By Achchana Nadarajah
So, you’ve graduated – what’s next? You might want to pursue further studies, or you may want to travel, or you probably just want to enjoy the year off, or you may choose the typical path and find a job. I chose to take on a challenge. I chose to step out, to explore, to seek happiness, to empower, to share, and ultimately to create a deeply meaningful experience for myself.
Through a wonderful volunteering opportunity facilitated by comdu.it (a Toronto-based network of diaspora change makers interested in long-term, community-based sustainable development efforts in Sri Lanka) I took on a three-month Associateship position to teach English and start a youth club with students in an after-school program in the fishing hamlet of Oori, Karainagar, in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. comdu.it did an awesome job in pairing me up with a school and a village that I absolutely fell in love with!
Let me take you through my 90 unforgettable days volunteering in Northern Sri Lanka.
My first day began with me taking a very bumpy ride to school, passing by temples, convenience shops, tall trees, and small shrubs until I saw in front of me, the long bridge or paalam that takes you into Karainagar from mainland Jaffna. I was riding on the back of the motorbike with my hands out, feeling the breeze run through my hair and watching the subtle waves on both sides. I enjoyed the five-minute scenic, non-bumpy route until we crossed the bridge and hit the long dirt road to Oori. As I got closer to the school, many thoughts ran through my mind. How would the students regard me? How would the school be? How would the other teachers treat me? Was I ready for this? I was sweating buckets not because of the heat, but because I was literally having a nervous breakdown!
I eventually got to the school, never mind the fact that I was struggling to get off the motorbike, but in front of me I saw innocent eyes and long smiles. All those students were eagerly waiting to meet and greet the “new teacher from Canada.” I was welcomed with a chorus of “Gooood aaafternoooon Missss,” and at that moment I just felt honoured to be there.
My teaching experience began with grades 1 to 5, and later with grades 6 to 8. Before departing to Sri Lanka, I had spent most of my holidays in Toronto preparing lesson plans. At that time I did not really think about the level of knowledge the students would have had in English – I just assumed they knew it. However, it did not take me too long to figure that these students had little to no knowledge in English. They were beginners. In fact, the younger students did not even know their alphabets well. Students had difficulty recognizing the difference between upper case and lower case letters. They were quick to point out colors, and gave me examples of what the colour red was or what the colour purple was but they had a hard time reading the colours in English. They knew their numbers from one to ten in English but not much beyond that. They knew what a circle looked like but when I asked them to draw me a square, they were puzzled. Of course they knew the shape, colours, numbers in Tamil but when they were asked in English, they all had blank faces. I asked them what a bear looks like and they had no clue what it was. Only after I translated the word as karadi did they understand.
It was very difficult for the students to understand the lessons I had prepared in English. So, I spent most of the time translating my lessons. It went from teaching the words in English to translating them in Tamil and getting them to recite it back to me in English. That was the routine I established to get through each of my lessons. My teaching tactic worked successfully and I am sure of that because my students did well in their exams that I prepared in English.
I think one of the best lessons my students and I enjoyed was called the “morning routine.” It was a lesson intended to teach students morning routine verbs in the present simple tense through role-play. I taught students the verbs and asked to show me how they would “brush their teeth,” “comb their hair,” “eat their breakfast” etc. The girls were giggling while the boys were laughing out loud as they acted out each routine. We had loads of fun, but an important realization dawned on me in the process. None of these students had a typical “student life” or a morning routine. Generally speaking, most of us would wake up, and do the usual to get ready to go to school. These students however, had to wake up, help their mothers prepare breakfast, some were in charge of getting water from the community well, some were responsible for cleaning and sweeping the house, and all of this had to be done in addition to getting ready and walking to school. These children inspired me with their skills, abilities, and the responsibilities they had to bear at such a young age. They all shared a deep commitment to supporting their families.
My teaching experience at Oori was definitely memorable. I always looked forward to going to school and hearing the usual “Gooood aaafternoooon Missss” chorus. But this experience also made me realize the importance of creating awareness around some real ongoing issues in Oori and for my students.
Oori is a small village located at the tip of Northern Jaffna, far away from urban centres. The village itself consists of less than a hundred families and it is very inaccessible compared to other areas in Jaffna. The closest grocery shop, hospital, gas station, and the public school that most of these students attend are about a 3.5km walking distance from Oori. The reason why I emphasize “walking distance” is because most of these families do not have the luxury of motorcycles and any bicycle in the household would typically be used by parents or older siblings to get to work. Most of the residents have no choice but to walk to where they need to go nearby. My students told me that they wake up at 4am in order to complete their morning routines before they embark on their hour-long walk to get to school on time.
By now most of you can imagine how secluded this village is and how difficult it is for families to access the services they need to survive. Most of these families make their livelihoods by selling fish and other seafood. Some days they may have good business and would be able to provide more than one meal a day. But if they were not able to make enough money, then they would have only one meal a day to survive. These students come from families who struggle to make a basic living, and for that reason lack consistent parental guidance on their education. In fact, the parents seemed to be content that their children were attending school but did not always care if, how, and what they were learning. This is where I began to notice a gap in having access to quality support services and counselling. Most of the seniors had no idea what they wanted to do after they graduated from high school and would just shrug their shoulders when asked what their future plans were. This was very disconcerting to say the least.
Another gap I noticed that became of greater concern when I was teaching my grades 6 to 8 students was the fact that these students grew up in less disciplined environments. I suppose there are two reasons for that: either their parents were busy trying to keep a roof over their heads and did not have time to discipline their children or the local teachers considered corporal punishments to be perfectly normal method of discipline. I realized that hitting students for their bad behaviour only resulted in worse behaviour. These students got hit for chatting while the teacher was talking, they got hit for not completing their homework, they got hit for giving a wrong answer, and worst of all they got hit for getting bad grades. I noticed these students were disciplined poorly in their early years so it became difficult to control them when asked politely. They took advantage of me because they knew I was not going to hit them. I was frustrated because I felt there was no other way to control their bad behaviour other than picking up the stick. Of course I did not resort to corporal punishment but I finally decided to speak out.
In my final weeks of my program, I gave up on teaching almost entirely and chose, instead, to advise my students about their behaviour and how it affects themselves and others around them. I had heart-to-heart conversations with these students and explained how I felt about their behaviour and suggested how they could change it. I explained to them the importance of education, the value it creates for them, and how they should not take it for granted or disregard educational opportunities that came their way. On my last day of class, I asked my students to give me feedback on their experience with my teaching. The only thing they all commented on was how they really appreciated and loved when I had heart-to-heart conversations with them. They told me they felt cared for, guided, and supported. Though they were saddened that I was going to leave them. They shared with me that my advice had opened up a new perspective for them to appreciate things and assured me that they would no longer behave badly. What more did I need? My service was valued and my students learned a good lesson and that itself was enough.
It is clear to me that what these children need is quality education, good leaders, and loads of support and guidance. If they had it, it would only be a matter of time before they turn their lives around and start aspiring for better futures for themselves, their families, and their communities. It is also clear to me the positive influence that many of us in Canada can have on our young people in war-affected parts of Sri Lanka. I am glad I decided to take this plunge with comdu.it – it turned out to be 90 days that I won’t easily forget.
Achchana is a recent graduate of Western University where she completed her Honours Bachelor of Health Science. She has a deep interest in working with under-privileged communities in other parts of the world and has previously volunteered in Tamil Nadu, India and Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Achchana participated in comdu.it’s Associateship Program in 2015-16.