An epistle to a Nepali teacher of English
Hem Raj Kafle
Dear Nepali Teacher of English,
What you read below are fragments of thoughts from a teacher of your own generation. This is the person who entered the job to become an ‘English teacher’ and evolved in the profession for twenty-five years as a Nepali teacher of English.
I therefore begin with a sincere apology. First, because I have chosen not to call you ‘English teacher.’ You might be unhappy for being stripped off the garb of Englishness you have cherished for years. Unlike ten or fifteen years ago, I now feel uncomfortable with the ambiguity the term ‘English’ carries. I know that like many, you take pride in its universal signification as someone who inherits the Englishness of English in totality. In all these years, I have always found myself a ‘Nepali teacher of English’ no matter how much I tried to fit myself into the garb. I felt the sense of Nepaliness much deeper after an epiphany, when one of my former students reported one of her classmates calling me ‘a typical Jhapali who knows English’.
My apology is also because this is going to be fairly long and might challenge your complacence and snatch a bit of your intellectual comfort. But if you lost patience midway, I would understand that you were not born to be a teacher of English. I do not need to explain why, knowing that you had to go through hundreds and thousands of long stuffs only to qualify as someone who knew English.
So, this year, I completed the silver jubilee as a teacher. This explains why I have become a little cheeky in this text. It is plain and simple. I belong to the second generation of those who teach English in Nepal, and will soon ascend to the throne of the first living generation. Thus, after a little more than half of my age in the classroom, I claim at least a little authority of experience and get tempted to shed some fragments of precepts.
I am a little concerned these days, like a guardian who is moving past the mid of the middle age. The bricks that held our disciplinary fortress have perhaps gotten old and have begun to crack. I am concerned because I could not do anything to undo or retrofit the cracks. So, I am here partly to generate mutual consolation, revisiting the days we first entered the classes with pride and surety.
O’ Teacher of English, do not underestimate yourself. The world did not grow without you. As you entered the classroom then, you entered the hearts of people. You responded their choice (you might call it craving) for modernity that would not occur without English and you.
You have been a kind of change agent, I think. Foremost, you slowly replaced the skilled, smart English teachers that came from the east or south of the neighbouring country. I am not sure whether the people who adopted English and modernity perceived this change. There was otherwise quite a large population of temporary migrants who sometimes gave a feeling that you and I did not fit in the transformation to modernity through English.
With English came awareness to foreign cultures and civilization in Nepal. I know this is too shallow an idea to mention here, and does not need elaboration. I just meant to say you and your discipline were a vehicle for this awareness. English was more than a subject that combined grammar and elementary reading. It was a confidence-booster to a generation that craved to be locally competent and globally compatible. You commanded as much credibility as a math or science teacher. English was not everyone’s cup of tea then, and you had every reason to hold your shoulders high.
It was when your discipline was propelling the mainstream of private-sector schooling and public education system had begun to face public discard and disillusionment. You and I believed politics in many forms caused this situation while indirectly helping the private sector education to grow as one of the dazzling businesses.
You may remember this. If you were in a private boarding school, your boss often placed a crook in your hand and made you move around in the school compound picking up words in Nepali that kids mistakenly uttered. You evolved through this and many other types of activism while your counterparts in public schools remained immune, both from being asked and from willing to exercise such privilege.
But English was an immediate job-giver. You largely felt safe no matter whether you entered the classroom after a reasonable training, induction or mentoring. If you knew how to write a job application and give interviews and were judged capable of handling a forty-five minute class, with reasonable fluency and flawless expressions, most other deficiencies that could disqualify you from entering the profession got sidelined.
You were in, for good, though. If you were a smart chap during the schooling, you became an all-rounder in your new job. You taught math, science, social studies, health education, general knowledge, civic education and what not. Because all these were in English and you could claim reasonable mastery in the stuff. Was it not a great service? How did you benefit in return? It must have formed a foundation for your growth as an interdisciplinarian, especially if you could mould yourself into being jack of many trades and master of a few even as you came of age.
Our brother or sister in the public school may have cherished a bigger spirit of service. They were the only folks to claim authority in the field since every other subject was in Nepali medium. I believe they have done their best in their part. I have met quite a few who have the frustration that some of their high-schoolers write ‘bog’ for ‘dog’ and they have not been able to teach why ‘b’ cannot replace ‘d’ or vice versa. I have also recently heard that the growing discourse of making English-medium model schools out of the public schools has instilled some optimism in them. This is good. If English can become one of the boosters even today, the folks of this discipline including you and I must take pride.
Let me go back to the general case again. You were the authority until qualified oldies turned up, listened to you and wished to read your writings. But they hardly came around, minding their own businesses. You grew in your own hands. It was in those days when you could hardly compare yourself with others, either because barely anyone was comparably sounder or poorer than you, or no one was there to question your authority as a qualified person.
I mean the time when they had not invented YouTube, TEDx, Khan Academy and hundreds of the type.
When they did, O’ teacher of English, you became only one of the many factors that educated kids. The time has thus changed. Do not overestimate yourself. The world has begun to and can grow without you. When you enter the classroom now, you enter as only one of the many factors that educate youngsters.
I repeat. The bricks that held your fortress have gotten old, and have begun to crumble. The avalanche combining telecommunication and internet have struck the fortress mercilessly. You have all the time acted smug or been the part of the avalanche yourself as a person. As a person, I know, you cannot abstain from it or fear being called old-fashioned. As a professional, considering you have become one by now, you may only have been impressed or partially immersed. But time has come for you to cope with or quit the change. If you came to the field by choice, you would sustain. You would go to find a more comfortable path if you came by chance.
The avalanche, if you may note, is one day sweeping away your relevance if not profession.
The ‘English teacher’ who reigned the world in the pre-YouTube era teaches in the college now. But, if you agree with me, the school-kid himself has a lot to say about the avalanche. My kids do. Yours do, too. The school kid might be discouraged to question an outdated teacher by display of a crook, but he keeps a certain level of disbelief, if not disrespect, for a teacher’s backwardness. A college youngster, one that evolved from that school-kid, compares himself with you because he thinks he has had broader exposure to the world. He is the generation that believes the world is squeezed in their touchscreens and spreads as they command with their fingertips. He thinks, and he may be right, his is a global generation while yours is yet to be, retarded by conservative training or unwillingness to change or avoidance of the fruits of technology.
The new kids, in fact, want you to collaborate, co-learn and co-teach. Because you are not the only factor in their overall growth. They think you only share with them what resources are around and what they equally have access to. And if you have not created any resource with your personal initiatives, this generation believes you have very less privilege to call yourself the authority of particular knowledge or discipline.
So, do not blame the youngsters for being critical towards our generation. I wish they were even more critical, to the extent of forcing us to exert our potentials as educators in rebuilding our institutions. I wish they demanded that best schools and colleges were built at home, or the best of one time had remained better, so that the generation of our own children would not want to desert our own institutions for foreign ones. I often say to my colleagues and counterparts, “You are growing your students at home or seen them grow in the neighbourhood. You have no right to blame the society for having a bunch of under- or mal-performers in your class, who will also evaporate in search of high-performing mentors.” I send this message to you as well.
I have also come across a section of new generation who doubt that teaching involves a lot of passion. It might surprise them that if you are a gifted teacher you place so much significance to your profession beyond earning the daily bread. They do not know you have chosen to remain middle class or just little below because of this passion. I repeat: passion really counts in this profession. If you have so far been to the classroom with utmost sincerity, passion that radiates in your gaits, gestures and words has formed the best part of your upbringing as a change agent.
Do not overlook a prospect, O’ teachers of English. You might one day have to do history, political science or philosophy because these fields have begun to see no admirers, no trained practitioners. The avalanche that is hitting your fortress has already engulfed most of theirs. Because you are their close relative, you have both prospect and challenge of inheriting and nurturing some of the treasures spared by the catastrophe. This way you will grow and build an alternative fortress. I call this interdisciplinarity, the only long-term saviour.
I have grown to believe that a teacher is born to be a teacher and that means a lot. To teach language, literature and soft skills, and several dimensions of human society, you must be prepared to constantly update yourself, to flow with the change. In the mood to celebrate silver jubilee as a Nepali teacher of English, let me put this: “Some jobs are made in heaven and teaching is one.”
Sorry, the letter has really become long. But if you lost patience reading this, I understand you were not born to be a teacher of English. You might like to internalize this, finally: when teachers stop being receptive, they start growing old and invalid.
The writer is an Associate Professor at Kathmandu University.
Published on 4 February 2019