Humanising Language Teaching
Sharing stories: Volunteer teacher training in Nepal
by Richard Cooper
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In December 2003, I spent two weeks in and around Kathmandu working with a grassroots NGO (non governmental organization), Hands for Help Nepal. I ran several short teacher training sessions with Nepali teachers who were eager to work and desperate for more training when it was over. The teachers have little opportunity to think about methodology. In fact, they scrarcely have any opportunity to speak English outside the classroom. Yet as we got to know each other during the training session, I discovered their shy Englishes were subtle and evocative.
My input had to be de facto dogme-esque. One activity I used was the empty chair. The activity works like this: position the chairs in a circle, with the chair on my left empty. Announce that'if the chair on your left is free ask someone to come and sit in it'. The group played the activity with a lively, ever increasing variation on the basic scenario. Then I asked them to open the activity up, to feel free to ask any question. As before, when the question was answered, the answerer would move to the open seat. These second-generation questions were refreshingly free from grammar dilligence, and took the activity where I had never seen it go before. I remember one in particular, 'Are you happy?' The answer came, ''I am not sure. I know I have reason to be, but it is so hard. Yet we have much to be thankful for, that much I know.'
Each activity we did together, because of the openness of the participants, revealed for me the fiercely stark yet vital reality of the circumstances the teachers live and teach in every day. Perhaps this is the consequence of working in schools with few materials, no heat, teachers with virtually no access to training, pre- or inservice. What is left is the essential, their love of language, their traditional calling to teaching, their sense of community that I experienced. What I enjoyed most was something I think lies at the heart of humanism in language training, the challenge of getting the inevitable initial abstraction of an activity shaped by the group until it becomes their creation, their activity, their learning.
This energy among the teachers was all the more remarkable given the embattled context of country at present. The mountains of Nepal are magnificent yet they impose a near impossible development task on bringing even the most basic infrastructure to rural areas. Despite years of international development, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries of the world. It suffers from a seriously weakened government since the assassination of the king and in this breach a resurgent, violent Maoist revolutionary group. Tourist revenues are drying up. Under pressure from the international community to combat terrorism, the government is reviving a militia program as a way of countering the Maoists in the remote areas. Foreign aid in the form of weapons is trying to impose peace. The need for capacity building especially in education is therefore more crucial than ever.
I am helping Hands for Help Nepal, a grassroots nongovernmental organization, put together a volunteer teacher training program that would take advantage of an already operating volunteer teacher placement school network . I am appealing to HLT readers who have experience in teacher training in tough contexts, not only through large organizations such as the British Council or USAID but who have worked with grassroots NGOs, to share their stories here. It could be valuable for us all to develop in these pages a community of practice for establishing sustainable, grassroots teacher training programs in places of extreme need.
Here is a great challenge for a teacher trainer, to bring ideas and a sense of community of practice to distant and precarious places. The teachers in Nepal have no ongoing teacher training mechanisms, few materials, but an inspirational sense of dedication and tradition.
I plan to go back to Nepal in the fall. Perhaps some of you have similar plans to work with teachers off the well-beaten development paths where large agency programs do not necessarily reach. Let's help these teachers and their students who through their own examples help us understand and develop our own values in training. Let's share these stories.