Janet Hansen has been obsessed with India ever since she was a young girl and her father gave her Rudyard Kipling to read. “As an adult, I learned more about the social and historical realities, but I still associated India with mystery and adventure,” said Hansen, now an English teacher at Sonoma Valley High School. Hansen returned in August from spending the summer in India, all expenses paid by the U.S. State Department, having read about the opportunity in the pages of the Index-Tribune.
Hansen joined the nine other American teachers selected for the program in Kolkata, a city of 4.6 million that was the former capital of British India. She was assigned to the Ballygunge Shiksha Sadan School of 2,500 girls, which covers kindergarten through 12th grade. Her days were spent teaching, touring, meeting State Department officials, attending receptions and receiving cultural training, with a highlight of the trip being her visits to private homes and conversations with Indian families.
The goal of the India Summer Teacher Program is to increase cultural awareness and collaboration between teachers. “The subject area knowledge, the teaching skill and the enthusiasm of the teachers I met and worked with was inspiring,” she said. “It was so useful to hear about the different educational reforms developing across the U.S., and to share and compare lesson plans and strategies with my American and Indian peers.”
“I wanted to learn how India produces so many successful students in such a rigorous curriculum when large numbers are poor, speak a variety of home languages and have varied cultural and religious backgrounds. Indian education has made amazing progress, but still the percentage of teens in school is very, very small. What we are trying to do here – to prepare every single teen in America for college and career, at no charge – is not something they are even close to yet. It helps me to remember this when working with struggling students – our ideal of education for everybody and our vision of an unlimited future for all children is the foundation for our democracy. Visiting India made me so proud of what we’re trying to do in California,” she said.
The Embassy officials, the American Councils for International Education and the Indian host schools treated Hansen’s group with deference and respect, “like we were extremely important people who were experts in our field. And of course we actually were a very well qualified group of teachers, but none of us had any experience being treated in that way. I think it made us view ourselves a little differently.”
While housed in a private room in a historic hotel with a beautiful pool, Hansen was busy from morning till night every day. She had thought that she would be asked to teach an American curriculum, but instead taught the Indian curriculum, using American techniques (and grading papers late into the night, just like at home). The atmosphere of her school was surprisingly similar to her childhood Catholic school – granite stairs, standing up when teachers entered the rooms, hall monitors, uniforms. “It’s like a traditional British school – houses, forms, prefects, head girls – it’s very Harry Potter,” she explained.
Some highlights from Janet Hansen’s trip to India included:
• “Standing at the Persian Gulf in Dubai – 250 miles to Iran and 117 degrees in the shade.”
• “The crazy, sweet girls at my school and their daily requests for my autograph, their interest in our holidays, pets and homecoming dances.”
• “Sitting on the terrace of my exquisite Agra hotel room watching the Taj Mahal emerge from the morning mist.”
• “Haggling in a rural market to buy a Bengali folk instrument for my son to play in his band; receiving an impassioned music lesson from the merchant/maker.”
• “Picturesque, beautiful rain ponds full of lovely green water surrounded by tropical plants and grass huts – the extremely toxic washing, drinking and drainage site for whole neighborhoods.”
• “Visiting New Light, a program for the children of impoverished sex workers, and seeing what is being accomplished there for pennies on a slum rooftop in Kolkata.”
Hansen is now back at the high school, teaching a full schedule of English classes, helping with senior projects and coaching the Forensics and Mock Trial teams. She is excited about the work the school district is doing with Common Core Standards, and she especially enjoys her role as the school’s librarian. Up next? She is thinking about working on her doctorate, and might even take the Foreign Service exam while she is still under the age limit.
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Note: This program has since been discontinued, but teachers interested in similar opportunities should visit the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs website at: tinyurl.com/kburhtu.