DELHI, India — For Jessica Cooper, a 2011 Howard University law school graduate, going to work means putting on a shalwar kameez (means ‘Indian suit’), reporting for duty at 7 a.m., and taking lessons in Hindi.
It’s all part of her nine-month stint as one of 15 English Teaching Assistants, or ETAs, stationed here in India through the Fulbright Scholars program. Ten of the ETAs, including Cooper, are based in Delhi, while the other five were assigned to schools in Kolkata.
Cooper, who plans to join Teach for America upon returning to the United States in the spring of 2012, said her decision to teach here in India stems in part from her regrets for not studying abroad while still in college.
Teaching the eighth and ninth Standard, or grade, at Kendriya Vidyalaya — a government-run school for government employees here in the Andrews Ganj neighborhood of this nation’s capital — not only helps mitigate those regrets, but it also achieves something else.
Specifically, it greatly enhances the practical experience that Cooper says is a prerequisite for achieving her goal of working in the field of education policy.
“I want to understand what teachers deal with before I try to make laws telling teachers what to do,” Cooper said during a recent interview with Diverse in the school library. “If lawmakers took more time to specifically talk to the people the laws would affect, laws would be better,” she said in a general broadside aimed at education legislation that teachers have criticized as impractical.
Her belief is built in part upon her experience working in education policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). At CDF, Cooper said, the individuals with the most insights into the workability and practical effects of education bills were those who had been school teachers themselves.
“They understood things I didn’t,” Cooper said.
If there’s anything Cooper is likely to get out of her experience here in India, a better understanding of the many challenges that teachers face certainly lies at the top of the list.
Though just a few months into her teaching fellowship, the Indian way of life has made a strong impression about the power that a strong work ethic plays in overcoming adversity and lack of resources.
For instance, Cooper marvels at the fact that the fruit seller near her apartment is not only still selling his product when she comes home late at night, but is up and open for business when she heads out to work early the next morning.
“In Indian culture, the work ethic is crazy,” Cooper said, using the word “crazy” as a compliment as it relates to Indians’ apparent willingness to work long hours.
That work ethic seems to manifest itself among students, too. Though the school day doesn’t officially begin until about 7 a.m., many students were at the school well before that time, going over projects they had created for class and the like.
Another thing Cooper has noticed about Indian students is that they seem eager to do whatever is called for in a given assignment.
On the one hand, Cooper said, that’s a plus because it shows a strong desire and ability to meet expectations.
“They can follow instructions very well,” Cooper said. “They are into making sure they produce what you ask for.”
On the other hand, Cooper said, it can also be a drawback because it doesn’t lead to much in the way of innovative and creative thinking. She said there’s something to be said for the rebellious urge found among many American students to do things their own way.
Cooper, whose undergraduate degree was in English and sociology at Spelman College, is trying to infuse the importance of such independent thought into her classes.
The other day, she called on the students to write summaries of a story they were reading in class. She emphasized the importance of writing the summaries “in their own words,” something she says teachers here don’t call on students to do enough.
But there are things that sometimes seem to work against her goals.
For instance, at Kendriya Vidyalaya school, it’s the teachers — not the students – who rotate classrooms throughout the day.
“Here, it’s more like coming into their space,” Cooper said. “Whereas in America, kids come to the teacher’s classroom.”
On the other hand, students do have to play an active role in their education. For instance, Cooper noted, students here must go to stores and buy their own textbooks — an exercise that most American students don’t experience until college.
Resources and infrastructure aren’t exactly state-of-the-art at the school, either. Even though the school is a part of a large chain of government-run schools set up specifically to provide academic continuity for the children of government employees whose posts are often moved, the school seemed in many ways to be lacking in terms of routine maintenance.
For instance, in one of the classrooms where Cooper teachers, a dirty, margarine-colored layer of paint was peeling, revealing that the classroom’s walls were once sky blue.
If you’re looking for a fire extinguisher, you’ll quicker find a rack of six rusty buckets marked “FIRE” standing in the hallway, and some of those buckets are filled with rubbish.
Despite such shortcomings, the school still manages to get students to a destination in this country that the vast majority of Indian students do not reach.
School officials report that 90 percent of the students here enroll in higher education of some sort. Such success has taught Cooper that academic progress need not be hindered by lack of resources or state-of-the-art facilities.
“Being here has helped me to work with what I have,” Cooper said.