Volunteering at the Tong-Len tent school for the past five days has been rewarding, challenging, and exhausting. One thing I’ve noticed from working in the tent school is both the similarities and differences between their classroom and a Western classroom. I must note that I have only really experienced being around a large group of 4 to 7 year olds twice in my life before – once when I worked at a daycare for a month, and once when I was that age myself. Therefore, I’m not too sure of how classrooms in the West are oriented. It’s also important to keep in mind that these observations are not generalizations – they are things I’ve seen in the tent school, where the teachers and students are in a particularly grueling environment.
There are certain things we’ve witnessed that would just never happen in a Western classroom. For example, the kids are often left unsupervised completely. If there is an adult there (often times it is one of the moms who is hanging out at the side while the teacher is off somewhere else), they just idly observe. This means that the children often become very violent with each other. That being said, the older kids will take care of the younger children as well. I’ve seen a five year old comforting a distraught toddler a number of times. Due to a limited number of adult bodies, the children have learnt to take care of one another.
The kids are singled out to stand in front of the class and answer questions. If they do not know, the children are made to continue standing until they do know. Since the children range from around pre-school to grade two level, the more advanced children are called on to lead the class for parts of the day. When the children are left to practice writing or naming body parts in English, the children will help each other while the teacher is focused on helping the younger children.
As in a Western classroom, the children play relentlessly and have an endless imagination. Due to a lack of resources, the children will literally find anything and play with it. I pulled out an eraser the other day and they spent fifteen minutes throwing it up in the air. Once they discover you will play a game with them, they will continue until you end it. They love showing you their drawings endlessly, and never tire of validation. And like all children everywhere, they go a thousand miles a minute and then crash in the middle of the classroom, fast asleep.
All this being said, I’m finding some of the differences hard to grapple with. A major dilemma for me is that the children aren’t nearly as coddled as in a Western environment. When I see a crying child, my first instinct is to comfort them. However, the children at the tent school are often left until they tire themselves out. The adults do not play with the children, which is something we’ve come in and done. I worry about the implications of this– should we not play with them at all? When we see the children hitting each other, do we step in and stop them? These types of situations make me uncomfortable, and I’m not quite sure how to deal with them yet. Seeing as we’re only there for another week, and I do not want to greatly disrupt their established patterns, I have taken to simply following the teachers lead on the matter, even though sometimes my inclination is otherwise.