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  • Nikhil Dhawan

Teaching or Learning?

Five weeks of teaching at a school in Nepal and the most popular questions (rightfully so) from my friends and family back home have been:

“How’s it going so far?”

“Is it everything you expected?”

“Do you feel fulfilled or enlightened yet?”

Okay, maybe the third one is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. All the wonderful people that care about me want to know how I'm doing and if I'm holding up okay. The short answer is: yes, I’m fantastic. The long answer is always more exciting though, isn’t it?

My time at the school is officially halfway complete, but that doesn't mean it's time to get complacent. On the contrary, I think it's time to kick it up a notch and make sure I'm able to leave a lasting impression. Eight weeks isn't enough to change the way a school operates (that’s not what my intentions were); however, I did hope to enter a situation where the barriers wouldn’t be as widespread. For example, the children speak little to no English depending on what grade they're in. Their mother tongue is Nepali, and they've been raised in villages where they weren't exposed to English. Their entire world consists of Nepali-speaking people, so they've never needed to learn English. Now they’re enrolled in a school that gives them the wonderful opportunity to learn English, which is great. Or is it?

Since the curriculum operates as an "English school," all the textbooks are in English. Imagine having a short attention span (like me) and being in a setting as a student. You're learning subjects like Science, Math, History, etc. There's a chance you're already cringing just imagining this circumstance, but wait; there's more. Now picture learning all of those subjects in a foreign language! That’s basically the situation here. With that said, it’s still not the end of the world. These kids are studious. They’re motivated and have an inner desire to learn. What else could stand in their way?

April 25, 2015, just another Saturday in Kathmandu. In Nepal, Saturday is the only holiday from school; otherwise, the students are in classes Sunday through Friday. The children are enjoying their day off until a few minutes before noon when the ground begins to shake. The shaking soon turns violent and lasts for about 50 seconds. According to the Richter scale, the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake was measured at 7.8 and killed almost 9,000 people. Another 22,000 were injured and 3.5 million left homeless.

The purpose of that mini tangent was to explain the last, and most important barrier these children are facing. The school I teach at (Sunrise English) was severely damaged in the earthquake. Children were not allowed back in the original building, so the owners of the school built them an improvised site less than a kilometer away. These new grounds are made very simply to fulfill the primary purpose of being able to reopen their doors to the children. Although the school is fully operating now, there are still things that need to be improved for the long haul. Two years have passed since the earthquake, and the school still has a tin overlay with no real roofing. The classrooms are all built next to each other with thin walls and voices echoing loudly off the tin covering. So now imagine trying to learn Science, Math, History, etc. in a foreign language and being able to hear all the students and teachers in the classrooms around you.

As a teacher, it has been frustrating trying to get the attention of the students when the voices in the neighboring classes are so rowdy. For the students, who are full of energy and curiosity, I can only imagine the challenge of trying to concentrate while hearing kids erupting in laughter or singing songs next door. This has been the biggest challenge thus far, but I believe it’s a problem that can be solved. Unfortunately, it's not something the government or private institutions can address. In Nepal, private schools receive no government funding, but they still take on students who cannot afford the tuition. About 10% of the students at our school don't pay a dime, and another 10% only pay partial tuition. For the school to run a smooth operation, they require about 250 paying students, of which they're capped at about 160 currently. So what steps do we take to improve the situation?

I've never believed in handouts; rather I prefer teaching one how to fish. But how can you teach one to fend for themselves when the water is contaminated and is killing the fish? Step one is finding ways to clear the contamination and making sure you’re not the only one doing it. That said, I spent some time with the principal of the school researching the best solutions for the roofing issue. This week we went to the wholesale market after school and researched how much plywood and planks would cost so we could get a roof built. We measured all 14 classrooms and negotiated pricing on the wood, paint, transport, and labor. The good news is $1 goes a LONG way in Nepal. This same project in the U.S. would cost tens of thousands of dollars, but I used my entrepreneurial skills and negotiated the wholesale prices, eventually finalizing the project for $3,000.

To put some numbers in perspective, the GDP per capita in the U.S. is almost $60,000 (average income per person). The GDP per capita in Nepal is less than $2,500 (for the whole year!). The nominal GDP in Nepal is just over $20 billion (the 2015 earthquake damage was calculated at $10 billion; approximately half of the nominal GDP). These numbers are staggering, but that doesn’t make me pity Nepal or its incredible residents. It does inspire me; however, to do whatever I can to help one small step at a time.

The first significant stride could be getting the roofing built so the students can hear their teachers and ultimately perform better. I know it’s only one school and less than 200 students, but I believe in starting somewhere. These children are bright, and they're a part of the future of this country. If we bind our forces together, I trust we can make a difference in the way these students learn and comprehend information. I don't typically ask for help in these situations, but I thought it would be a good time to start a GoFundMe page for anyone interested in being a part of this project. Even if it’s $1, it’s the sentiment that counts (GoFundMe Link at the bottom of the page).

My hope (and the wish of my fellow volunteers here in Nepal) is to encourage education and the school system, so it becomes something the teachers and students can take pride in. The current system is set up in a way where students struggle through exams by whatever means necessary. The earthquake set the country back significantly, so they currently don’t have the motivation to admire the teaching profession or believe in the ideas of creative and challenging education. The act of building schools of real quality and showing an active interest in the educational system are a step towards changing that.

As always, I appreciate you taking the time to read, and I'm incredibly grateful for any impact we can have on these children. Once the roofing is complete, I'll definitely be sharing pictures and videos.

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