“Learning” to teach

Mehak Siddiqui

Thirty curious pairs of eyes look at me expectantly. My heart contracts as I realize that this is my moment. I finally have their attention after almost 10 minutes of trying; and I only have a few seconds before it flutters away again. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me how difficult it is to get 11-year-olds to listen to you?

“So who remembers what a storyboard is?” I ask in a voice so loud I cannot believe it is mine. A babble of responses ensues almost before I have finished my question. I press a finger to my lips and hold a hand up in a gesture that conveys for the umpteenth time the ground rule that none of them ever wants to follow: If you want to speak, raise your hand and wait for your turn.

Most oblige my silent message. Some ignore it and turn to chat with their friends. I hope the frustration I feel is not visible on my face. For “the classroom is a mirror” says my colleague and trainer: if I am frustrated, my students will be frustrated too. And that is of course the last thing I need in this already crazy classroom. Yes, that’s the word, “crazy”. Nothing else can describe my first forays into the world of inquiry-based teaching at an education start-up that I joined fresh out of a master’s program in communication.

My responsibilities involved imparting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education through hands-on activities like designing and building machines and robots, creating digital artifacts and – my personal favourite – shooting and editing movies! I completely related to the philosophy, so here I was doing the one thing I had always been sure I would never take up professionally – teaching!

A recent Pew Internet study in the USA suggests that while students in today’s “always on” world benefit from instant and constant access to a wealth of information, their attention span and desire for in-depth analysis is consequently diminished. “Instant gratification” and “quick fixes” that characterize the internet-driven world also lead to a “loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking”.

This poses new challenges in the classroom, which can be overcome by hands-on, activity-based learning that incorporates the use of various manipulative sets to help focus students’ attention. I have observed this firsthand over the course of the past year working at a large urban school in Ahmedabad: whereas in a regular class, students are quiet, seemingly attentive and focused on “getting it done”; in my inquiry and activity-based class, there is animated discussion; laughter, and energy so palpable it drains me of mine. Students work in groups, facing both each other and me as opposed to sitting in rows facing only me. They brainstorm, ideate, discuss, at times argue, experiment, research, solve problems collaboratively, and most importantly enjoy themselves. They are usually having so much fun that they don’t realize “learning” is taking place.

Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Students often face difficulties working in groups that routinely get shuffled around due to the changing dynamics involved, and sometimes the brainstorming and discussions turn chaotic. Many times, I have felt robbed of energy from the strain of overusing my voice and I even fell ill with laryngitis, a condition I had never heard of before.

students

But looking back now, I feel the past year was a defining one. I not only taught children but also trained teachers, and in so doing realized how much easier it is to communicate with the former. Children are the most receptive beings, but also the most impressionable so I’ve learned to be careful with the messages and ideologies I put across. It is amazing and somewhat flattering to see how they often expect me to have all the answers, but I waste no time in making it clear that I certainly don’t and neither does anyone else. In fact, what stands out from my teaching sojourn is the fact that I learned a lot more than I taught, whether it’s concepts of physics that I could never grasp back in the seventh grade, principles of algorithms that baffled me in computer science classes or the finer aspects of Movie Maker software.

And when students demonstrated interest and enthusiasm in class, it pushed me to go the extra mile and do something more for them. I organized inter-class competitions, held quizzes, and incorporated fun ice-breaker games that boosted team spirit and enhanced the learning experience. I often found myself wanting to do my very best as a teacher no matter how exhausted I was, so that “my kids” (as I soon came to refer to all my students) could in turn achieve their very best. No doubt I have connected emotionally with a lot of them, especially the ones in whom I see bits of myself – those who are quiet and timid or afraid to try something new; those who hate working with others and just want to be left alone; those with self-confidence issues. In fact, it is perplexing to look back and realize that my most difficult class was also the one where I formed the deepest bonds.

At the end of the academic year, I gave out “awards” to all my students – little bits of card mentioning their name and their “special recognition”. It was a way of appreciating where their strengths lay, whether it was in coming up with the most creative designs, having the most innovative ideas, or demonstrating great team skills. The card also included my contact details in case any of them wishes to connect with me later. I hope that at least a few will keep in touch and remember me as the teacher who asked a lot of questions but didn’t have the answers to all. Because she would rather they discover it for themselves and come to accept that sometimes, there is more than one answer or no “right” answer. It’s a philosophy that I believe will boost their natural creativity and help them grow into continually thinking, questioning, innovative human beings. A plethora of factors interplay to shape a child’s thought patterns, and 80 minutes a week is far from enough to bring about immediately measurable changes, but it’s a start for sure. For as I heard someone at my workplace once say: “Our job is not to start the fire; it’s simply to light the spark.”

The author is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist. She can be reached at [email protected].

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