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It's a two way street

  • Published at 06:24 pm July 18th, 2018
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The role of 'respect' in efficient teaching methodolody

Who are the people we think about when we hear the word 'respect'? Naturally, we think of our parents, our spouse, respect for the elderly, respect for our teachers, for our colleagues, and so on. 'Respect' is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of someone younger than us, someone who works for us, or someone who learns from us. A few years ago, however, I had the privilege of experiencing the real meaning of respect from the unlikeliest of sources. 65 extremely mischievous, extremely struggling and extremely poverty-stricken families.

My journey with the students had started on January 1, 2014; That was my first time teaching students of class 3 in a very low-resource government primary school, as part of a two-year fellowship at Teach For Bangladesh. I thought I had chosen this line of work as I wanted this opportunity to “help the needy”, to do something “big” for the “less fortunate.” With this mindset in place, my lesson plan in hand, and with my heart full of aspirations, I stepped into that grade 3 classroom.

Now imagine this: the classroom is grim, with broken benches, as you would typically expect in a low-funded government primary school. All of the 65 students were out of their seats, some with steel rulers in hand, some chit-chatting loudly by the window, a few sitting in the teacher’s chair and table, all looking like they are in there to party. I took a deep breath and stepped in. I first tried to build rapport with my new students, as I had practiced during our teachers’ training. I gave a big speech on how important it is for them to learn, as their entire future depends on it; I shared with them my dreams and then they shared theirs.

Things started going downhill from that point. 

Young students have this superhuman power to detect the weakness of their teacher, and my pupils quickly figured out that their ‘new Almeer sir’ will not use the traditional methods of discipline, in other words, a stick. Hence, it might be easier for them to get away with unruly behaviour. All hell broke loose as this realization dawned on them, and there were 65 eight-year olds screaming, running, fighting, and I think I remember someone even vomiting that day. I had in my folder lesson plans to teach phonetic rules, mathematical operations, different states of matter, and what not, but nothing to help me manage the chaos that ensued. 

Each day got harder than the previous. I put in the most effort to conduct my lessons. Although I set my expectations bar low, as my students were “underprivileged”, I was nevertheless failing constantly to connect to them. What was I doing wrong? I had deep sympathy for their “less fortunate” lives, and I was trying to empathize strongly with their “suffering”. 

Everything changed when one of my students, Ronny, invited me to his home. I accepted Ronny’s offer, as I thought I would be able to witness the environment at his home and surroundings, which would obviously be “miserable”, as they show on UNDP annual reports, or news stories about poverty. Ronny lived near the school, in a tin-shed little shanty, with his three other brothers, and their parents. In this tiny home, with parents struggling to earn a livelihood, happiness and joy exuded from the love of this family of six. His father was a bus driver and now has his own business. Mother was a homemaker. She was very influential in the area as she was outspoken person. They were palpably happy with the fact that a school teacher visited their home to discuss their son’s progress instead of complaining. We discussed how to work together to ensure that his education continues. I went home that night, my stomach full of pitha, shingara and mishti.

It was then that I realized I was doing my students an injustice. I realized I had never actually respected my students and their lives, their opinions, their feelings, their perspectives. As my attitude slowly started to change, so did the response from my students. To fix the disconnect between me and my students, we designed a classroom theme. So, all of us came up with the theme: “Shommani Graam (village of respect), with the motto ‘Shomman pete hole shomman dite hobe’ (Respect others to be treated respectfully).

Just this simple classroom activity changed everything for me. My students started to uphold the principle and started acting accordingly. Akash, one of the tallest and biggest boys refused to fight with another kid. I found Faruk, Shumon and Zarif teaching this motto to the younger students of the school. The girls would celebrate the motto by making the most creative drawings that depicted their imagination of “Shommani graam”. As the “respect for all” quotient grew strongly in our classroom, the academic part fell into place automatically. There was a visibly strong teamwork going on, as each classmate helped the other to excel in their studies. They took up ownership to nurture their “shommani graam” and practiced leadership on their own. Sometimes I would find study circles during break time, and students carrying out science experiments in their own time.

One other vital change I made was to hold my students at the same standard as any other child. I made them feel like I had high expectations of them. This brought about a massive change in both my students and I; we collectively worked really hard, aimed high and achieved rapidly. Obviously, our achievements were not perfect, but when I held all students to great standards. Consequently, they worked very seriously to prove that I was right to expect great things from them. 

When you respect each other, it changes how students/people learn. I try to bring this learning into practice and teach this as a vital aspect of leadership during the various leadership sessions I conduct at Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center.  If the value of respect can be internalized in education it can create a strong foundation for healthy and prosperous society. 

Almeer Ahsan Asif is a Leadership Faculty and Deputy Manager of Curriculum Development at Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center