India is a place where you never know what opportunity might present itself next. If you have a certain idea of what experiences you want to gain and are prepared to embrace what India has to offer; there is no harm in just diving in.
Teaching in Kerala is not something I ever planned to do. Yet the experience allowed me to harness my already developing interest in South India, gain invaluable cultural insight into societal structures and education in India and make some lasting connections.
I’ve never really been one for a planned overseas excursion. I usually just like to put myself in the wind and see where it takes me. The time I attempted to move to Stockholm and ended up in Montreal for six months instead is a good case in point. But a chance encounter in a Fort Kochi restaurant a couple of years ago led me to an experience that fully justifies my approach.
I had met up in Kathmandu with friend, writer, photographer and Indonesianist, Kate Walton, and we had booked flights down to Kochi. I had several months in India with no itinerary; Kate had several weeks. Beyond an initial leisurely few days in Fort Kochi, we had made no plans at all. This extended to one evening, wandering aimlessly, unable to decide where to go for dinner, we simply walked into the closest restaurant.
There was no-one in the restaurant except us and one other woman. Upon hearing our accents, being Australian herself, she started a conversation. After the initial icebreaking small-talk, she began to tell us what she was doing in India, pulling out her laptop to illustrate with photos.
Education is free in India. Most state schools are conducted in the regional language, which, unless in a Hindi-speaking area, provides limited agency for the child beyond their region. This has led to the rise of the private English-medium school.
Private English-medium schools are a response to English being the language of advancement and agency, both within India and globally. In today’s aspirational India, a large number of parents from lower-income families will scrimp and save to send their children to English-medium schools, knowing that in doing so their children’s opportunities are multiplied significantly. As The Economist noted early last year “That poor parents will pay for something the state provides free speaks volumes.”
In many ways schools in India can be a libertarian dream. Merely having to receive recognition from the state government, most are free to conduct their classes as they see fit. This can allow schools the freedom to become the hubs of innovation and creativity, breeding the positive outcomes, that the theory envisages.
However, with that sort of autonomy, schools can also get caught in bubbles; cut off from new ideas and best practice to the detriment of the student. A major oversight in the libertarian vision.
Without a dedicated person to investigate and implement these new ideas and training, the risk of falling behind with new educational standards is significant. The day-to-day running of the school is too exhaustive for the teachers to inhabit both roles.
This is where Linda comes in. Linda was at an Ayurvedic treatment centre near Coimbatore when she met a member of a family who runs an English-medium primary school in Palakkad, just across the border from Tamil Nadu in Kerala.
Having close to 35 years of teaching experience throughout both Australia and the United States, Linda exudes educational gravitas. For these types of private schools in India who may get stuck outside the loop, she was the ideal person. She was invited to help reform the school.
As we chatted with Linda in the restaurant, and she got to know our backgrounds and interests, she asked us whether we would like to come to Palakkad and help out at the school. Kate and I saw this as an exceptional opportunity.
Alongside Standards (Grades) 1 to 4, the school also had a kindergarten and a daycare centre. The school contained kids from Hindu, Muslim and Christian backgrounds, and while predominantly Malayali, being so close to the border with Tamil Nadu, there was a smattering of Tamil kids as well.
The families that sent their children to the school were from stable, but lower-income families. And this being Kerala most kids had fathers, uncles or cousins working in the Persian Gulf. In recent years remittances had overtaken coconuts as Kerala’s greatest source of income. It is a positive endorsement for the free movement of labour, but a stark indication of the continued economic hostility embedded in the politics of the region that chases away both the creative and labour classes.
Once I started to get involved in the classes – helping kids one-on-one, or running whole classes when there was a teacher absent – I started to appreciate just how difficult and under-appreciated the profession is. Trying to balance the desire to challenge the advanced students with the responsibility of bringing other students up to speed is a major juggling act, particularly while trying to maintain order at the same time (especially when I was seen as a novelty and not an authority figure).
While it has been noted that the relationship between the India and Australia can’t rely on cricket alone, what such cultural commonalities provide is a foot in the door, a way of developing and expanding the relationship. Many of the Standard 3 and 4 boys at the school already had substantial cricket knowledge. They were both excited and perplexed that my favourite player was Irfan Pathan (a fringe Indian player for the past few years), and wondered why it wasn’t Michael Clarke or Dave Warner. Being able to banter about cricket with them gave me a chance to build a rapport, and their interest in the Australian team lead to further questions about Australia. My phone received a heavy workout with requests to see pictures of Melbourne, my house and family.
As well as providing what expertise and enthusiasm we had to the school, at a stage in their life where they were too young to explore the world, we were able to bring a small part of the world to them. For a town that isn’t a major tourist destination, that may not get exposed to much direct contact with foreigners, being able to broaden their horizons a little, and particularly spark an interest in Australia, was a great positive.
After Kate returned to Australia before Christmas, I spent the whole of January helping out at the school (receiving some excellent training and insight from Linda along the way). The warmth and hospitality shown to me by both the family who owned the school (whose house I was staying in), the teachers and students at the school, and the community, in general, was extraordinary.
Although the experience came about by fluke, there are many avenues to pursue such a role in India. For those looking to gain an understanding of the country, particularly if you have a certain regional focus, then it is both an extraordinary learning experience, and an excellent way to make connections (and of course be useful).
An earlier version of this article was published on the AII Blog.