Breaking Educational Norms in Nepal by Putting Students First

Written By: Laura Handy-Nimick

One of the great things about being a teacher and working on Life's Handy Work is that, at times, my day job and non-profit life collide.

This is one of my favorite collisions.

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Greeting others is a norm at my middle school. Upon arriving at school, students are welcomed into the building with music, a "good morning" and a high five. Dawn, our head custodian, has become our chief door greeter, with students joining her to greet their peers as they enter the building. Then, as students enter their classes throughout the day they are greeted by their teachers. These greetings usually entail a high five, kind words, or in the case of my friend Anna's students, a handshake followed by a silly question like, "dinosaurs or dragons?" Greeting students has become part of our daily routine and part of our culture thanks to the whole child emphasis at Sumner-Bonney Lake School District and implementing strategies from CharacterStrong.

Greeting students seem like "small potatoes" when thinking about the gauntlet of challenges schools and teachers face, but the reality is that time spent making students feel valued and welcomed from the moment they enter school establishes a personal connection, conveys a culture of caring, decreases behavioral challenges and increases learning.

Before traveling to Nepal in July, I reached out to Prashana Bista, director of the Chelsea Education Community Center (CECC), to see if there was anything I could do to support their teachers, some of whom are children of Nepal Orphans Home and whom we've had the privilege of supporting during their time in college.  Prashana was eager to put me to work improving learning for the younger children who were coming to CECC for an extra two hours of school after finishing a full day of learning at their primary school. I knew right away that creating consistent, positive and personal connections with their teachers was group zero for increasing engagement.

Last summer I had the privilege of taking a working road trip with Anna (dinosaurs or dragons lady) to a training put on by CharacterStrong, a company that trains teachers on social-emotional teaching and learning. Throughout the weekend Anna and I solidified what we've always believed about teaching and learning; when we value students as unique individuals and ensure their social and emotional safety, we can do amazing things in our classrooms and school communities. I was eager to take their work international and apply it at Chelsea Center.

After spending some time observing, I met with Sumi, a class ten student who was teaching younger children at CECC after she finished school every day. During our meeting, Sumi expressed frustration that her students were disengaged and had poor attitudes about attending her classes. I explained greeting at the door as the first step towards better attitudes. She seemed skeptical but was on board.

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Over the next week Sumi and her students connected each day on their way in the door. She high fived, checked-in and laughed with them as they entered the room and prepared for the next two hours. Their moods shifted and their desire to be there increased with each day she was at the door waiting for them.

A few days in and Sumi and her students were ready for another CharacterStrong strategy. After previewing the day's lesson for students, Sumi took 3-5 minutes to check-in with them by asking about their day. No learning was to take place during this time - just personal connections.

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On the first day, Sumi used the 0-5 finger strategy. Nonverbally, students told her how their day way. She followed up with a quick whip around the room for explanations from every student. Students shared their successes, lamented about how tired they were, and confessed that they were stressed about their homework.

The next day she used the thumbs up, down or neutral strategy, asking them to nonverbally share how school went that day (remember, they are coming to her straight from a six-hour day at their primary school), which was again also followed by a quick whip around the room for an explanation. One boy shared about an experience he had being punished in front of his entire class for not completing his homework while others shared their frustration with the monsoon rains or their nerves about upcoming exams.

Even though we'd never talked about how to reply, Sumi responded with empathy, kindness, and concern. Students felt valued, heard and supported in less than 5 minutes.

Then, the learning began.

Throughout the week I witnessed noticeable changes in Sumi's young students. Students who were responding to external stress by acting out or being unable to focus were focused, openly asking for help, and enjoying their time with Sumi even though it meant more learning at the end of a long school day.

In Nepal taking time to connect with students is not part of the educational culture. Learning is rote, students are meant to be seen and not heard and they are often left behind when they don't learn skills fast enough. The teachers at Chelsea Center, including Sumi, are an exception to these norms. They are kind, compassionate, and eager to think outside the box. With a little help from CharacterStrong they are supporting students in Nepal in ways that make them feel safe and valued while breaking unhealthy and restrictive cultural norms.

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About the Author: Laura is a co-founder of Life's Handy Work, a non-profit supporting orphaned children in Nepal, and a full-time middle school teacher of 15 years. She currently teaches leadership and language arts while also serving as an ASB advisor at Lakeridge Middle School. In addition, she is on the Nepal Orphans Home Board of Advisors, focusing on improving education and teacher training in Nepal.