Thursday, March 15, 2012

I don't want to be a "teacher".



Akash Pandey. Shrikant Landge. Shivam Unecha. Shivam Kanojiya. Jasmine Sangma. Pratiksha Meshram.

These are not six names that get the class data up. They are people. Brilliant, wonderful, pure-hearted, fun-loving kids. Being in Grade 6 in a low-income school located in one of the most violent communities in the city, they think, write, talk and perform at Grade 7 level. (Or higher. Or maybe they’re right there. I’m not too sure how to judge that.) And the best part is they do this without help.

I don’t let them sit in class anymore. During Math, they take a Grade 7 text book and leave the room. They sit outside in the corridor and figure out the new concepts themselves. Last week, I guess they got a bit bored, so they got up, held on to the bars of the window and gave us all a demonstration of the behaviour of monkeys in a zoo. Everyone laughed and I took the opportunity of explaining the meaning of “fence” to the class. “See, we’re visiting a zoo and this is where the monkeys are. What’s this wire that’s separating us from the monkeys? It’s called a fence. Umm.. Akash, I’m pretty sure monkeys don’t make that sound.” We then carried on with solving perimeter word problems, everyone having understood that when we ‘fence’ a garden, we need to know the perimeter.

And even though the fact that the kids outside didn’t get reprimanded by me for getting distracted from their “classwork” or disturbing the rest of the class was a very subconscious act on my part, it once again reinforced a rule that I have made for myself and my kids- “My kids will never suffer for being brilliant.

That sounds a bit unfair on first reading. Maybe this would be better explained with a quote by C.S. Lewis- “And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to do another and harder and better one.” Fair enough.

Or best with an example- The six of them ace at all Grade 6 concepts. Weekly and monthly assessments show 100% mastery. But their brilliance is not limited to academics. They know how to have FUN. They know how to DO. They argue with me like any other 11 year old kid for their “PT period”. They scream when they’re happy, play like 5 year olds and love watching animated movies. Their books are up-to-date, their presentation flawless and I can leave the group of them unsupervised with the most important exam of the year and know their integrity won’t allow them to cheat. In one word, they’re BRILLIANT.

But what is the consequence of being brilliant. Academically speaking, here. Is it reward or punishment? If they can solve 5 out of 20 sums in a Grade 7 worksheet, should they be made to solve and excel at the remaining 15? And that’s where my rule applies. My response to such a situation would be- “What do YOU want to do? We could take those 5 sums you solved, make a worksheet of 30 out of those and you could perfect just these category of sums. Or we could try figuring out the remaining 15. If you want, we can move on to a new topic and come back to this later. Or do you want to just chill right now?” My response will NEVER be- “Look at your classmates. Are they allowed to leave a few perimeter problems because they can’t understand them? No! You HAVE to do what everyone else is doing.” Your reward is to do another harder deed.

I don’t want to be a ‘teacher’. My kids will never suffer for being brilliant.


I don’t want to be a ‘teacher’. We’re a team. That’s how I go into class every morning. “I am not their teacher. I don’t feel like a ‘teacher’. This is a team that I’m a part of.” Every morning, I’m scared of failing my team. We’re a team, trying to be better-equipped human beings and I, being already a little better-equipped, have more responsibility. But no, I definitely am not a ‘teacher’. And this, this “we’re a team,” plays out in many ways.

My kids are not afraid to question. And by question, I don’t mean questions like- “I don’t understand how good becomes better and not gooder.” I mean they actually QUESTION. And they know they can. They won’t take down a sum I solve on the board as an example; they’ll solve it themselves. And point out if I’m wrong. But that’s not even the best part. When they point out a mistake, they don’t do it with glee that their teacher thought that 1 multiplied by 2 gives 1; they understand now that mistakes are okay, mistakes help us learn. They know people are allowed mistakes.

In the beginning of the year, we read a story about a father and his son out on a lake shooting ducks. It took me a good three days to get them to figure out why exactly the two of them might want to shoot ducks. A week ago all 58 of them came up with- “The fly looking at a strand of hair which resembles a golden wire is probably sitting on Malinga’s head. So it also probably means that that piece of wire is curly and not straight.”

A question in a comprehension assessment I gave them two weeks ago asked- “Do you think people today are greedier or less greedy than the characters in this story? Explain your answer.” Aman, one of the lowest performing kids in the beginning of the year, wrote- “I think that some are greedier and les greedy because there are some of are have much money then they become greedier, and who are poor are not greedy. What they have they are happy in that only.

I was proud. But I felt a lot more respect than pride, because a team member had progressed so much. I felt pride because I had never taught them to answer such questions, I had never given them any strategies to think up of answers for such questions. But my kids knew they were allowed to think on their own, that trying was never punished and that they have to know that it’s only the lack of trying that was wrong.

I don’t want to be a ‘teacher’. We’re a team.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The race against Educational Inequity

Is it possible to win the race against educational equity? Is there a race at all, or did we lose decades ago? To me it feels like a diseased organ; we can operate and try to save it all we can, but the deterioration is continuous. Or constant, to say the very least. Not to sound like a 4th standard English essay, but when we look for the root of the problem, it all comes down to the population explosion. Try as hard as we may, it is humanly impossible to achieve equity. There are SO many factors to be considered. As unfair as it is, thousands of parents need their children to work, to earn money, so that everyone survives. Exists. Can we blame these parents? Finally, every person will do all they can to keep existing. It's a basic human trait. So, no, we cannot blame them. Thousands don't have ACCESS to schools, or education in any other form. Physical access, that is. This at least has a reasonable solution- SETTING up schools. Scenario: Construction workers who move from place to place, city to city, and cannot physically afford to get their kids admitted in a school, since their own presence in the place is so dicey. Plus, as the child grows older, they are expected to work with the parents, get some more money into the family so they can go on surviving. And the cycle continues. The solution here would be to set up temporary "schools" for every construction site for just a few (maybe 2) hours a day. Who will take the initiative? The government? Maybe not. So then ordinary citizens like you and me. It will work, it makes a lot of sense and it is oh-so-noble-an-idea. And yes, it WILL work. Even as I write this, I'm filled with inspiration; my head is exploding with ideas and possibilities.
In a few hours, as I calm down, I know there will pose 2 big questions before me: (1) Can I really do this? I will need so much support- physical, monetary as well as emotional- where will I get that? (2) Finally, will it make any difference?- The 1st question being about NOW, the 2nd about LONG TERM.
About NOW. We're all scared. All of us want to live happy, comfortable lives. We like to laze around a bit, just hang out with friends, catch a movie or two, and never leave our bubble of comfort. Is it selfish? Not at all. We WANT to and SHOULD keep our own happiness our first priority. Giving up our lives and our comfort and our happiness for anything or anyone else is not a solution. But maybe we can step just a little out of that bubble.. Believe me, the thrill and the rush and the joy of doing something we all know is GOOD- it's a different category altogether. Even if you know you can't physically help out, you could donate a small part of your salary to the cause. The cause? Hundreds of NGOs support it, but no one trusts those anymore, and with good reason. But figure out a way- sponsor a child's education by getting him admitted to a government school, donate your old books, pens and pencils, ask your maid to send her son/daughter to your place where you could teach him/her to read and write for 2 hours a day.
About LONG TERM. Exhaustion usually causes us to stop and reflect- is this really making any difference? The parents are obviously not interested, the child not responsive. After all, how does one child, or a few children's education make a difference, really? Big question.

I recently got selected into the Teach For India Fellowship, in which Fellows will be placed as the class teacher for a particular class in a low income municipal/private school for 2 years. The aim is to bring every student forward by a year and a half from their present level of understanding, especially in English and Math. The selection procedure is tedious and difficult and the publicity is widespread. The pros: TFI gets only the best and most dedicated from a huge number of applicants. Publicity is crucial, extremely crucial and getting the right publicity is hard. Being a complete noob at PR myself, I have the highest respect for those who can actually succeed in getting sponsors and supporters. Cons, however: The publicity makes most people look at it as "glamorous". What they don't realise that there IS no glamour, just a LOT of hard work, a LOT of patience and a LOT of dedication, self assessments and adjustments. But, again, is it wrong that most people are attracted to the glamour? Maybe not. As long as the group of people can make a difference, with whatever incentive whatsoever, it's not entirely wrong. Though then the question arises as to how much of a difference people with the wrong goals in mind can actually make.
One of the Fellows from the 2010 batch asked me whether I think 2 years in a classroom will make any actual difference. I said no. 2 years is too less. Any step towards actual educational equity must be a complete overhaul. It it possible? Right now, all we can do is all that we can do. Hats off to Wendy Kopp for the brilliant and inspired initiative and for all those who have worked to make this work. The question remains, what next?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Right to Financial Abortion

What is the right to financial abortion?
The question is whether men deserve the right to be able to control when they become parents. The different aspects of this right include-
1) The right to decide whether to go ahead with abortion. (Especially as far as unmarried women are concerned, it is only the woman who gets to decide whether to abort the child or not. The opinion of the man may be taken in some cases, but the final decision is that of the woman. This may be true even in the case of married couples, though having regard to financial and other conditions of the couple, the decision to abort or carry on with the pregnancy may be of both the parents.)
2) The right to avoid all financial responsibility for which he may be liable, for costs of pregnancy, childbirth and finally for the maintenance of the child, if the father asks for abortion and the mother decides to carry on with the pregnancy.
3) The right to avoid all financial responsibility as stated above, by informing the woman before sexual intercourse that he shall not be responsible therefor, provided necessary precautions are taken by the man, or by the woman with the information of the man, to avoid conception.

Is giving the man or the father, as the case may be, the right to financial abortion a step towards gender equality?
The argument on behalf of women may be that it is the mother who bears the physical responsibility of bearing the child through her pregnancy, it is her body which goes through painful changes, and in most cases, it is the mother who has to nurse the child till he is old enough to be able to be brought up by someone other than the mother. It also undoubtedly involves a major lifestyle change for the woman. All the man has to do is bear, or SHARE, the financial responsibility, in the case where he does not want the child. The argument that the non-willing father has to bear the financial responsibility without custodial or visiting rights seems weak, and is in most cases, circumstantial.
On the other hand, the argument on behalf of men is that bearing the financial responsibility for another human being involves a significant lifestyle change as well along with making job flexibility nearly impossible.

Failure of contraceptives- Of course, the most common cause of an unwanted pregnancy is the failure of contraceptives, whether a condom worn by the man, a diaphragm used by the woman or a contraceptive pill taken by the woman. In case of necessary precautions taken by either, and failure thereof, with whom shall the decision to abort or carry on with the pregnancy lie? It seems unfair that the decision should not rest with the person whose contraceptive failed, as the fundamental reason for using the contraceptive in the first place was to avoid pregnancy. (Of course, the primary reason for using a condom or diaphragm may be to prevent transfer of a sexually transferable disease, but it can be safely assumed that avoidance of pregnancy will be a secondary reason here.) So, for example, where the diaphragm worn by the woman tears and she conceives, it does not seem right to make her entirely financially responsible for the child.
The same argument can also be applied in cases where the vasectomy or tubectomy fails, or in cases where the man or woman has been informed by a doctor that he or she is infertile.

Alternatives? Where the woman is opposed to abortion on moral/ethical grounds, the man may be made responsible for costs of pregnancy and childbirth, after which the woman has the option of giving up the child for adoption. This option is, of course, only available in cases where the woman refuses abortion on moral grounds, but does not want to be responsible for the child after birth.

The third aspect of financial abortion, that is, informing the woman before sexual intercourse that he shall not be responsible for the pregnancy in case of failure of contraceptives falls within the argument given above, that it is unfair that the decision should not rest with the person whose contraceptive failed.
In other cases, I believe that the man should not have an absolute right to completely give up financial responsibility.