A Teacher Learns in Jaffna

IMG_7156The schools in Jaffna told a different story. With the war over and its debris cleared, it was now time for the district to catch up with the rest of the world. At the four freshly painted public schools I was going to, I had been assigned the task of teaching the students English, international language of business and commerce, the putative path to success.

But new to post-war development and still learning the ropes, the welfare officer had failed to specify my duties clearly. Thus taking some liberties with her half-baked ideas, I had packed along with dull treatises on English conversation, lots of story books and creative writing worksheets for young learners. With children whose ears had become inured to the sound of shelling, who had learnt to tell time on the curfew clock, I wanted to use a light-hearted approach. But I would learn much too quickly that anything other than the most practical lessons were for another time.

IMG_7063“Only English conversation,” said Mrs Balasingam* on my first day at the first school, “and also grammar.” She was a small woman in her thirties, and had started working at the school three years ago. The losses her family had incurred during the war necessitated multiple incomes, so the college-educated Mrs B had secured a job in a government-run free school, although it was clear from her rigid manner and lack of enthusiasm that school teaching was not one of her interests. Shaking her head at the books I produced from my bag, she handed me the prescribed material. “Children must do good in exams,” she told me by way of instruction. “Prepare children for exams. They need jobs, no?”

It was disconcerting to have my ideas turned down before I could even make a case for them, but within the first week of teaching the kids at the four schools I realized that my ideas were bad after all.

Having lived in India most of my life and aware of the different levels of English fluency that exist there, I took care to use with the students in Jaffna a most basic version of the language, start with the simplest lessons—animal sounds, name the shapes, and so on—while Mrs B watched from the door. The names of the animals were in a column on the blackboard and the sounds they make arranged in random order in another.

IMG_7166“Who can tell me what sound a cow makes?”


“The sound of a cow?”

“Does anyone know which animal barks?”

Blank stares.

This went on for a while before I surrendered and connected the voiceless animals to their sounds on the blackboard and asked the students to copy down the lesson in their notebooks. I went around the room as they did so, and was surprised to find the sixth grade students writing their b’s backwards and failing to copy four-letter words correctly.

It would take a few days to properly understand the children’s weak areas, I consoled myself. After that I could be better prepared. I set forth on my mission right after the bell dismissed my class and went up to Mrs B to inquire about the issues I had noticed.

“No, the students can’t spell,” she confirmed matter-of-factly. “They know only few words.”

I wondered why she had stood at the classroom door for a good hour watching me silently instead of intervening. The lesson had clearly been unsuccessful.

“But how did they pass their English exams in the previous years?” I asked.

“We pass them. If student fails exams it takes too long to get job.”

In the coming days I came to fully realize what I was up against. Every class in every school continued to respond to my overtures with uncomprehending silence. The lessons were now reduced to the most rudimentary form possible—we had downgraded to alphabets and handwriting.


There were just a few girls at one of the schools who cheered and flashed big grins when I entered the classroom, before merging with their classmates into one thoughtless collective. One day when no one was looking I let the girls follow me out to the school ground where I liked to take photos of the students at play; it was the only place in the school that had heart. In no time the girls had huddled around me to peer into my camera’s LCD screen as I did a quick check of the recent shots. A loud and happy photoshoot ensued and before long the girls who didn’t always remember to cross their t’s had successfully completed Photography 101.


*name changed

This is the third post of a four-part series on Jaffna. Read the fourth post here.

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  1. Wow, I can’t believe the teacher didn’t intervene to let you know of their level of English. I think it’s a sad reality that the students are passed through even if they don’t have full comprehension, but for the teacher to not warn you of that is just sad for them. With the right knowledge, tools and teacher, it’s definitely possible for them to learn, but you should have been fully informed.
    Interested to know what happened from here!


    • I agree, Kate. In Jaffna though, the situation is much more complex. During the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka, the teachers in the north received poor to no training and taught intermittently between curfews and periods when schools were closed down. There is so much to rebuild now that the war is over, the teachers don’t know where or how to start, and the government doesn’t encourage international volunteer work either. I feel that more Sri Lankans need to get involved.
      You can read my final thoughts on the subject here: http://paperboats.net/2014/11/25/jaffna-rising/


  2. In a world full of Kardashians and reality tv it’s so incredibly grounding to hear stories like this. It’s so very important to remind ourselves often of what this life is really all about and to have gratitude for all of the things in our lives. There is always someone with less. Thanks for the story and the reminder.


    Liked by 1 person

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