Teaching in Mumbai, a whole new concept

I have been waiting to write this post for sometime now only because I have been itching to share my experiences of how different and respectful my teaching experience in Mumbai has been, thus far.

In the last few months, I have been conducting an extensive training course on the fundamentals in counseling and psychology to psychiatry resident students at a prominent medical college in Mumbai. This was my first teaching stint in Mumbai, or in India, as a matter of fact. I was nervous and did not know what to expect in terms of how the students would respond and how I would handle a whole new teaching culture and environment.

I have been a student in India, and I have been a student in Indian schools in Dubai, and studying within the Indian system makes education dull and boring. I have also studied in the British and American school systems which have made me discover a new found love and respect for education, so much so, I would be happy and willing to do a second Doctoral degree! It’s no wonder then, that for the most part, students in Indian schools hate studying because it is a mundane, cumbersome process that relies very heavily on mugging up text books and leaves very little for the imagination. On another note, I have to also say that despite the over pressured educational system, where at least I felt I really never learned anything at school, Indians do well for themselves in any profession. But that’s a conversation for another day.

First day of class, I knew that I would be faced with 25 doctors who would look at me as if I were talking a completely different language. I was prepared to be greeted by stone-faced students because, as far as I remember, the learning process in India was and probably still is, anything but an interactive process; a process where students can engage a teacher in a meaningful dialogue or even challenge the teacher regarding certain ideas or concepts. In India, the teacher talks and the student listens. Just last week, I spoke to my 13 year old cousin who explicitly stated, “School is so boring. All we do is lug around big text books from school to home and back and we sit in class and the teacher will explain something on a basic level and we are expected to study the rest all by ourselves.” I guess not much has changed where the education system is concerned.

So there I was, playing the quintessential role of an “Indian teacher or professor” who was expected to talk “at” her students rather than “to” them. I just wouldn’t have it that way. In the last 10 years of living in the USA, I have acquired a new taste for academia that allowed me to express my views in class, as well as foster multidimensional ways of learning. I wanted to share that with this batch of students, and although they were quite resistant and uncomfortable with this pedagogy at first, they quickly learned to warm up to it. For instance, in the first few classes, I would ask the students questions or try to elicit their thoughts on the topic, and was showered with a deafening silence. I would even try to interject humor in saying that  “it’s OK to answer, I don’t bite”, but would inevitably end up answering my own questions. It was tough to be in a completely different position as a professor, sometimes leading me to doubt my teaching skills and knowledge.

But things eventually turned around, like they usually do with most things in life, and the students started warming up to my teaching style, engaging me in dialogue, asking questions more frequently, and sometimes even challenging what I was saying. They became more involved in the process, and with each class, we looked forward to each other and were excited to engage in academic scholarship.

While this (initial) attitude of the student’s bothered me, they made up for it by their respect and reverence to me and the teaching profession. I have to say, one of my biggest culture shocks in the USA was the expectation that I was to call my professor by their first name. It was really challenging for me to do that because it was alien to my Indian culture and background. I was horrified when I called my first professor “Anne”, although it was the academic norm. In India, we call our teachers “Mam” or “Sir” as a sign of respect. It also creates a professional boundary between the teacher and the student, which I believe, instills certain values in the students. Of course, the idea that in a lot of cases teachers will abuse and exploit this distinctive boundary, is yet another story for another blog post.

At my first class with these students, I heard the word “Mam” precede a question and I did not respond to it because I thought it was targeted to someone behind me. So I did a double take: I turned around (to look behind me) and immediately turned back and responded to the student realizing that the question was meant for me! It took me a few classes to get used to the idea of being referred to as “Mam” instead of Rochelle.

Another example of the level of reverence that I am referring to could be seen every time we had a little tea break. One of the students would prepare a little plate for me with a snack and get me a glass of chai or cold drink to my seat. That I chose to mingle with the students and poke around the snacks, is a different matter. On the last day of class, I could see the hospitable and respectful nature of the students shine through as they insisted that I “hand out completion certificates” to each one of them and one of the students gave a small speech thanking me for my time and knowledge. I was touched.

When I did my second teaching gig, as a guest lecturer for one class at Sophia College – an esteemed all girls college in Mumbai – I was once again referred to as Mam. This time, I was almost expecting it, but still not used to it. I observed a mix of students, some of whom were very interactive with me and curious about everything I said about Family Counseling; but most of the students just stared at me, probably thinking what a quack I was for wanting them to be more engaged in my lecture.

This experience has been so different with the one in the USA, where sometimes, it would be uncomfortable to teach to graduate students because they felt so free to express themselves, even to the point of being rude or disrespectful to the professor. I do not know if it was this particular college per se, but there were some days that I did not look forward to teaching. Political drama, on part of the students (because they were at so much liberty to express themselves), was some thing that was allowed to occur.

In any case, as someone who has taught in the USA and is now teaching in Mumbai, I can see a vast difference in the role and contribution of the professor. In a couple of weeks I will be doing a workshop on Pre-mprital counseling and I am hopeful that I will have a better idea of how to prepare and what to expect from within the academic culture.

On a another note, the noise pollution in Mumbai continues to kill me because there are many days where I can seldom hear my own thoughts. Where is my return ticket to San Francisco?


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