The Barefoot Teacher

She can do it…. we are there to help her

Expectations are a funny thing. They are something we create in our own heads. They aren’t tangible. They don’t cost money. You can’t see them either. Yet, these mental constructs limit or propel us in so many ways. With or without your knowledge, any expectation you have controls the intended outcome. It is the simple mind over matter effigy. I am a true believer in this. If you believe something can happen, it will, albeit with a little hard work and some ingenuity. It’s about problem solving and focusing on what you can change while learning to work within the reality of a given situation.

Naturally, we set expectations for things – how the plan will work out, what should it look like, etc. However, I have found, in my few short years on earth (although I find myself sliding towards 30 very quickly), that we are constantly setting low expectations or badgering those who set high expectations. It is common practice to point out the flaws and or problems that we foresee in a person’s dream or idea. In our minds, we are just trying to help that person. We don’t want to set him or her up for failure. We don’t want them to feel disappointed, frustrated or depressed because their idea or plan did not work out.

I know that I used to do this. I’m sure I still do it at times, but being in a classroom for two years with a total of 52 students who were the results of consistently low expectations. I heard what other teachers said, what community members said, and even what the students said about themselves, and I saw that results of that negativity. I also saw what happened when that mindset shifted. I saw what happened when the bar was set higher. I saw students grow both academically and behaviorally. Those who set low expectations are usually not doing it out of malice. They set them based on previous experiences or what has been told to them about the capacity of the certain situation. For the veteran teachers in my school, it was due to years of feeling unheard and being exhausted by the system, for the community members, it was based on years of racial strife, and for the students it was because they can read adults like a book and therefore internalized those low expectations.

I still struggle to stay positive; it is a constant process for me. However, I feel passionately about education, because I believe given no circumstance, no situation, a child can learn. If you set the expectation high enough and give the support, no matter what, that child can learn. I believe it is the priority of society to ensure that every child attains a quality education. I also believe that education should be equal. What one student receives, the next child should also have access. These beliefs brought me to Teach For American in the Louisiana Delta and now to rural Andhra Pradesh and my work with RIVER.

One of my biggest struggles here has been the low expectations set for our students and teachers. Learning and teaching English is a complicated subject; that is irrefutable, but I also believe it is possible for the students to learn English and for our teachers to teach it. I have sat in multiple formal and informal meetings with teachers at the main boarding school, co-workers or other management, and I hear many excuses as to why we can’t try out a new idea I have for the ESL curriculum. The instant reply is almost always: “The teachers doesn’t know English and therefore can’t teach it.”

As I stated before, I do not believe these low expectations come from a place of malcontent. These ideas come from generations of class separation in India. Historically, Indian people have been legally grouped into castes based on birth, dictated by their previous life choices, and these castes have an assigned hierarchy. Even though that system is not prevalent today, just like in the United States there is a divide between the educated middle to wealthy class and the uneducated, poorer. This is especially heightened in our situation due to the rural background of our teachers and students, and the mostly urban centric population of Rishi Valley School and its managing body.

While these expectations are a result from cultural and class differences and past experiences, it does not validate the constant dismissal of our students’ abilities or the teacher’s capacity. In a conversation with a like-minded co-worker, who boldly verbalized my internal strife: too many excuses are placed on the ‘barefoot teacher.’ The teacher, who comes day after day, passionately teaches 25-35 students ages 3-13 from the local village. Some have taught longer than some of my other fellows have been alive. The teacher, who I have watched laugh with their children, show affection towards their children, and demand ESL material for their children. The teacher, who is also from a village, and is in fact, barefoot. The teacher, who may not be proficient in English due to his or her own schooling, but is willing to learn English for their students. Their lack of shoes does not represent a lack of knowledge, ability, determination or love. Their lack of shoes is custom of a strong rich culture as well as their capacity to place themselves on the same level as their students.

This need for a shift in mindset is only inspiring my work. This past month, I have been blessed to manage a team of 5 German volunteers from Bavaria with my field experimentation of the ESL curriculum. This team could not have come at a more crucial time, not just professionally for the timeline of the project, but also personally for me. They came at a time when I was starting to lose hope, when I was starting to feel the world cave in around me, when I skyped my parents and cried so hard that I couldn’t get a word out while they sat and watched helplessly.

What is possible through education

For six months, I had worked on a curriculum with little support and no feedback. I had been involved in too many conversations stating that a substandard ESL curriculum was all that we could create due to our own constraints and the teachers’ abilities. The constant negativity and daily feeling of running head first into a brick wall was finally breaking me. Then, my Bavarian rock star team came. This team and the subsequent experiment results have renewed my belief in the possible, and helped me find my voice again.

1 Coady, 5 Germans, 8 Schools, 6 days, 1 ESL Curriculum

As I stated, by the end of February I was absolutely exhausted and lost. I did not know how much more I could do for our students given the restraints of my project. I faced this at times during my TFA commitment as well – I am an outsider coming into the emotionally charged field of education. It can be difficult to secure results while navigating cultural differences and organizational constraints. This is where I learned the concept of ‘locus of control’ – focusing on what I could impact and leaving everything else ‘at the door’ to ensure success for our students. I still believe in this concept, but there comes a time when you need to be willing to take more into your control, and advocate for the students even if it makes you or those around you uncomfortable because it is outside of the norm.

It seemed that every time I needed something done or had an idea, it was a fight to have it done. This was on me as well – I wasn’t advocating as much as I could and I wasn’t recognizing the key levers. That is until the German university students arrived. Because of their university partnerships, they actually came in with a lot of sway and could get things done. I instantly jumped on the opportunity, and asked if they would be willing to help me with the very much needed field experiment of my material.

My hard working German team!

As of March 1st, I had created grades 3 and 4 curriculum totaling in 28 milestones (learning chapters) emphasizing on a particular theme and grammar skill. There were over 500 activities and teacher keys to be used. While the structure was solid, and on paper, my work looked great, I had no idea if it would work in the schools and the piloting had been stalled due to the aforementioned constraints. I had 5 German volunteers – Jonas, Sara, Nina, Ruth, and Regina.

We set forth on a 6 day field experiment of my material. My German counterparts could participate in one of three ways. First, they could observe my material in the classroom, using an observation template worksheet and provide feedback to me specifically on the interaction between teacher and student with the activities. Second, they could create more pedagogically appropriate activities that fit within the established context of that milestone. The theme is ‘Back to School’ and the grammar focus is possessive pronouns. Or finally, they could interview teachers and students with questionnaires.

The experiment was a success. If you would like to geek out and read my final report (it is a working draft, so please ignore typos or uneven language) you can click here. It will give a more in depth view and summary of my work thus far and the experiment with the German team.

The test also gave us clear cut next steps for how to proceed with the curriculum, and solidified my notion that there is much that needs to be done still. One volunteer, Ruth, stayed on for another 3 weeks, and we were able to immediately implement feedback from the teachers culminating in a very successful teacher workshop this past weekend. It helped to improve relations and trust with the teachers given my lack of Telugu and lack of time in the schools. As I stated before, these teachers input is necessary for the success of the curriculum. I want them to be part of the creation not only for buy in purposes, but I cannot create a successful curriculum without them. They may struggle in English proficiency however they are scholars in our MGML pedagogy, and their feedback has proven more than useful.

What I found most inspiring, was the enthusiasm and commitment from our teachers. When they felt like they were being heard and had a chance to voice their experiences, they gave thoughtful ideas and concerns directly impacting their students. These teachers are our best proponent for English as a Second Language, and I am excited to continue learning from them. I took lots of video and pictures of our field experiment. Click here. Enjoy!

Piloting new activities

Duranta has puppies (7!!!)!

Well it happened, chubby pregnant Duranta finally gave birth. Last week she woke me up in the middle of the night, moaning and crying in front of my door. I had to get up several times and give her water and console her. I knew what was coming. Even Scar shared in the commiserating…. Sympathy pains anyone?

The next morning both of my companions were nowhere to be found, and while I wanted to work from home and keep an eye on her, I had to get to the office for a few meetings. I rushed back at lunch looking for her. In the previous few days she had been burrowing in a wood pile at the bottom of my patio stairs. I figured she had gone back there because it was dark, safe and a bit secluded while still being close to me. I approached the wood pile and heard rustling. I figured it was Duranta and a few new bundles of joy.

Mommy and puppies!

What was there instead was probably the polar opposite on the spectrum of animals. As I leaned over the pile to look down, I saw a fast movement and before I realized what was happening, a cobra stretched out from the wood, hissed and darted its hooded head towards me as if to warn me to step back. Its head only came fully out once, but it was enough for me to yell out a string of obscenities at the top of my lungs (in front of my neighbor’s three year old daughter…) and run away as fast as I could. My adrenaline was pumping. I had never had something scare me so much in my life. As it was lunchtime I mindlessly wandered to the dining hall, but I couldn’t eat. My heart was racing, and I still couldn’t wrap my mind around what had just happened. I tried to eat, but instantly felt nauseous. Shivering spells would come on unexpectedly. Adrenaline is really a strong chemical reaction.

Post my brush with death, a group of students came to me later in the day to inform me that they had found Duranta and the puppies. They all seemed healthy, and they also informed me that Duranta had picked probably the second worst place to give birth (the first being in the wood pile with an agitated cobra). Duranta had chosen to nest in the school’s incinerator. I made my way to the cement box with a chimney on top. Duranta came bounding up to me, jumping and clearly excited, but did not show signs that she had just given birth. The only difference was her stark thin body. I looked into the incinerator and amongst the ash and broken glass lay seven fur balls that I instantly fell in love with.

After a couple of days, we moved the puppies to a safer location and mother and babies are doing well. Sometimes I think Duranta forgets she has seven mouths to feed. If India had their own version of the horrible (yet amazing) reality show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” featuring semi-domesticate dogs, Duranta would sure have been cast. Throughout her pregnancy she just acted confused about her condition, continued to exude the same energy and easy temperament, and even when going into labor, she seemed detached from the whole situation. Now that there are puppies, she seems unaffected by their presence. For example, she went on a two hour steep trek with me less than 24 hours after giving birth. She has been getting better with her pups, and half of them opened their eyes this morning. I bring Duranta extra food, and just sit with the new little family. I am a little obsessed with their cuteness… check out some more pictures of Duranta and the puppies here.

Mighty Milers Final Event

Our final event for our pilot running program was held just a couple weeks ago. We brought together the two groups from our rural school and the main boarding school. I wish we had more activities to bridge these two groups together. It is hard for me to see such a huge gap between the two groups when

Happy runners!

we are all to be supported by the same mission. The student ran 3.2 kilometers with the help of those of us who ran the program and some other volunteers from Hyderabad Runners. Overall the event was a blast, and to see the students faces light up with their achievement. I was so proud of our rural school children – although I had to beg some of them to run with their shoes on (for safety reasons). I hope that when we resume our Mighty Milers program next year such obstacles that our rural students face (that the boarding school kids do not) will be corrected, primarily nutrition. Our students are running almost 12 kilometers a week, and not receiving the best nutrition they can. If you would like know how you can help out, email me at Check out pictures from the days event here!

Big Announcement…..

This month gave me one of the biggest achievements of my life. I was accepted into Columbia University’s Teachers College in their International Educational Development MA program. I never thought I would get into an ivy league, let alone my number one choice. Not only is the program geared towards high achievement for students, but the basis of the program will allow me to examine education through the lens of development.

My dream is to work in the international education field specifically in areas of post-conflict or countries with a poor human rights record. I believe that education is the strongest lever when it comes to sustainable development and peace for developing countries. This program will get me one step closer to working in this field. I have accepted their offer, but I will be deferring my enrollment until Fall 2014. Instead of going straight to Columbia, I will be extending my fellowship here for another 10 months. This month has affirmed what I have known since December, I need to come back for another year to finish this ESL curriculum. I am finally bonding with the teachers and the students, and we have made so much progress that I cannot walk away now. I have been managing the project and learning so much about education – the experience is invaluable. I believe deferring and staying here is the best option for me and for the students. Not only can I see this project through and experience India for another year, I also believe my time here will impact my graduate degree. So here is to being a member of the Columbia University Teachers College MA Class of 2016! Never thought I could say that, but it feels good.

Coming up….

I am so excited for next month! My best friend, Aryn will be flying into celebrate my birthday (the big 2-6) and then we will visit Darjeeling and Calcutta before she heads back. Wish us luck! Mt. Everest, here we come! (Wish we had the actual strength and time to climb it!)

Emily believes education is the most important public service. This conviction was formed during her year with AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps assisting in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where she witnessed firsthand the effects of poor educational systems. Much of her relief work directly affected Americans who had little option following the storm due to a lack in education. During her undergraduate coursework at Seton Hall University's Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Emily focused her studies on the causal link between gender equality in education and international sustainable development cumulating into her senior thesis project. Since graduating, she has spent the last two years expanding her knowledge of education reform as a founding 2010 Louisiana Delta Teach For America corps member teaching 5th grade in the rural town of Tallulah. Emily worked to expand her teaching beyond just the classroom, and helped to create several initiatives that promoted community development for students and their families. She advocates for international social development rooted in educational equity and quality.

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4 thoughts on “The Barefoot Teacher

  1. Dear Emily,
    You write so beautifully! I really enjoy reading all your posts. I am also thrilled for you about your acceptance to Columbia. Your mom had said you had a difficult decision to make and I see you have made the best of both! They are both lucky to have you. Your wealth of experience and many talents are so impressive. Did you ever dream that this would be your life path? Keep the posts coming!
    Take care,

  2. Hello Emily….I’ve just finished reading your blog and taken an “armchair” trip to India!! As always, am so fascinated in your experiences (positive and maybe not so positive in your eyes at times) and how you have managed to keep a level-headed attitude in your endeavor. You have encountered and confronted your challenges with commendable persistence and fortitude. The students (and teachers too) with whom you have associated will ALL have benefitted from your presence and the program that you are representing. Keep up the good work! Congrrats on your acceptance to Columbia….with the experiences you’ve had (as you’re sliding towards 30!!!!….. it’s no surprise to me that you’ve been accepted to an Ivy League school!!

    On the home front….I see your beautiful younger twin sisters, Anna, quite often for obvious reasons!! and Sara, though not as frequent, and that has been great!!! Take care, Lucie

  3. What an outstanding report on your activities, Emily. I still talk about your accomplishments to WISE Students at Stevens and I will mention your experience in India at our WISE Presentations this month. This is the last year for WISE, but a similar program will continue under Partnership Rapid City, and will be called Beyond the Books.

    Also, I wish to congratulate you on your acceptance to Columbia Teaching College. You are a most deserving candidate to the teaching profession. I wish you the best of everything as you pursue your dreams and help those who most need it in other parts of the world.
    I am very proud of you.

  4. Dear Emily,
    I am always so grateful when your mom sends an Em update. Took me a while to finally read this one but I wanted the time to just enjoy and savor. I always feels so humbled and I read about your adventures and challenges. I can’t help but smile at the difference between our “curriculum writing” experiences. You have my greatest respect and admiration for your passion, determination and vision. I have a feeling that this next year will bear great fruit. You are making a great difference.

    Then it is on to Columbia and the next chapter! Will the blog continue? You know I remain your Fan Club president. My kindred curriculum writer/director prayers are with you.
    Pat Peel

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