This is easily one of the most difficult assignments I had taken up!
After dealing with students from difficult backgrounds in widely varied contexts across the country, I now feel reasonably confident in my ability to engage with students and build relationships. But this proved to be a challenge – the 10th class of Kamjong High school.
Working with a government setup anywhere is difficult, in Manipur even more so, because of the deeply rooted corruption. The region where the school is has seen conflict with army for many decades and only in the recent past there has been some relative peace. While I was there, I heard stories of forced disappearances, drugs, torture and violence. Most students I was dealing with either came from broken families, impoverished backgrounds, faced trauma or had it passed on from their parents. Additionally, I was faced with a group of students who barely speak English, do not know Hindi and had no proper foundation.
I had been in the school for a month but I hesitated to enter the 10th class. I have been observing the class for some time and I knew that if I entered, it would be too much work. But I also knew that the school cannot be improved without dealing with it. Eventually, I began going to their class on the pretext of teaching them a chapter. Chewing tobacco and spitting in class, smoking in school, disrupting classes, damaging school property – all of that to deal with a bunch of 70 high energy teens used to being wild.
When I first requested the students to change their behaviour and bring up concerns if they have any, they didn’t take me seriously. They thought I was a pushover because I was from outside and because I wouldn’t beat them like most other teachers did. When I told that there would be consequences for their actions, I heard them say “let us see what he can do”. I was told by one – “Sir, why do you want to get into all that…be careful.” Another told me – “Sir, you are trying the impossible.”
I took morning 5:30 classes for those interested in studying. Made few friends but they were few. By and large, they would stay away from me either because of the general fear of teachers they have or because they were embarrassed to speak in English. I tried different approaches but the progress was painfully slow. There were not many things they cared about or took seriously and were only fearful of their families to a certain extent. Often, following many a sleepless night brooding over what needs to be done, I considered just letting things be and moving on.
But doggedly, I pursued every one, visited their homes, spoke with their parents, played with them and tried to spend time with each one and understand them. It turned out there were only about 10 students who are most difficult and are responsible for the trouble. I kept a hawk eye on them and caught some of them smoking, using phones during classes, eating tobacco in school; pulled them one by one into staff room, insisting teachers take action. Some were suspended for some time (which I was not in favour of) and sent to hospital for counselling. I met their parents and had long conversations with them.
Putting brakes on their destructive behaviour was only a small first step – I had to build strong relationships with them and they had to be productively engaged for lasting change. Initially some of these students were extremely angry with me. I made them come to my early morning classes. I made it clear that I would not leave till things became normal in school and that I would involve the entire village if required. Unwillingly and resentfully they changed and attended my classes. I listened to them, talked about their lives and tried to become close to them. I spent more time with them one-on-one patiently explaining the basics and prepared them for exams. They saw that I was working hard for them and slowly began to respond. As exams approached, our preparation became rigorous – they came for classes in mornings, evenings and holidays. Finally during exams, those who were used to submitting blank papers in exams and rushing out of the hall now took extra sheets and wrote till the last minute.
Next day, I went to inform them excitedly that they passed the Math exam, some of them for the first time probably in years. They said “thank you sir” grinning. I visited their homes again before leaving but this time they happily invited me, took me around. Before I left, we had late night parties and they asked me come back again.
Quite a few students told me – “Our school completely changed after you came.”
But this change was not to the liking of one particular student. While everyone turned around, this boy who is one of the smartest and the sneakiest continued to push me with his devious ways. He sought to challenge me, was frustrated that his friends have discontinued their activities. On the last day of the exam, when he was caught copying by me and his paper was seized, his dam of emotions finally burst. He was furious, contended that I was unfairly targeting him and confronted me. When reason failed, he resorted to a threat – “This is my area. I will do whatever I want to do here. Who are you to stop me?”
What happened next is for another time …
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Nischal Mothkuri is an Enabler who is currently part of the Teach For North-East team. He has a degree in computer science and worked with Microsoft. But he left his high paying job towards a higher calling to work with children in difficult communities and has worked for the last 10 years in all parts of the country.