Parenting, Nepalese Private (Boarding) Schools, English, and Child-friendliness

— Kashi Raj Pandey

Yes, teaching English in Nepal for more than a decade, from primary, secondary, and now in a university has compelled me to reflect myself with different hats; basically every day, now a days, I have been wearing two hats: first, a professional hat; second of a “good” parent. A born, dedicated teacher and a very finicky parent, as teaching professionals are the most difficult clients for “boarding schools” too.

Last weekend, with sufficient activities and monitoring at Kathmandu University’s Undergraduate classrooms, I returned home, tired. Good that our elder boy was already there with the small one and their mother waiting: I was the last to reach home that relieved me from worrying about others’ arrival as we all absent ourselves day time; one a hosteller, another day-scholar, and the couple both working in different sweat shops.

Our meeting was followed by a homely Dinner; and during dinner time, we talked as usual. My wife was an initiator. She said, “Look, I have something to say today”. I, with curiosity, gave my response, “Yes. Go ahead”. Then she proceeded, “Our children are doing good in studies. They score good marks. But, the bigger one had a request whether we could speak English in home so that he can confidently speak in English with his teachers”. He is a nine grader studying in one of the “finest” boarding schools. In Nepal, we love to make judgment about the standard of schools on the basis of the money they collect from parents; like how much, how often, and how early. This school is “good” because of the amount they charge, frequency of events they advocate for extra money, and reason they find for collection. From this year they claimed that they have also improved their quality by rescheduling the mid-term exam as early as possible. They said it is good because the children can have their result before Dashain (the major festival in Nepal with a long holiday), but I know the reason, and so do you, all intelligent readers.

By now you all can guess, as a teacher of English, one thing with intention, I failed was this – not speaking English at home. And, I kept quiet waiting to continue that issue in the next session. I nodded – “Yes, the dinner is delicious and how nice eating together after a week’s hard work!”

Next session continued, as very often we do this. Parents sitting together with children for sometimes, may be just talking and talking even with no issues, we believe strengthens compassion among. And, that time we had an issue. I asked the boy to tell me about him. He said, “Everything is good”. But my boy needed further counseling, I could imagine.  As we kept talking, many things started to unfold. I even remembered and recited the first stanza of a poem by W. B. Yeats, “Among School Children” with them:

“I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” (ll 1-8)

Yes, after some moment, he revealed that if we spoke “English” in home, he could have excelled in everything and among everybody in the school. Then, I realized the problem, but I never took “English” and “only speaking English” that way.  That made me little emotional and thoughtful. I have seen many “good English speakers” not doing anything even in the Americas, seen a village-wo/man with a great heart doing a lot; s/he may be poor, unfortunate to attend so called “boarding schools” but also NOT devoid of humanity. I know more on what I have to make them unlearn than what they are learning in school.

Children are learning that they need to pay fee for the admit card so that they can sit down for the exam and go for unhealthy competition. I am saying this because I saw an innocent little girl crying in one of the good private schools on her result day because she could not hold the FIRST position among some 600 students while the “Block Incharge” was trying hard to convince the child and her parents saying, “You should try next time”. My goodness, isn’t scoring the SECOND position in this huge mass a fabulous job? I think yes, and for me it is always a “WELL DONE!” Do these schools worry about giving prizes in the same way as they are curious to collect fees before exams? Children (ALL) I have always seen happier coming home with the envelope (a receipt inside) than their exam results.

We make children to be disciplined. And they are disciplined in such a way that even at their Undergraduate levels, when we ask them to contribute in some way or express their views, first thing they do is “standing up”. It has become their habit; most of them do not worry on the issue but ask to repeat again after they stand up; they have become habitual this way. We are giving them the “wrong” message that only educated people are comfortable to survive in this world and the toppers are always “respected”. I agree, but what about the other parts? Don’t we have to enjoy life with children? Is our home NOT different than schools? Aren’t we also paying high to imprison their childhood?  Honestly, I have sent my boys to these private schools not because I really wanted them to but just to make ourselves “socially” comfortable and put myself under this “veiled prestige and power relationship”. Now, I do remember the lines from Daniel Goleman’s essay where he has inserted a dying patient’s reflection, he mourns past losses and wrongs he has committed, “he regretted that when his daughter was small and needed him, he was on the road making money to provide a good home. Now, that he was dying, but she was grown and had her own way of life”. He felt it was too late to play, talk, and even share a lot of things that were possible earlier and, most of the times, I find hard to see myself differently.

How have we motivated the children? John Holt says we still claim children go to school to learn as if learning is different than living and that the child hadn’t been learning before.  They are learning to hide the home works. They are learning countless strategies for prying “right” answers out of the teacher, for conning her/him into thinking s/he knows what s/he does not know. Children when suggested to change certain things that were not right, they fear whether they could write that way in exams too. Many parents also fear a good amount of project works during holidays. I have seen them working actively in many student projects, that to be submitted to teachers, for the sake of children’s happiness. At this point, I worry whether children go to school to learn for themselves or for others?

Next, is “ENGLISH” terror. As I have seen fine slogans painted or posted in many private school walls like; ENGLISH IS COMPULSORY. PAY Rs. 5 Or 10 FOR EVERY TIME YOU SPEAK NEPALI. Why do we advertise this way? Can’t we simply speak English in the schools, a “correct” English I mean which may come from different sources, may that be watching TV, reading novel or anything. Parents in Nepal would love to see their wards speaking English, no doubt. But, don’t we also have to cultivate reading habit or don’t we have to give our children the knowledge about the life style, culture, feast and festivals of the target language? Can’t we also take our children to several events like Cultural Programs, Book Exhibitions, or other Educational Fairs? Keeping these all in mind, I was comfortable when my boy agreed with me as we are doing all other activities at the maximum possibility, though English was not compulsory in HOME. And this is the beauty that children find a home more homely, different than “Boarding” schools in Nepal.

I worry who has time to look into these issues with due priority for these children’s childhood has been imprisoned unknowingly deceiving them in the name of discipline, competition, success, or what not.

2 thoughts on “Parenting, Nepalese Private (Boarding) Schools, English, and Child-friendliness

  1. Yes, we badly need homes that are more homely than boarding schools of Nepal.
    Dear Friend* Kashi, Thank you for a wonderful post. There are many things that made me think deeply and hard in your post but one important thing that you’ve reflected on makes me write. You bring up the very important issue of compulsory English, which many, many scholars of English studies in English speaking countries themselves find hard to justify, and some find it ridiculous. Our society/nation seems to have decided to mindlessly accept the idea that good education can only be practiced in English, not to say anything about also widely accepting the shame of physically and psychologically punishing young children for speaking their own languages–in the name of learning what we don’t doubt is a very useful language. Frankly speaking, I think that many of us are half-effective and half-able to express ourselves in a foreign language, at least for the first several years of our teaching; and on average, our students further half-understand and half-learn what we teach a lot of times. Of course, that’s not necessarily the case all the time. I’ve taught in boarding schools, early on, when I thought I was half-communicating to half-understanding students, and I’ve also taught, especially after increasing proficiency in the language as well as teaching experience, where I thought the half went up to at least three quarter on both sides, because these were also students who had far better access and privilege of English at home, through the media, and so on. But, all in all, I don’t understand how the obsession with English in our country vis-a-vis our interest in education at large can be justified. Some people would argue that the same half-teaching and half-learning can happen even when teachers and students are using a language that they speak at home and in the society–that may be at least half-true. Others might say that the half-understood learning is worth it if we consider the end result–good English–but I don’t know how to make or understand an argument where “proficiency in English” becomes a sane or sensible reason for hijacking the effectiveness of education, just for the purpose of teaching a language. While it may be hard for our students to learn English if they were to start learning it, say, as late as college, I have no doubt in my mind that it would do our society a great, great service if private schools started teaching content subjects in local languages and if they also started teaching “content” through English in English classes. I don’t know about models of education in many countries today, but here’s one of the many incidents in my academic and professional lives that has forced me to think critically about English medium education. A few years ago, in a graduate seminar on ESL/ELT that had colleagues who came from about a dozen countries around the world, I shocked people when I described how we do English aka education in schools in our country. I will share in a separate entry some day the longer story about how hard it was for me to answer a simple question that the professor in that class asked during discussion (she was a teacher who had taught English in several countries herself as well as a researcher of ELT), but here is a gist of that incident. “What do you teach in your English class?” asked the professor. I said: “English.” She asked again: “But what do you teach ‘with’ English?” I said, “you know, language, the English language.” I didn’t really understand what she was trying to say at that time, but in the years to follow, the more I learnt about “English” as “education” idea, which seems to manifest particularly well in Nepal, I think that I baffled the heck out of that scholar and the class by demonstrating with a lesson plan how I would teach English for English’s sake! Your blog post also stoked the fires of frustrations that I had as a student who suffered physical punishment in the name of English and, more regretfully, who also became complicit with that horrendous practice of punishing students, disrespecting their home language and knowledge… joining the bandwagon of the shame of English ‘as’ education. Don’t get me wrong: I have never said and should never and will never say that English has no value, that it is bad or dangerous, or that… I won’t say any of that if someone was thinking “Why are you so opposed to English?”… No one can reasonably ignore or undermine the value of English in the world today (to do so would be absurd and hypocritical especially for people like me who have enjoyed much privilege at least partly because of the opportunity to learn English). But no amount of practical, material, social… values of English can justify the offensive practice of prohibiting and punishing students for using their own language just in the name of helping them improve English. Without even showing or thinking about whether teaching social studies in English makes our students better understand social studies, not to say anything about the enhancement of their epistemological agency, to take for granted an English medium Only policy in schools, or the idea that we will do better if we stop speaking our home languages altogether, are just mind-numbing. Is it not important that our children also become efficient in using our own language, succeeding in the socio-cultural spheres of life where home languages are equally if not more important? But there is another, more personal, reason why I have such an objection to English Only policy or attitude: with all the physical and psychological torture that I had in school, I remember coming out of 13 years of school speaking an English that no one outside the school district in the east Indian state of Manipur would understand one bit. In fact, it took me quite some time to unlearn that something-lish that I wonder if I would have done better to start learning English in college instead. My English vocabulary was superb (I thought), but then my college classmates who came from public schools of Syangja and Baglung had better vocabulary than me. Writing? I knew how to write rote-learned essays very well, and expressing myself didn’t come from school very much. Go ahead and compare my story with the average boarding school student in Nepal. To that I can add the estimate of how many boarding school products completed their college and university degrees with better marks than our Banglunge and Syangjali classmates. Thus, if we put to test our obsession with English medium within any educational framework that places the purpose of learning above the means of learning, we will never be able to justify the way in which English is shoved down the throat of helpless students for many, many years. I can almost hear someone saying, “You ta khali what-like what-like abstract kura saying, yaar, Shyam. But why do you hate English?” I said I don’t hate English, just the wrongheaded belief that English is going to make our students better educated people by default (This problem is beautifully dealt with in a new book titled “Buying into English” by Catherine Prendergrast). But to get back to the idea of annexing our homes to the English Only colony of boarding schools, I think that while loving parents may lovingly let their children stop using their own language at dinner tables or all the time that they speak in the home, I don’t know what to say about that kind of love motivated by a phenomenal misunderstanding of language and society. So, Kashi, I don’t know if you will agree with me or not, but I would say this to your child: “You can speak not just one, not just two, but many languages, and speak them all well if you try to… but you won’t have to throw out one out the window for another, especially if it is the language that the society around you speaks and depends upon.” I would also tell him that England was and IS a multilingual society, and so is most of the European continent. America and other English speaking countries are multilingual (one in six people in the US speak a language other than English at home). And the issue gets very complicated if you start looking at how, for instance, English speaking Irish people may not understand English Only speaking Indian people and so on. We’ve practiced enough absurdity by thinking that we’re going to make our students better thinkers, learners, citizens, and intellectuals just by forcing them to speak in English Only; it is time to pause and think. I would add this if I got a chance to talk to your 9th grader: “Anyone who has told you that you will speak better English if you start speaking to your dad and mom in English all the time may be right for one or more thoughtless and superficial reasons, but go ahead and look in their eyes and ask them: “How far can you go?” I would tell the young man that private schools must be given the credit for the quality of education where there is quality, for good teachers when there are good teachers, for good use of the hard-earned money of the students’ parents when they do that, and for a thousand other possible reasons… not just for using, forcing, and punishing students for English as the only medium of learning. In fact, their imposition of an often half-understood medium of instruction could have rendered all those other wonderful things half-wonderful. Say dhanyabaad to your English speaking Principal for the good education, and ask him or her to think about education with and without (intellectually blinding himself by) English.**
    *Note: Kashi is a real friend of mine, not just one on Facebook 🙂 and this disclosure should help certain readers not have to decipher the bias. But that disclosure is only half-true, the other half of the truth being that I consider everyone in NELTA a friend, most sincerely.
    **I thought of writing this response in Nepali but decided to use English instead because I seem to write faster and better in English. This statement about my comfort with English would also be half-true if I didn’t add this: my 25 month old interrupted me more than a dozen times while writing this long response, and he did that by using his special talent, words and phrases in Nepali 😉

  2. I find myself wearing Mr. Pandey’s shoes for a while, and recall the days I was wearing those of the advocates of “Strictly English at School”.

    But, people want English not because they know its international, academic and political value, but because it is English despite anything. One school where I worked long back emphasized teaching nursery rhymes even before the alphabets (perhaps many still do) because this would take the school’s Englishness directly home. This would also mark the school’s power of swift teaching, and at the same time appease at the earliest the ‘parental’ thirst for giving ‘high’ education.

    The “English for better life” culture that most of us are not immune from advocating has created the the exploiter and exploited. Herein continues the myth of boarding schools hoarding as much as they can under colourful headings.

    I think we should review our own thirst for ‘height’, which we fantasize with education in English medium disregarding the side-by-side value of mother tongue education.

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