Reflections on my teaching journey: Laxman Gnawali

Laxman Gnawali, PhD

I started my teaching career not by choice but by necessity. Hailing from a lower middle-class subsistence farmer’s family, I saw very few options to get the resources I needed to pursue higher education. With six younger siblings waiting for me back in my home village in the western hill district of Gulmi, my parents had it hard enough without me adding to their burden. In this context, I had managed to get my school-level education from a free Sanskrit school, in Ridi, Gulmi.

Back then, higher education was seen as a waste of time and money; families of that generation believed a better alternative was to go to India to find ‘good’ jobs there. However, the zeal was in me, and after finishing my schooling in Ridi, I landed in Butwal to attend Intermediate of Education (I Ed) at Butwal Multiple Campus. The fact that I had done my schooling in Sanskrit did not prevent me from dreaming to major in English.

You could say that I was naïve, not realizing that I belonged to a class that could not afford higher education. It sounds crazy now. But as they say, “Man proposes and God disposes,” so I got a scholarship from the Campus, enabling me to take the next steps on my path.

When I was in my second year I Ed, I ran out of money. I badly needed a job. I heard from one of my classmates that an education officer from Palpa district was looking for an English teacher for a school in a village called Masyam. The offer looked good to me, so I went to Masyam, Palpa.

Due to financial limitations of the school and my qualifications, I was given a primary teacher’s position but I had to teach students of grades eight to ten. To teach English in the secondary level with just an incomplete intermediate level of education was a real challenge, to say the least. But I did not give up.

In the beginning I simply did not know how to teach! To start with, I lacked even basic English skills. I couldn’t even speak the language. I could only read from the book and translate it to the students. I regularly came across words which were difficult for which I did not know the meanings. I remember, one day I was planning to teach a conversation that included a phrase mind your head. I knew what the word mind meant and what head meant but mind your head did not make any sense to me. I asked around but did not get any definite answer so I travelled to Palpa district headquarters, seeking an answer but I only met people just like me, so I came back without the meaning. The dictionary did not help either. It only gave the meaning of mind and head separately. It didn’t address British idioms. It was only after several years that I was able to find out what mind your head meant – it means “pay attention, don’t hit your head!”.

I confronted other stumbling blocks in my teaching career. In several instances, I did not always have the right answers to the questions given in the book. However, I learnt that being a teacher wasn’t just about being knowledgeable. I later found out that my students in Masyam School had reported to senior teachers that I was a ‘great’ teacher, because I was humble, always trying to help and trying to be friendly. This kind of motivated me to teach.

While my work at Masyam School greatly encouraged me in seriously thinking about a teaching career, I also knew that I was not going to teach there forever. I had firm plans for further education. Indeed, after a year of teaching at Masyam and attending college just to participate in the exams, I completed my Intermediate in Education.

Immediately after the results were published, I learnt that the very same Butwal Campus was launching a new Bachelor of Arts program. The program offered English major along with History and other subjects. I quickly enrolled myself in the program without thinking. However, financial problems reared its ugly head again. I didn’t have a current income source or adequate savings.

I asked Hari Mainali, one of my classmates and the then Principal of Butwal Elite English School, if his school needed an English teacher. And, because I was always regular, did my homework, interacted with the teachers, tried my best to learn, he was already impressed with me! At once I was appointed as an English teacher in his private school.

Butwal Elite English School was an interesting environment; everybody spoke English, teachers and students alike. While I had not developed that level of spoken proficiency, I had to try because that was the rule. I did try, worked hard, soon enough, I was an insider among the teaching staff. As a beginning teacher, the school had given me classes only in nursery, kindergarten and Grade one. However, I took this as a very good opportunity for me to start learning from the beginning.

Looking back now, I realize that I’d made numerous mistakes, not just with language but in the very way I taught. For example, I would get students to shout the names of fruits, vegetables etc. that I was teaching. It was the method I used to make them memorize words. I also made them copy everything from the books. I remember one instance of my pedagogy, which was after I was entrusted with grades two and three as well. I asked Grade three students to write an essay. To ensure that everyone wrote an essay on the given topic, I provided them with a model essay and every student was expected to reproduce the same essay! Most students did. I did this every time I taught them to write essays. Simply put, this was not teaching at all, but that was all I knew then.

And so time passed as I gradually got into the groove. And, the mistakes I made didn’t stop me from making a good impression among my seniors. And so, it came to be that the following year, I was promoted! Actually, the management asked me to start teaching in the higher classes.

This upward growth helped me iron out my shortcomings and learn new things as well. For example, I found out that independent reading was an exercise that immensely helped students. So, I had them read short stories and poems. And those who read more had better writing. It was then that I knew the value of extensive, independent reading.

The years passed and I continued teaching. Even then, not as a career but as a job in which I was just barely proficient. Whenever I moved from one place to another for my next level of studies, I taught in nearby schools. It was a convenient and always available option. However, when I was doing my MA in English Literature Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, the classes were run in the day time, so I could not study and work simultaneously. I decided to work outside of Kathmandu, in a public school and maintain my study without attending classes – I had to survive first.

I got a position in Dedithumka High School in Kavre district to teach English from grades six to 10. Lucky me, my students were curious and supportive. I experimented whatever I knew; I organized short skits, conversations, sometimes creative writing tasks etc. I taught grammar to the best of my knowledge in contextual ways. Students were happy but I was the one who was happier here. Finally, I was slowly learning the tricks of teaching.

After my Masters, I returned to my own village in Gulmi to teach English to Grade 11 students. Again this upward mobility gave me opportunities to try out new approaches. I could confidently practise what I had learnt with my new students. As with all things, it worked with some, didn’t work with others but overall, the feedback from my students showed that my lessons were well received.

My teaching life underwent a rapid change when I was appointed as a lecturer at Kathmandu University (KU) a year later, in 1993. I had moved to the capital for better opportunities. Newly married, and full of aspirations, I was looking for a proper university position to teach. I learnt through an acquaintance that KU, in its nascent stage then, was looking for an English teacher for its School of Science. I applied and was called to give a trial class. Prof. Abhi Subedi, my former teacher in my MA, observed my test lesson and decided to have faith in me. I was in.

Once in, I went through many experiments, some with pleasure, and more with frustrations. After all, I was somebody who had attended a Sanskrit school for his high school education, someone who had never, as a learner, been exposed to a proper English-speaking environment and well delivered lessons. And now I was trying to teach English to science students who had come from private English medium schools. Their English, particularly spoken, was far better than mine. At times I thought of quitting, I actually tried quitting, but somehow, I held on.

One incident particularly illustrates how much I yet had to learn: I was teaching Romeo and Juliet, a play by Shakespeare. We could have practised the conversations in the play, we could have even presented the drama itself. But instead, I tried to teach the play simply by explaining every line of the play, page after page! Only now I can imagine how traumatic my lessons must have been for my students. There were signs that they were not paying attention, and sometimes I could see clearly that they did not enjoy the lesson. I even took it as a discipline issue. It took a long time for me to understand that the problem was not in them but in me, my teaching process, my teaching, my methodology. I was attempting to teach a drama by explaining line by line, for the whole 60 minute class, every class, three days a week. Had I been the students, I would have quit, but fortunately, my students stayed in class.

Time did remain the same. I moved on, and I seemed to change my pedagogy as illustrated by the forthcoming example. After a couple of years, I had to teach The Day of the Triffids, a sci-fi piece, and Siddhartha, a spiritual novel. This time, while I still used the explanation technique, I made it more interactive. We would discuss the events, linking the elements in the stories to our own lives. Instead of reading and explaining every line, the class became an interaction session between me and the students. Perhaps, this change was responsible for a pleasant surprise I got later in the year. In the students’ magazine, I was voted the best teacher! Although I knew I was not the best teacher, it helped me realize that I was improving.

Later in 2002, after my second Masters from the UK with a scholarship from the A. S. Hornby Educational Trust , I was transferred to School of Education from School of Science because my UK degree specialized in Teacher Training for ELT. As we started the new semester, I felt at home, I clearly didn’t know why. Upon reflection now, I understand I had undergone two things. One, I had been exposed to an excellent teaching methodology at Marjon, Plymouth, with great faculties Tony Wright and Rod Bolitho. I had practised speaking English with native and non-native speakers during my stay there. I had returned with an improved know-how of English and pedagogy. Second, I was teaching postgraduate students how to teach English, something I had specialized in.

With my background and the teaching situation, I was in a good place. I had to demonstrate model lessons so I had to prepare at my best. I worked hard and I enjoyed. My lessons were well-received. I was established.

But the question remains ‘what exactly made my lessons better?’ By this time, I was on the other side of the continuum of teaching. I had stopped giving long lectures. When I had to explain something, I presented lecturettes, not lectures. My students read, shared, worked in groups, gave presentations, argued against each other, critiqued, and reviewed.

I knew that in higher education, particularly at the university level, we have adult students who will not enjoy listening to long lectures. They bring with them a lot of experiences, insights, and ideas. They will also want to participate in the discussions. I knew this so I helped them realize their potential. I feel that my haphazard teaching in early years, and successful experiments with PG diploma, Masters and M Phil level established me as a seasoned teacher. I have tried to exemplify what life has taught me — that a participatory way of teaching is the best way. My success inside the University has helped me to be invited to deliver sessions outside. Conference presentations at the NELTA and other forums in Nepal, as well as in several other countries in the world have become part and parcel of my life.

Like everyone, I too have my regrets and mistakes. I know I cannot travel back in time and undo them. From time to time, I remember the scenes of my lessons in Palpa, in Butwal, in my early years, my mistakes at the University.

However, it may have been that I had to make those mistakes to arrive where I am now.

About the author:

Dr. Laxman Gnawali is Professor of English Education at Kathmandu University School of Education, and Senior Vice President of NELTA.  He can be reached at lgnawali@gmail.com