Potlatch science teacher Laura Wommack will walk into her first day of class wearing traditional Indian attire, which she hopes will spark some questions from her students.
"It's a salwar kameez, it's what less traditional Indian women wear," said Wommack, who taught for five weeks at A.K. Ghosh Memorial School in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. She said she returned to Idaho this summer with a better understanding of herself.
"Every summer I look for something that's going to benefit me as a teacher and help me grow," she said. "I don't want to be the same teacher every year that I'm teaching. The more personal growth I have, the more my kids are going to benefit from that."
Wommack received the opportunity to go to India through the United States and India Education Fellowship. When she received the news in January, she was reluctant to go because her mother was diagnosed with cancer, but in the end it was her mother who convinced her to go.
"She was really, really excited when I told her," Wommack said of her conversation with her mother about the opportunity. "Mom passed away in March, and I knew she would want me to go. It became something that I knew I needed to do."
Now that Wommack is back in the states, she hopes to bring a sense of perspective to the American education system.
"America tends to feel like throwing money at the problem is the way to solve all of our educational problems, and you really get a sense that that's not the only solution," Wommack said. She described her classroom in India as bare-bones, with glassless windows and bench-type desks packed with as many as 80 children.
"That's the learning experience for these kids, and they're still learning. They obviously do well in our universities. We just need the perspective that really I can be a fabulous teacher with a lot less if I have to," she said.
Wommack taught seventh-eighth- and ninth-grade science to students who she said were remarkably similar to her Potlatch pupils.
"It was really funny, how similar they are. You go that far away and the kids are like, identical," Wommack said, adding the biggest difference was the respect she received.
She explained her Indian students' respect for teachers by telling an Indian story about a scholar who comes across a god and a teacher.
"They show respect in India by touching people's feet, and he couldn't decide whose feet to touch first," Wommack said.
The respect made teaching easier, but she also found being American was beneficial. "They were so excited to have someone there from America. That made it a lot easier."
Although English was the students' second language, communication was not difficult for the bilingual children.
"For them, it's just so natural to know two languages. They were very literate in English also. It was very interesting. They were bright, bright kids," she said.
Wommack laid out a display of assignments from her students. In India she was provided with material she had to cover but was able to design her own assignments. One of those assignments was a cartoon about the digestive system from the perspective of a consumed apple.
"They all looked at me like I was crazy, and they were kind of laughing but they were totally into it," Wommack said.
She said she learned a lot about herself while creating her teaching plans because there was so little space in the classrooms to work, and she was provided with less-than-exciting material.
"They made tour books of the excretory system of the toad. Exciting, right? They give you the driest stuff in the world," she said.
Wommack brought to India some hands-on learning tools from her internship with NASA last year, but found the environment of the classrooms was not conducive to interactive learning.
"When you walk into a classroom that's just packed with little bodies, in the middle of a neighborhood where there's no outdoor space, you realize pretty quickly the hands-on, interactive stuff you're used to doing is just not going to work," Wommack said.
The adjustment coming back to America also proved difficult. Between the culture shock, poverty, crowding and inescapable noise in India, returning to quiet Idaho took some getting used to.
"Just sitting in the house and hearing nothing but silence was pretty crazy the first couple days," she said.
Wommack said she was grateful for the experiences she found in India but she was also grateful to have avoided one experience.
"I didn't really meet any parents," she said. "There really isn't anything scarier than an angry Bengali mother. So I was really glad I didn't make any Bengali mothers angry."
One memory stood out from Wommack's last day at the school when a boy came running out of the classroom to say goodbye.
"I turned around, and he gave me a little keychain and said, 'I just wanted to say thank you for coming and teaching us,' and he touched my feet," she said. "It was just so unexpected it took me aback."