contrast to what we plan. We might not see results that are proportional to the efforts that we put in but sometimes all it takes to make a difference is being able to tell my kids, ‘Mole, chettan adutha aazhchayum padipikkan varuum.’ And I can feel it every Sunday morning, when I’m greeted by eight smiling faces and their chorus of ‘Good morning, chetta!’