Teachers inspired, altered by education in India

Aug. 12, 2013 @ 02:32 PM

After visiting India from July 5-21, three Orange County teachers said they have different perspectives on education.

Sarah Palmer, the academically or intellectually gifted coordinator at Camden Park Elementary; Lori Merritt, a sixth-grade math teacher at C.W. Stanford Middle School; and Mark Moore, an advanced placement calculus teacher at Orange County High School took a nine-and-a-half-hour journey to take a firsthand look at education in India.
Through the University of North Carolina’s Center for International Understanding and scholarships from Borchard Foundation, SAS and Triangle High Five, these teachers traveled with 35 other educators from across the state to fulfill the center’s mission of “promoting awareness, expanding understanding and empowering action through global education.”
“It changed my life completely,” Merritt said. “Things that I do here can affect people in India. My perception of poverty has changed. I’ve never seen poor until I went to India. It gave me a perspective on what it means to be global. That understanding would not have happened if I hadn’t taken this trip.”
“It makes you appreciate what you have here,” Moore said. “We’re working on getting laptops for all of our students but with the Right to Education Act in India, they’re working to get bathrooms.”
“If you’re poor in India you are very unlikely [to have] a good education,” Palmer added. “Their students don’t do critical thinking. They’re starving and exhausted from sleeping on the street and they show up to class even when the teacher doesn’t. That was really hard to see. Their resources are really, really limited. But the students are very enthusiastic.”
The group did visit sites that India is world-renowned for including the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, as well as visiting Dehli, Mumbai and Pune. This trip, however, allowed these educators to see the side of India that isn’t included in the tourist guides.
The teachers were taken to different schools, including government-funded and private schools so they could better gauge the difference between education in India and the United States.
“Only 57 percent of students are in school at a time,” Palmer said. “Only the wealthy make it to the 10th, 11th and 12th grades.”
The three explained that following the Indian equivalent to American elementary and middle school, students have to take an exam to continue their studies. The exam covers information from all the subject areas studied to that point and is known for its difficulty.
“They have to know all of the arts and be able to talk about them to show their understanding of it. It’s very intense,” Merritt explained. “Up to grade six they (students) were very much encouraged to do the arts and they (teachers) were teaching through the arts. But by ninth grade, they focus on passing this test to go to junior college.”
Teaching through the arts, Merritt clarified, happens at the dream schools which are at the high end of the best schools.
Moore said that while working with a student, the child did not have a calculator at school to do his work but he did have one at home. The same child had never heard of a graphing calculator.
“They can pass this really hard test but they can’t apply it. Here in Orange County we focus on how to use those skills,” Merritt said.
All three teachers noted the enthusiasm and motivation that the children had for education despite the quality of their school. After talking to some students they were able to figure out the source of their continued dedication to school and learning.
“I think it has to come from the parents,” Merritt said. “You’ll get some who are motivated without their parents but that’s rare. When you talk to them over there, they know that education is the way out.”
“The push in India is for students to become doctors or engineers because they see that as a way out,” Moore added.
Moore visited a class and asked the students how many of them liked math. All of the students raised their hands. Talking to the teacher after polling the class, the teacher said that had Moore asked what was in the children’s heart that the hands raised would have been dramatically less.
“Those who raised their hands did so because that’s what their parents want,” Moore said the teacher explained.
The group found out about Door Step schools for the children, which serve children who live on the streets, those who live in slums and other underprivileged families. One such school is created at construction sites so that the children of construction workers can attend school. Once the construction is over, the school disbands and many of the children go back to their routine without school.
“These kids are starving for an education,” Merritt said. “The motivation was a big, big difference (between Indian and American students). It was the biggest difference.”
Merritt said that a bulk of India’s population is under the age of 35, with a large number within that population being school-aged children. Moore added that recent legislation, the Right to Education Act, says that schools have to reserve 25 percent of the school’s total space for children below poverty.
“The caste system definitely plays into that,” he said.
Teachers are not among the most valued members of Indian society. There have been instances of children going to school and the teacher not showing up.
“I went to a faculty meeting in India at a private school and the teachers sang a song, a prayer. They said that, ‘we know that teaching is difficult but we do it because we care.’
“They were recommitting everyday to do something that’s very hard,” Palmer continued. “Teachers do it because they care, here and there.”
Moore wants to setup 1:1 relationships between his students and Indian students so they can learn from each other and share learning techniques. Merritt plans to have the students create math problems for each other to solve. Palmer has been asked to serve on an Indian board to help establish education for AIG students in India, a group of students often overlooked because of poverty.
“It was such a complex and packed experience that I just have to do back,” Palmer said.