WHY I Joined Teach For Nepal? : Nimmi

June 15, 2022

Approximately 74 kilometers from the valley, the sun rises early in Nawalpur, Sindhupalchok. As a golden beam of light falls onto my bed, I wake up to the honking of Jugal express in the background. While I enjoy my first sip of warm tea with some saatu from a bowl, my mind lingers back to 2019, when I applied for Teach For Nepal's Fellowship. I thought it was my calling! Nervous and unsure of the challenges ahead, I decided to take a plunge and join the Fellowship.

I had just completed my bachelor's degree and internship in Bangalore. Despite receiving decent employment opportunities there, returning to Nepal didn't require a second thought. I was certain I wanted to do something meaningful in my nation. My very first job was in one of the reputed hospitals in Pokhara. 

Contrary to my family's expectations and my own, I felt utterly lost in my workspace. I didn't enjoy the clinical work, nor did it inspire any sense of belonging in me. I often returned home feeling frustrated, and the work never felt fulfilling. It was one of my life's most distressful phases, and I desperately wanted a change. When I look back, I can say this feeling led me to an unconventional path- a road that is less taken.

For someone like me, who had never been far from Dhulikhel, the announcement of "Sindhupalchok" being my placement left me in anticipation. "Sindhupalchok?" It was the same district that the 2015 earthquake had ravaged. Some villages were infamous for girl trafficking and domestic violence! The pictures of this place had never before captured my attention. And now, I would be a Fellow teacher for this district. 

My parents were shocked and apprehensive when I shared the news with them. I, however, was filled with curiosity and excitement. With great ardor, I started preparing myself for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about the education system, Sindhupalchok, and mainly about Nepal.

When I first joined the Fellowship, I did not imagine that these two years would add the most meaningful and fulfilling chapter to my life. This chapter would be filled with many stories worth spreading! The very first time I heard about the idea of changing classrooms and influencing lives, a spark ignited within me. The adventure of living in an unknown remote community for two years, knowing the lives of strangers, teaching, and the thought of getting to be a part of their stories thrilled me. It was something I had never imagined. "This was going to be an opportunity of a lifetime," I thought.

I also resonate with everyone calling the Fellowship journey -a leadership journey. After all, leaders, in the truest sense, are those who pave their path, find solutions to problems, and care enough about the world to make it a better place for everyone to live.

My first experience of "Shramadana" in the remote village of Lamjung was an eye-opener for me. It helped me recognize my privileges and prejudices up close. I realized I had been far too ignorant about the deeply rooted systemic injustices and the educational inequities embedded in our society over the centuries. When I lived with a Dalit family for a few days, I experienced the helplessness and misery of their lives. Living in a small hut was a family of six with barely anything to eat, as they relied on the fire from the beams of fuelwood to keep themselves warm during the night.

The five little children in this family could only play among themselves because they were restricted in other common spaces. Although disgruntled after the first-hand experience of their struggles, there was nothing I could say to them- no consolations I could offer because deep down, I felt guilty about being part of the very system that reinforced the injustices brought upon them! That day I realized that the Nepal I had experienced or talked about was far from reality for the majority of inhabitants of my nation.

Sindhupalchok, similarly, has not been any less of an experience! A district so close to the capital yet so marginalized in terms of development. Unmaintained roadways and unpredictable public transportation have always created huge setbacks in the livelihood of the local inhabitants, including school-going children. A school bus running to pick up students is a sight merely limited to the cities. Incidents of alcohol abuse, early marriages, elopements, and domestic violence have become a conventional reality in Sindhupalchowk.

Adding to the problems, orphanhood, and abandonment of children are not uncommon here. With just a few grocery stores within proximity, the locals still have to wait for Saturdays to visit Melamchi or Kathmandu for the smallest of things. Furthermore, the recent flood in Melamchi has also added to the power cut-offs making it more frequent, while the unstable networks make it worse for communication.

A classroom is a sheer portrait of the existing social dynamics. One classroom is just about enough to show the entire ecosystem of the village. Working at a grass-root level in the public education system of our country was another eye-opener for me. Initially, it felt like the school system was lagging two decades behind. 

"Are all the public schools in Nepal the same or is it just my school?" This was my first question! The pandemic and lockdown had made it easier for everyone to shift the blame, but my eyes had caught many gaps in the public education system. It was only after becoming a Teach For Nepal Fellow at a public school that I understood the value and need of the contribution of youths in change-making.

Unlike in cities and private schools, village children have to walk 7-8 hours on average to commute to school. After returning home, they have dozens of household chores to finish. I am always left astonished when I come across students who still come to school with great zeal after working relentlessly at their homes. From day one, this has been one of my greatest inspirations to prepare the best lesson plans and teach them in the best possible ways.

Unfortunately, the efforts of teachers in public schools haven't been able to do much justice to the efforts students make in attending school in the face of such challenges. After engaging with numerous public school teachers across Sindhupalchowk, I learned that most public school teachers have their own limitations despite having a teaching license. 

For many, teaching is a mere occupation without concern for students' well-being or growth! Sadly, many public schools have also been enmeshed in their political agendas and vendettas instead of prioritizing the students. The motivation of the students who make the arduous journey to school with hopes of learning is seen fading due to teacher absenteeism. Regrettably, the authorities do little to monitor such grave concerns if they care in the first place. Experiencing this side of the education system in Nepal filled me with discontent and disappointment, yet confronting these realities also motivated me to drive a change, one classroom at a time.

The initial days in the classroom reminded me of 'Erin Gruwell' from the movie 'Freedom Writers. Except for the fact that there was no violence in my class, everything else felt similar. In those early days in the classroom, I would often witness my students fight and quarrel inside the class as they used foul language to curse one another. Although 95% of the students in my class were from the Tamang community and spoke the same language, there was no unity in the classroom.

These discords among my students inspired me to work on building a healthy space where every student felt loved and belonged as they cultivated the feeling of mutual respect for one another. I knew that to create a healthy, positive, and safe learning environment; I needed to foster a loving relationship with my students and encourage the same love and respect among themselves. "After all, there are students who are loved at home, and they come to school to learn, and there are students who aren't, so they come to school to be loved." 

I realized that rushing into the syllabus without fostering that loving environment would not benefit the students in the long run. So, as I continued to teach the syllabus, I equally focused on building a classroom space where every student felt loved and heard. For some kids, school was the only escape from their never-ending household chores or beatings from their parents. 

So, I earnestly wanted to give them a reason to enjoy school. While it felt as if there weren't many things I could change about the school and the system, I also realized that there were many things I could change in a CLASSROOM. And this is where I tried to intervene and am still intervening. The "After School Reflection Club" is one of the initiatives that I introduced in the class to help my students learn other things beyond their textbooks. 

My students have greatly benefited after learning about the importance of compassion, communication, kindness, empathy, emotional intelligence, and reflection in these sessions. I have always aspired to provide a space to my students where they can truly and unapologetically be themselves while they learn and grow together. This club has helped in bringing both behavioral as well as emotional shifts in many students who have their own unique stories.

"One of the tenth graders (Kiran) who was influenced to drop out of school during this year's lockdown became a regular in my after-school program. He said he anticipated coming to school mostly to be in the reflection club. Because of that, he never thought about bunking and leaving the last period."

"Another 9th grader (Sanju) gave a shout-out and gratitude to me for being more than just a teacher to her. She said it was because of me she liked coming to school and that she thinks of me as a sister who is there to scold, love, laugh, and guide."

"Sopheeya, raised by a single mother, shared how she took me as her role model and said that she will always look up to me as an elder sister. She has become much more confident and kind because of the insights and sharing initiated in the Reflection Club.

In this teaching and learning journey, I have greatly enjoyed learning directly from community experiences and real-life challenges. Such experiences and challenges have taught me how simple incidents inspire boundless courage and relentless endeavors. So far, it has been a meaningful journey filled with infinite learnings. 

I know for a fact that the purpose of my Fellowship is not limited to these four batches of students completing SEE, college, higher degrees or even getting attractive jobs after their academic qualification. I don't think that's the quintessence of attaining education. It is just the beginning of something holistic. 

While education and learning is a never-ending process, I know that my teachings and journey will serve their purpose every moment my students make better choices for themselves in their day-to-day lives, practice resilience, spread love and kindness, and muster the courage to move ahead in face of difficulties and failures. That's my ultimate vision for my students. Perhaps someday, when I sit back and see my students working with passion and purpose, wanting to give back to their community by making a difference in their own lives and that of others. My heart will cherish and rejoice in the two years in Nawalpur. 

And just like the nestlings being nurtured before they are ready to soar their wings onto the wide sky, I know that my students and I will attain that height in due time! 

Nimmi Basnet is a 2020 Teach For Nepal Alumni who taught in Shree Nawalpur Secondary School, Sindhupalchowk. Before joining Teach For Nepal Fellowship, she completed her Bachelor in Physiotherapy from Padmashree Insititute of Physiotherapy, Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Science, India. She is now working as an English Content Lead at Teach For Nepal. 

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