Finding a Foothold

During my first week at Akshar, I felt less like a teacher and more like an anthropologist. I spent most of my time observing classes and taking notes on a variety of topics, including teaching and disciplining strategies, curriculum, interesting conversations, and classroom setup.

To any future ETA who’s reading this, I would highly recommend that you ask your coordinating teacher to give you a couple observation days. I liked seeing how other teachers structure their classes because it gave me a better sense of how students would respond to my teaching style.

And my other piece of advice? Be patient with yourself. Don’t expect to understand everything on the first day – or even within the first two weeks.

Life at Akshar tumbles along at its own pace. I’m sure it’s the case at many other schools in India and elsewhere. I joined in the middle of parent-teacher conference week – which also happened to be exactly one month before students had to take their Block 1 Exam. Needless to say, the staff room felt like a tornado. Teachers gossiped about the parents they met, swapping stories about which conferences went well and which ones went poorly.  And every once in a while, there would be momentary panic because a few teachers had left to meet with parents and no one was there to substitute for their classes.

Staff Room

The staff room. The windows are usually kept open so you can feel a cool breeze.

In the middle of all this, there were conversations going on about exams that had to be written, syllabuses that needed approval, and the preparations needed for Independence Day .

So you can imagine me sitting in the middle of all this – not knowing the difference between a Block Exam and Class Exam, not knowing the curriculum, not knowing the names of my students or most of the teachers, and, all in all, feeling very confused.

Now, I’ve started my third week at Akshar. I still don’t know what a Block Exam is, but I do feel like I belong at the school much more than I did during the first week. I’ve filled in most of the squares on my timetable. I know where most of the classrooms are. And I even know the three different bell schedules that the school uses throughout the week.

After observing many classes, I decided to teach English sections to Class 3, 7, 8, and 11. (In India, people say  “Class” instead of “Grade.”) I’ll also work one-on-one with Special Education students who receive extra help in the Further Education (FE) Room.


The U.S. State Department sent these teaching materials to all of the ETAs. Collectively, the books cover all aspects of language acquisition (reading, writing, listening, and speaking.) The activities will probably be most useful to my students in Class 3 and 11.

I love talking with teachers during the (rare) quieter periods of the day. Never have I worked at a place as warm and welcoming as Akshar. I’ve only been there for a couple weeks, and already several teachers have invited me to go shopping for saris at New Market, take a tram ride through the city, watch theater performances, attend lectures, and visit cafes. And there isn’t a day in the staff room when a packet of biscuits or a bowl of muri isn’t being passed around.

I laugh to myself when I think back to the perky email I wrote to my coordinating teacher a couple months ago: Which areas in English do you think your students need the most help with? I would love to get a head start preparing lesson plans and activities while I am in the U.S.

What was I thinking? Did I actually think that I’d be able to write lessons before meeting my students and experiencing Akshar’s school culture? I doubt my coordinating teacher – or even the best anthropologist – would be able to capture the school’s structure and culture in a single email.

These things can only be understood through observation and experience. I’m glad that most of the confusion I felt during the first few weeks has dissipated. Asking questions – and sometimes asking the same question several times – is the best way to learn.

I look forward to sharing more about all the ups and downs of my journey at Akshar. Thanks for reading!

Traveling by Train

As the train crawled out of the station, a short man began pacing up and down the aisle. He was one of the many vendors who made their living selling goods on trains. Carrying a metal bucket full of Bisleri water bottles, he shouted: Pani, thanda pani. Pani, thanda pani! (Water, cold water!). A few minutes later, another man came–this time selling chow mein and paneer pakora. My friend, Arjita, laughed when she saw my expression of surprise. “Trust me,” she said. “This is only the beginning.”

It was mid-afternoon and we were taking the Ipsaat Express from Jamshedpur to Kolkata. Located in Jharkhand (a neighboring state of West Bengal), Jamshedpur is known as “Steel City.” India’s largest (and oldest) steel plant, Tata Steel, is located in the center of the city. It’s also home to a Tata Motors factory that used to manufacture railway locomotives and currently manufactures construction vehicles. (These are just some fun facts. We didn’t go to see the steel plants–we went to speak with teachers at an NGO.)


Jamshedpur is a 4-5 hr train ride from Kolkata.

The strangest thing I saw on the train? Probably the man displaying a red, checkered bedsheet to the passengers and shouting, “One bedsheet for Rs. 60; two for Rs. 100!” Either that or the vendor who had fifty colorful rumals (handkerchiefs) draped over one arm and fifty pairs of socks slung over his other shoulder.

Watching the vendors was, to say the least, very entertaining. On the train ride to Jamshedpur, we didn’t see a lot of vendors because we rode in the air-conditioned car. (Indian Railways doesn’t allow too many vendors to sell goods in the AC cars).

On our return trip, we saw many more because we sat in the non-AC car. Most of them walked through the train cars multiple times. Every time I heard the words paneer pakora, I was tempted to buy one. But being from America means having a relatively frail immune system when it comes to eating street food in India, so I had to say no.


The non-AC car wasn’t as hot as I expected it would be. Probably because it was July and the height of the summer was in April/May. Halfway through the journey, I did however feel myself catching a cold. It was probably from all the different waves of air rolling over my skin. The air inside the train was warm; cool, dry air was blowing from the ceiling fans; and warm, humid air was blowing in from the open windows.

By the end of the five-hour journey, I was sticky and shivering. My cold was gone by the time I woke up the next morning, so I don’t think I was really sick–just confused by the changing temperature inside the train.

Taking a train is definitely a must-have experience for anyone who is visiting India. I tried to capture my experience here, but it’s really one of those things that are better experienced than simply read about. Traveling by train–even in the AC car–is also relatively inexpensive in India.

And who knows? You might just find sipping Indian Railways chai and reading a photocopied book to be the best part of your journey.

Our Hazra Saga

For two long weeks in early July, various characters drifted in and out of our home – mostly to deliver and install our household appliances. I still remember the phone call we had with our landlord before moving in. “No appliances? No problem! Fridge, stove, water filter microwave, washing machine – I’ll buy everything and it will be there before you move in.”

I’m pretty well-acquainted with IST, so I didn’t have high hopes that he would keep his promise. As I expected, only a lone microwave was sitting in the kitchen when we moved in.

And then the saga began. Phone call to the landlord. A promise that the appliances would be here in one day, two days tops. No appliances. A few more phone calls. Fridge and washing machine arrive. We plug in the fridge but can’t figure out how to assemble the washing machine. Mechanic comes (unannounced) one morning to install the machine. He realizes the machine is missing a piece so he goes out to buy it. And so on.

Our landlord lives in Durgapur, which is a three-hour drive from Kolkata. So most of the time, we were on the phone with his staff members, Tapn and Vicki, who would then call their other staff (whose names I never found out) to deliver and install the appliances.

I found our situation more comical than cumbersome. I didn’t feel like I had a reason to complain – I knew that we would eventually get the appliances. For some reason, reassuring myself that I won’t be stuck in a situation forever almost always comforts me. I think the cliche way of saying it is “This too shall pass.”

For a couple weeks, we were sharing one key between the three of us. The landlord always had three keys – he just couldn’t give one copy to us because he needed to keep it in the bank. (Some legal formality.)

So Tapn gave us one key and took the second one to make a copy of it. Three times he came with a new copy and – even with a little oiling – none of them worked. I’m thankful that the copy he made yesterday clicked.

All in all, our Hazra saga is reaching its denouement. There’s only one question left: How will we fix our leaking water filter? Every morning when I wake up, the kitchen counter is flooded with water. We don’t mind wiping it, but it’s dangerous to have pools of water around our electrical appliances.

It’s wishful thinking, but I’m hoping there’s a plot twist and that we can get our filter fixed by this Monday.

(Or, you know, at least next Monday.)

Living in Kolkata

After receiving the Fulbright ETA grant, I had many conversations that went like this:

“Congratulations! Where will you teach?”
“I’ll be at Akshar School. In Kolkata. It’s the capital of West Bengal.”
“Wow. So where will you live?”
“I’m not sure, I’ll see when I get there.”

And then the other person would give me a slow nod. Kind of like the nod you get when you say you’re an English major – except slightly more concerned. Of course, I would then explain that the United States-India Education Foundation (USIEF) had carefully planned the house-hunting process and that a real estate agent, a broker, and local college students would guide us through every step. (Although, most were still skeptical even after hearing this explanation.)

Thankfully, house-hunting was a smooth process – much smoother than I could have imagined. I will always be grateful for the support we received during our first week in Kolkata. I can’t remember the exact number of apartments we saw – I think it was five or seven though. In any case, it was a lot.

The college students (Swatilekha, Uzma, and Sarajit) not only helped us negotiate with the landlords, but also gave us advice on each neighborhood’s safety and proximity to the metro. Aside from apartment-hunting, they helped us do our initial shopping (pillows, bedding, cutlery, etc.), buy SIM cards, and get metrocards. I was jetlagged, but I’m glad we were busy and outside every day during that first week. Otherwise, I could have easily slept all afternoon and felt homesick.

Now, I am happily living with two other Fulbright ETAs – Payal and Tamar – in a three-bedroom apartment in Bhowanipore. We live off of Hazra Road and our flat is about a 5-10 minute walk from the Jatin Das Metro Station.

Each bedroom and the living room have AC – which is a luxury. The bathrooms also have geysers (water heaters) – which is also a luxury. If you don’t have a geyser, the only way you can take a hot shower is by boiling water on the stove and pouring it in a bucket. I’ve only used the geyser a few times so far; I’ll probably use it more often in the winter.

Side Note: The ETA program in India is nine months long – but our landlord refused to rent the apartment to us for anything less than eleven months. Initially, I thought that paying two extra months of rent was a waste of money. But now I’m thinking – maybe it would be nice to spend some extra time in Kolkata.

Family, friends, Fulbright ETAs/Researchers – you are more than welcome to contact me if you want to stay with me in Kolkata anytime between April 6 and May 28. My roommates will be leaving (at the latest) on April 6, so we will have two empty bedrooms.

Kolkata is a wonderful city – definitely email me at if you’re interested in visiting!