Thoughts from the other side of the desk: A teacher returns to school

This August began like every other, with the ritual of packing a schoolbag. But something was different. For the first time in eight years, I would be sitting on the other side of the desk, and moreover, studying education itself. It has been an altogether surreal, energizing, and revealing experience. As a student, I understand my own students better now—how patiently, anxiously they must have waited for their grades and feedback, how much they needed a teacher’s smile to lighten a long lesson or a tough day. How hard it is to synthesize and think critically on the spot. To quote Aishwarya Kaple, another teacher in the IEDP, “I realize how much courage it takes to participate in class, and how time management is a crucial skill. I wonder how my students continue to fare with such efficiency in their efforts.”

The IEDP celebrated World Teacher’s Day on October 5th by remembering the beloved teachers and mentors in our own lives. It has been said that teaching is one of the most challenging careers you can pursue. To be responsible for the learning and well-being of some one hundred unique individuals is emotionally and mentally exhausting. It is, however, rewarding beyond words. “Having teaching experience is one of the best perspectives you can bring to the IEDP,” says Dr. GK; being able—and willing—to stand in the shoes of a teacher, a student, a parent, or a principal, can enrich the meaning of the word “stakeholder” in international educational development planning. At the heart of every logframe and policy, there is a child in a classroom, discovering life’s wonders and mysteries.

A dramatic moment in a school play in Karachi, Pakistan.

I have had the honor of teaching language arts, literature, and drama to some extraordinary students in grades 7 through 9 in the mega-city of Karachi, Pakistan, and grades 3 through 12 in a village called Maghlaki in Georgia. At Penn and wherever else I wander, I carry hundreds of children’s names, millions of memories, and the countless lessons they taught me.

What does teaching teach us? What is it like to return to the classroom after teaching? Let some of the seventeen teachers in the cohort tell you in the vignettes below:

Aishwarya Kaple

Aishwarya’s classroom in Kashmir.

“My first experience was when I taught children from elementary grade two and three in a low income private school in a slum community in Mumbai. And my second teaching experience was in the politically volatile town of Sopore in Kashmir, where I taught students from class nine and ten. A vivid memory from Mumbai was when my 10-year-old student, Gauri, wrote me a letter in which she said, ‘Thank you for teaching me to read and write. You are the first teacher to teach us values and respect us.’ It was a humbling experience. While teaching students in Kashmir, I organized a poetry evening and my students wrote poetry and had a platform to express themselves for the first time. They said that it was one of the most memorable experiences because they felt like they were heard.

“My experiences with my students have led me to become the person I am today and take the path of working in education and development.”

Cladia Plantin

Cladia’s students in St. Lucia.

“I taught 9th grade high school language arts in Homestead, Florida, and 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade literacy in Jacmel, Saint Lucia. In Saint Lucia, I had a student—we’ll call him Jean—who struggled often in class. He was often upset and had a difficult time staying calm in class. Small things would trigger him, like a kid using his pencil. I started taking him out of class on walks when I was co-teaching to calm him down. Then his behavior started to improve. His mom then started to bring him to my house on Saturdays. We would sing, bake pizzas and talk about football (soccer). I met with Jean every Saturday for 5 months. By the end of the academic year, he improved considerably and no longer had outbursts in class.

“I entered teaching with the notion that I was going to teach my students everything they needed to know. In the end, it was they who taught me valuable character traits such as patience, perseverance and dedication. What I hoped my students learned to be insatiably curious, and to have confidence in their abilities and their assets.”

Kareena Pamani

Read-aloud time in Kareena’s class.

“I taught in NYC! I have taught a range of age groups from kindergarten to 4th grade. A vivid memory was my students’ 4th grade graduation ceremony! They were dressed up in all white and all the parents were so thankful. From teaching, I learned that there is more to being a teacher than imparting knowledge. It is about love and developing real and memorable relationships. I hope my students learned from me that kindness goes a long way.
It definitely feels weird being back on the student side of things! It has been an adjustment but now I am loving it.”

Anna Pettee

“I taught English to English majors in southwest China at a 4-year university for two years. I remember walking through campus on one of my first weekends after moving there, the basketballs bouncing and the students walking up and down the mountain. At that time I was just starting to imagine what my experience might be like; I could not have predicted that it would have brought me here! For the rest of my life I hope that the sound of basketballs on concrete will bring me back to life on that campus, and I will miss the smell of osmanthus tree blossoms in the air; fall in Anshun. I learned that students less often learn what you think you are teaching them, and more often learn from what you aren’t meaning to teach. I came to move through life more purposefully because they were always observing and learning. I hope that I taught my students that it’s okay to make mistakes and admit imperfections. I hope I taught them to love who they are, flaws and all.”

Shazmeneh Durrani

Creative thinking in Shazmeneh’s class.

“I feel tremendously blessed to have had the opportunity to teach, and learn from, some wonderful children in Pakistan. While I’ve taught in formal school settings, for me teaching really went beyond the classroom. I mostly worked in areas without schools but there was an abundance of children who were eager to learn. This picture shows children in village Pat Gul Muhammad, District Dadu, Sindh, who were trying to make a car with a few wheels and cricket bats. I was working with a group of astute engineers who couldn’t read or write, who had never been inside a car, but they were determined to create one—and they did! In all the time I taught them, they taught me more. While we soon transitioned to a formal setting where they learned how to read and write, this instance marked an early realization that children learn in more than one prescribed way, in more than one given space, and more often than not, they challenge our assumptions.

“During an exercise with my kids in Malir, Karachi, I asked them what they would do if they were allowed to be the head of state for a day. An eleven-year-old girl said, “ھم ایسا قانون بناین گے کہ ہر بچا وزیر بن سکے گا” (I would make a law that allows all children to be ministers). And so, as I move back to school myself, I take from the inspiring wisdom of my students on how to think and be without inhibitions.”

Amanda Reffsin

“I taught in Seoul, South Korea, in the Bundang-gu suburb. I had a variety of classes, 4th to 8th graders. I taught in a hagwon, an after-school program. One semester I had a class that was just ten 8th grade boys. Eighth grade is hard in South Korea because they have to take standardized tests to get into high school. They were not enthusiastic, so I was never sure if they liked me or my class. But on my birthday, they were the only one of my six classes that brought me a cake. There was this one boy who was constantly late, but on this day, he walked in late with a birthday cake. It was very sweet. It was a special, reaffirming moment that told me I had made a connection with my students, because they were so busy yet still thought of me.

“From teaching, I learned patience, adaptability, and resilience. I learned that as much as you want to plan lessons, and as planned as the curriculum was, things can go awry. I gained so much from my students, and I hope they learned some things from me too!”

Brandon Darr

Well wishes from Brandon’s students.

“I mostly taught English to elementary schoolers in Bangkok, Thailand at an all-girls’ private school. I learned so much about teaching through teaching. It’s easy to read learning theories and pedagogical methods, but it’s all dependent upon the classroom or even at times the student. I hope my students learned, particularly in my classes on reading aloud and speaking, that all English accents are valid.

“Once, I was teaching a lesson on using ‘should’ to my 5th graders. The textbook had a matching exercise for sentence completion, and one of the sentences was ‘It’s raining outside. You should…grab a rain jacket.’ I was surprised that most of the students marked it incorrectly. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was because in Bangkok, when it rains, you wouldn’t grab a rain jacket; you would find shelter and wait it out because the rain is always so heavy. Thats when I realized that textbooks arent always adapted to the local context in which they’re used.”

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