Teaching in India: This IS the Real World

Alli Aaronson

Today’s post comes from Alli Aaronson, a student with our partner organization Thinking Beyond Borders. While on her global gap year she is teaching in Jaipur, India for a month. Her experiences from the first week have already been enlightening. 

I have seen poverty on TV, on the streets of New York City, and even in my hometown. I experienced poverty when living with my homestay family in El Poste. I thought that I had seen enough to be emotionally prepared for anything, but I was wrong.  The poverty of Indian slums is a whole different league of poverty, and one that I found shockingly heartbreaking. It is living literally on top of a pile of garbage. It is destitute and hopeless and lacking in options. It is being abandoned by the world.

India is the most culturally different nation I have ever traveled to. In some ways, this is amazing, and in other ways really hard. I love seeing camels pulling wagons down the street, or going for a run and seeing monkeys and peacocks. Cows roam the city streets and are viewed as people: bizarre but great. The caste system, sexism, and arranged marriages are less to my liking. Our main method of transportation is auto-rickshaws (although once I took the bicycle kind), which operate like a lawnmower and whose drivers are apt to get lost and overcharge.

While I despise being gawked at every time I step outside, it does give me insight into the perspective of a minority. India is loud, noisy, and crowded, which can be overwhelming at times but is also incredibly vibrant and stimulating.

I have been teaching in a school in the Katputli Nagar slum for about a week, but I am still struggling to make sense out of the situation there, and what my place in it is. The school is a tiny hut with a blackboard and one chair, where students from ages three to sixteen struggle to learn together. There is absolutely no consistency to their curriculum, as they are met with a new batch of volunteer teachers every few weeks. The teachers who preceded us were “vacation volunteers,” and were only here for a week. To me their service seems selfish, staying only long enough to soothe their consciences before they returned to “the real world.”

This is the real world.

It’s so interesting how the privileged community has succeeded in cutting ourselves off from the horrors of the world and creating an alternate reality for ourselves. Katputli Nagar is across the street from Jaipur’s cricket stadium. Thousands of people on their way to a cricket game pass the slum, yet they are somehow able to ignore it. I guess I am just as bad as those “vacation volunteers,” as I am forming relationships and instituting a new classroom order only to leave after one month, when everything will be shaken up once again.

My disillusionment with volunteerism has made me feel a bit helpless regarding my place in the school. My students are so remarkably far behind, to the point where I cannot realistically see them catching up. So many volunteers have come through this school, teaching the students shapes and animals and numbers, yet they have not even mastered that material. At the same time, I do feel inspired by my students’ commitment to improve; I often catch them practicing the class material during breaks.

I’m empowered by my capability to teach. It’s somewhat ridiculous that we just walk into a classroom and picked up a piece of chalk, but I love teaching and wish I had more time with my class. I’m also grappling with my inability to give directly to my students. Only a few of them have notebooks, and one boy doesn’t have pants. If I could just buy the kid pants, but the organization discourages this as it breeds dependence, and we do not want to teach them to count on handouts we will not provide in a month’s time.

So what is the purpose of education? Many of the children in the slum don’t attend school, and I often wonder if those who do truly gain anything from it. I know that I am limited in the amount of material I can cover in a month, but if I can succeed in increasing my students’ sense of agency, it will have been worth it. 


  • simplemente haga clic en el siguiente artículo

    Teaching in India: This IS the Real World – Everyday Ambassador

  • […] that rare path means investing emotions and accepting uncertainty, as beautifully articulated by Alli who is teaching English in rural India with ThinkingBeyond Borders. She notes how at times our “privileged community has succeeded in cutting ourselves off […]

  • kateotto

    Alli, thank you SO much for opening up and sharing these important questions and reflections with us. I have grappled w/ many of these in my times abroad as well, and even as I keep finding more meaningful work, I never ever stop facing these questions. You are a gifted writer and I appreciate you sharing your story. We’re going to be publishing a book version of Everyday Ambassador this year that I hope can be helpful to you and to me and our friends in this field who are seeking solutions to these dilemmas.
    @Marina, amazing idea! We are close with a group called United Classrooms whose work is very similar to this but not precisely; want me to put you in touch with them to discuss the idea further?

  • Marina Whall

    Great post. I am sure that many volunteer teachers feel the same way you do about stepping in for a short period of time and then moving on, leaving the children you care about at the mercy of whatever comes next. I’m thinking that if volunteer teachers have access to the internet periodically, A global curriculum could be developed along the lines of what might have worked in a one-room schoolhouse. A database could be created where schools are recorded. Teachers could log in, view notes from prior teachers, and share what they have done. In combination with an outline of a curriculum, teachers could provide some flexible continuity. Does anything like this exist?

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