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Teaching Theatre in India: Sophie Bawa - Bollywood, Human Photocopiers

Posted by Peter Barnes on March 24, 2019 at 1:13 PM

When Sophie Bawa started teaching theatre in India, her students thought they were going to learn about Bollywood movies.sophie bawa

I met Sophie, a UK theatre teacher, in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

We spoke about her experiences teaching in India, how she was impressed by her very well behaved students' massive respect for education. And the students' mistaken belief that theatre was the same as the loud, colorful, singing and dancing movies produced by the Indian film industry.

We also discussed “human photocopiers”.

 Listen to our discussion on the Learning Capacity Podcast


Topics covered

  • Teaching theatre in India
  • Challenges and rewards of being a foreign teacher in India
  • Cultural differences between Indian students and UK students
  • Teacher training in India
  • Human photocopiers

People & organisations mentioned

Resources/books/articles/places mentioned

  • New Delhi, India

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

Episode 93 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Rebuilding a Brain After Chronic Inflammation: Sarah Rasborsek 

Peter Barnes:            Today's episode of the Learning Capacity podcast comes from Rajasthan, India, where I'm speaking with Sophie Bawa, a UK theatre teacher.

Sophie has been teaching in India and we speak about her experiences teaching in a different culture, how she was impressed by her very well behaved students who had a massive respect for education.

And we also discussed “human photocopiers”

So, Sophie, you worked in India. You're a British teacher. You worked in India in an international school for a number of years. Can you tell us how that came about and what were the biggest differences for you coming from a school in the U.K.?

Sophie Bawa:         I came across the job while I was traveling, and it was a teaching drama position in an international school. I'd been working in the U.K. for approximately five years in quite a large secondary comprehensive. And so the change for me going from a comprehensive in a secondary education system to a private international school was quite dramatic.  

The first thing I noticed was that students had a massive respect for education. The students I was teaching came from quite affluent families, but they really, really valued what education meant to them, and they were very, very well behaved. I found myself kind of not having to deal with any classroom management which had been an issue in the U.K.

I think a lot of the schools in the U.K., particularly where I was teaching, there was quite a few issues with behaviour and management of those classes. So to suddenly find myself in a school where students just were so, so keen to learn was really quite a wonderful experience.

Peter:               So, was it more enjoyable as a teacher?

Bollywood or theatre

Sophie:             Yeah, because you can teach what you love as opposed to managing the classroom. Yeah, and theatre is very different in India as well because they see Bollywood as opposed to theatre. 

So every student kind of saw their idea of theatre being this Bollywood movie, and for me it was a really great experience to come into and teach them about theatre and how to see the world through theatre, and get them to kind of identify themselves through theatre, which was really enjoyable.

Peter:               So, it was an international school. Were you teaching only international students, students from outside India, or was it a mixture of Indian nationals, or what was the student population looking like?

Sophie:             It's an international school so there are a lot of children from other countries but predominantly the student makeup was Indian students, although many of them were British passport holders, but they had lived in India for quite some time. So we followed a British school system with the IGCSE program which then went onto the International Baccalaureate. So most students were looking to go out of India for university level.

Peter:               So this was a really upscale demographic that populated the school. Yes? Yes.

Sophie:             Yes.

Classes of 40 students in Indian schools

Peter:               Did you have any experience with kids down the scale at all, lower socio-economic groups, or did you know any teachers or others in India who were working in that part of the education sector?

Sophie:             I knew teachers from other Indian schools that weren't considered as being international, and they have very different experiences of teaching. They had huge classes. I was teaching classes of maybe 15, 16 students, and they were teaching classes of maybe 40, and the schools were massive. They were teaching students in schools of 2,000, and our school, when I first started, had no more than 300 students and that was right from primary up to the upper secondary.

But the students that were in my school were from predominantly wealthy families because it was a fee-paying school and also international students, often their fees were paid for by their embassies. So they have their education covered as part of their packages when they were traveling.

Peter:               Are there any things that sort of shocked you, any differences that shocked you in either a positive or negative way about your experience teaching in this school? It was in New Delhi, wasn't it, the school?

Huge pressure from parents on students to achieve academically

Sophie:             Yes. I think the pressure of students having to do really well was quite interesting because parents put an awful lot of pressure on their students from a very, very young age.

It was almost like they had this vision of where they want their children to be and what they want them to do, and so even children in nursery and reception, there was already this kind of plan put out there for where they wanted their children to go to.

So children as young as maybe five and fix would often go home and have tutors in the evening. Many of them were reading and writing very quickly. Lots of students in the secondary school would have tutors in the evening, they'd all have private tutors, which I kind of found a bit odd because I thought maybe you ought to be getting all of your education from the school that you're in.

I understand if you're struggling a little you might go and seek a tutor to get support, but most students were going to see tutors outside of school. So if they needed extra help or if they wanted to do well in their exams, all the students had tutors.

Peter:               What was the effect on the students? Did it tire them out? Would it make any difference to ...? Did they get jaded?

Sophie:             I think sometimes it perhaps made them a little lazy because if they didn't quite get it in the classroom, they knew that they could go to their tutor and their tutor would go through it with them.

We did have an issue once where a tutor was tutoring so many of the same students and actually doing a little bit more than they should've been doing in terms of submissions of work that we kind of had the same work being submitted, and it was clear that there was a situation of the tutors being given a little bit of a request to submit work for them, so we kind of realized that the tutor situation needed to be addressed.

But I think when you're in a class of 15, if a student didn't understand their work, they would just go to their tutor in the afternoon, and I think it could make some of them lazy in some of the subjects.

Peter:               And what about the parents? Did you have any interaction with the parents sort of tapping you on the shoulder and wanting to push their kids or wanting you to help their kids more or just getting involved? You said before how they have a vision of where their child needs to end up in life and education's a pathway to that.

Sophie:             'Cause I taught theatre, so often I'd get students being told to not take theatre because they didn't see it as a subject that they could possibly have a career in, so I often had battles, not battles, but conversations with parents where their children wanted to take theatre as a subject, they've started talking about the possibility of following that as a career in university and parents were just very unsure about it.

They wanted their students to do economics, they wanted their children to be going to the medical profession, be lawyers. So yeah, it often opened a door of why theatre was important, but also it was quite hard to see a student who clearly had a vision of where they wanted to go but they [00:03:30] couldn't necessarily take that path.

And actually, I've had a few students who have been in touch with me over the years who have gone off to university, they've studied the degree their parents kind of pushed them towards and they've then gone back into the arts and they've gone and got another degree in theatre, or they've gone and done a year’s course post-grad in theatre and they're now doing what they wanted to do.

So I think it's changing the mindset as well of maybe families and their expectations. And I think that's globally. I don't think that's just ... It may be more prominent in the school I was at, just because they had a little vision where they wanted to go.

Human photocopiers?

Peter:               A senior Indian business executive once said to me that a lot of Indian education seems to produce human photocopies, i.e. that they learn a lot of things by rote, they get a lot of tuition and so forth, and they can pass exams, but they can't think creatively or work in groups. Have you had any experience with that?

Working in the arts, teaching arts, teaching them theatre is certainly not rote learning, it's not producing human photocopies. Have you got a comment on that comment?

Sophie:             I actually agree with it because we would often find ourselves with some of the brightest ... I mean, some of the students I taught were just ridiculously intelligent. It was frightening. They'd submit essays and I would be quite overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge that they had.

But when it came to debating, when it came to analytical thought or critical thinking or just stepping outside of the box, they actually do struggle.

I think theatre and the arts is wonderful for opening that door, but yes, I do think that that is not necessarily an issue in the school that I was in because we followed a system, and the IB in particular, International Baccalaureate, is very much about the theory of knowledge and being able to understand lots of different aspects of learning.

But yeah, I think in India, a lot of school systems are very much about giving them knowledge and getting them to remember knowledge and then they were going to take that knowledge for exams, and India there's such a high competition, level of competition to get into university.

Students have to get 99.9% in their results in order to be then given a place at university in India, so it is about knowledge, it is about exams, it is about results and that, I think, is something that's quite difficult because they do just need to answer questions in a lot of exam systems.

I think it's changing though. I do think it's changing, and it has to change because what then happens is as adults, and they go into the workplace, they're not necessarily equipped to independent thinking and that becomes an issue later on down the line, so the system in education in India is changing a lot because of that.

Peter:               And the students that are going through that sort of school system, a lot of them will end up working for multinational corporations who have a work review of corporation of creative thinking, all of that stuff.

Change teaching because of cultural differences

Peter:               You grew up and learned to be a teacher in the UK and you taught in the UK. Then you came to India and taught in a totally different culture. Do you have to change your approach to teaching because of the cultural differences? Or didn't it matter because you're in an international school?

Sophie:           No, I think what's interesting is that we had lots of different cultures within the same school. So when I taught in the UK, a lot of the children came from the same area.

Most of them had gone through primary system together, a secondary system. They knew each other. So what was different about teaching in an international school was that students may join halfway through the year. Students may leave. 

There were students who for whom English was a second language. And there were students from lots of different cultures who had a very different approach, for example the arts. So you kind of found yourself in a classroom with so many different things to consider.

There's lots of different cultures where perhaps making eye contact was not something considered to be done. So as a teacher I may consider that to be rude if a student doesn't look at me when I'm talking to them. But from another culture, that is actually a mark of respect. So it was just being very aware of where people were coming from.

And also taking into account their background story, if they've moved schools every two years and then they sort of walk into your classroom, how that impacts the way that they make friends. What experience, some students have never done drama before in their life, so they were coming into a classroom thinking, "What on earth is this? I only expected to work with these people." And just changing their perceptions on what theatre is and what the purpose of drama was.

                        And it was good because it enabled them to get confidence and allow them to make friends and allow them to kind of understand a little bit about their own experiences within the school. I think drama really helps a lot of students in that situation. And I was in international education as a young person and I travelled round different schools. And drama was just like my kind of safe haven, really. It was the one subject I thought, "I can do this. I know this."

The status of women teachers - very few male teachers in India

Peter:               In India, generally, women aren't accorded the status that they have in the west, generally. Was your role as a teacher, as a female teacher in this school in India, the experience of that was any different for you than it would be for a male teacher doing the same role?

Sophie:        So actually, in India, you have very few male teachers. So 95% of the teaching staff were female. I think at one point there were like two male teachers. So it's an interesting profession because it's considered to be quite a kind of feminine dominated profession.

But at the same time there is that cultural background where ... which is changing, where women are traditionally seen as to maybe not work. So, yeah I think working with a lot of females was an interesting experience. I think male teachers probably saw it in a very different light. But yeah, it was mainly a female driven staff.

Teacher training in India

Peter:               So, your training as a teacher was all in the UK?

Sophie:             Yes.

Peter:               When you came to India to teach in a totally different system, did you feel like you needed any retraining? Any additional training? Did you need to learn anything new about the art and craft of teaching?

Sophie:             No. I think when you go to a new school anyway, often schools will have a different system with regards to exams, so you might have to take on additional training to be equipped to know what that exam board is looking for. So  the International Baccalaureate I wasn't experienced in at all, because it isn't something that's not ordinarily taught in the UK. So I trained as a teacher with the IB.

But your subject knowledge doesn't necessarily change. It's just that adapting it to make sure that you're teaching the appropriate content to the appropriate group of students.

Teacher training in India is very different to teacher training in the UK. So I went through a post grad  in education. So I kind of went to university, was taught about classroom management, kind of had experience teaching in schools before I actually went and got a job as a teacher. In India they don't necessarily do that. So often the first experience teachers will have of teaching is their first day on the job. 

I actually found myself almost over equipped because I had this background of skills in classroom management, and planning lessons, and starter activities, and plenaries. And a lot of the teachers maybe hadn't had training in that. I used a lot of those skills in the first few years to kind of teach other teachers how to use that in their classrooms, which was really great for me. I really enjoyed that.

Peter:               Fascinating. What advice would you have for any other teacher from outside of India who wanted to come and teach here?

Sophie:             In an international school, it's a great experience. I think India is just such a vibrant country. And I  think in a school you're ... yeah, I really enjoyed it. I enjoy teaching because the students just really enjoyed learning. I think coming to India and teaching is always ... I mean, teaching anyway is always full of challenges, but I think you have to really want to live in India in order to teach in India because there are lots of other things going on outside of the school.

And I think you have to embrace the culture, because it is such a huge part of people's lives. And you have to take that on board when you're teaching a lot and kind of interweave what you know and what they know into the lessons that you teach.

Peter:               That's whole other story, which we could talk about some other time. Thank you very much for your time today.

Sophie:             Pleasure, thank you.


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