Teaching disadvantaged young children in Kathmandu, Nepal

Bryony Goodwin (2011, English)

The hostel was situated within the school building, and, as volunteers, we lived for seven weeks on the same corridor as the girls’ dormitories. As soon as we arrived, we were introduced to the principal of the school, and welcomed with a Nepali scarf which we were told must be worn for our entire first day, to bring us luck and good health for our time in Nepal! We met the principal’s daughter, Nabou, had our first cup of Nepali chai, and then were left to explore for an hour before prayer time. We went to find our room, but were promptly dragged off to one of the girls’ dormitories to play games and chat with some of the boarders.

Our first few days passed very quickly. We chose our lessons. Some volunteers taught Science, Maths, and Social Science (the Nepali equivalent of PSHE), and I was teaching English. Our pair was assigned class 5, 6 and 8, which had children with an age range from ten to fifteen. We visited some local temples and markets, climbed hundreds of steps to Changu Naryan, walked to Pashupatinath (a cremation site), and discovered a shopping centre that had a cinema and put-put golf. We were soon introduced to ‘Nepali-time’, in which everything seemed to happen an hour later – sometimes even whole days later! – than scheduled. Our first real taste of this came when we had already been at the school for a week, and hadn’t started teaching: we had met the teachers, toured the classes, and been introduced to the children in their morning assemblies, but convincing the principal that we’d enough time to explore Kathmandu was a challenge in itself!

I am completely convinced the Nepali people are some of the friendliest in the world, and settling in quickly was very easy. Vishnu-sir, the principal, ensured we were well looked after by both the teachers and the kitchen staff, and was very keen to hear our opinions on everything from teaching methods to politics. Nepal is a country with a history of political unrest, and it was fascinating to learn more about the influence of the Maoists: the HVP school in Thali has just been re-opened to volunteers this year, having been under the control of the Maoists for the past ten years. Having the chance to speak to Vishnu-sir about the ethos of the school, and the developments it has undergone since its inception, was inspiring: the HVP schools are particularly special in their advocation of equal education for all children, and the dedication of the staff to this cause is truly admirable. In Kathmandu, we were living with children who had travelled twenty-seven hours from Jumla, a remote and mountainous region in northern Nepal, and whose families could not afford to feed and look after them. The headmaster of the HVP school in Dang has turned his home into CPH, the Children’s Peace Home, and offers free education, food and accommodation to children who have no family members to support them. The children here are those who benefit most from the £400 donation we raised for the schools before we arrived: I can think of no worthier cause than sponsoring the education of children who would otherwise by homeless, begging, or involved in child prostitution. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work so closely with an organization dedicated to improving the lives of so many underprivileged children in Nepal.

Teaching was a very enjoyable and rewarding experience, but was also definitely a challenge I had underestimated. I had arrived equipped with coloured pens, children’s books and ideas for games we could play in lessons, but hadn’t properly prepared myself for the extent of the language barrier I encountered. The standard of English in Kathmandu was slightly better than at the rural HVP school in Dang, but we still had to resort to games and songs to entertain the little ones. The youngest class we taught was class 4, and these six-year-olds were definitely the most challenging and energetic children we worked with! They loved learning English songs and nursery rhymes, and we had demands every lesson to sing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ and ‘Head, Shoulder, Knees and Toes’. There was no library, but we found short stories for children on the internet and read ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ to class 2, then drew pictures on the board as a class and labelled parts of the body.  A big problem we had with the older children was their methods of learning: the Nepali education system is based on rote learning, and the 10 and 11 year-olds found it almost impossible to write stories without copying examples from the text book.

We were given a text-book to follow if we needed teaching inspiration, but we soon realized working from it would be problematic: not only was the spelling and grammar inaccurate, but the key English words they picked out for the children to learn were either out-dated, or so infrequently used that it was hardly useful for them to know them at all. I read through the first story with my class of ten-year-olds, which turned out to be about children in a hospital with illnesses ranging from fire-burns to polio, with suggested vocabulary to learn including the words ‘beholden’ and ‘behest’ – and decided to abandon the text-book altogether from then on. We would be setting the end-of-term exams, and so had the freedom to teach whatever we felt would be most beneficial, so we searched the internet for some more interesting resources and topics. The best response we had from the children was when we took them to the prayer hall to show videos. The school has a laptop and projector which none of the teachers currently make use of, and the children were extremely excited when, for one lesson a week, we merged the two halves of our classes and showed film clips and documentaries to the year group.

During the seven weeks we spent at the school, we also had the chance to attend two Nepali weddings, and take part in the numerous festivals that occur in the first half of the summer. Teachers’ Day was a definite highlight – a whole day of moving between classrooms to visit all the classes we taught, with the children from each year giving us cake to eat and painting our faces with red tikka and glitter. Prayer time was an everyday affair, and consisted of the children singing Nepali songs, meditation, and students reading out short stories from the internet with – sometimes dubious or indecipherable – moral lessons. The children asked us to sing new English songs every week, and we printed out lyrics for them so they could learn the words and sing along. Their confidence was admirable: no child was afraid to perform in front of their class, year, or even the whole school when requested, and loved to show off their dancing and singing talents! The children sang to welcome their their teachers to every lesson, and offered their homework for collection as soon as I entered the classroom. I had many proud students run up to the front of the class with their books open to show me the stories they had written, the pictures they had drawn, or to say thank you for the stickers I’d put on their homework if they’d done well. I had weekly competitions in class 5 and 6 to test the children on how much they had remembered of the stories and vocabulary we had covered, with chocolate coins as prizes.

For all the faults of the education system, the staff at HVP, the children, and the people of Nepal definitely made the trip worthwhile. I loved getting to know the children, helping them with their homework, and teaching them about topics and issues that they had never come across before. I have just been elected co-President of the new CVN Committee, and we are already starting to make some small changes which will hopefully mean that we send next year’s volunteers to Nepal feeling more prepared and confident in their teaching methods than I did. We’ll be working with Cambridge RAG in Lent term to give our new volunteers more fundraising opportunities, and will be setting up discussion meetings with a Nepali charity working in the UK, to give an insight into the culture of Nepal before they fly out. The beauty of CVN is that we send native English speaking students to the same schools every year, to build upon the teaching efforts of the previous year, and so our contribution is genuinely a valuable asset to the children we teach. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with the staff and students at HVP, and I truly hope that this is a partnership which will continue for many years in the future.

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