This is what I wrote answering a question in a recent survey:
What do you most enjoy about the (Teach For India) Fellowship experience?
1. The intensity of the experience
2. What it teaches me about the most important challenge facing India – educational inequity. I am fighting this challenge every single day.
3. The children, their innocent, unconditional love and the progress (often inch by inch) that I see them make.
5. The wonderful people who I got to know through the fellowship and the continued association with them.
6. The transformation that I have undergone since May and the constant reflection and questioning of myself. What mattered so much earlier does not matter anymore to me and what never mattered is ALL that matters to me now and I often am astonished at myself for that.
7. That I am able to contribute to building the movement in ways beyond the classroom, while maintaining my work in the classroom as a foundational center point.
8. How the fellowship has enabled me to continuously seek excellence in everything I do.
9. Beginning to understand the immensely interesting, complex, creative and important role of teaching and how gradually ‘Teaching as Leadership’ starts making sense.
10. How I am able to better appreciate and celebrate what my mother did for me and brother. Every single struggle and failure reminds me of her own when she tried to give us the education that would break the cycle of poverty.
“Stretch because it tests you” – Anand Shah
Today was one of those days when everything around you keeps collapsing like a pack of cards. When, every little thing seems to exist just to stretch you beyond the limits. When, a stone seems like a mountain and every step seems like a steep climb. When, hassled and harassed by life and travel in this maximum City, I found myself split into two clones inside my mind. And then, the clones started a reflection conversation peppered with tough questions. “Why am I doing this?” – the question that always seems to bring out that micro bit of the real me. The same question that Race Across America participants get asked a few days into their cycling ride. Most bikers just ignore it. Some think about it and very few tell why they are doing it. This is the question that unravels the vestiges of false pride, ego and expectations in me. Why am I doing what I am doing now?
To begin the day, I traveled from Chembur to S. Cruz to pick up some books for my Children, donated by a kind hearted person from my network. This meant, changing two trains and a long auto ride. By the time I reached School, I was drenched in sweat and exhausted by the travel and traffic. There, I stepped into a classroom full of trash. I have been teaching the kids that a classroom is like masjid or mandir and they should keep it clean like one. So, we started cleaning the class together and just when we were settled and got started with the lesson, another teacher asked us to shift to an adjacent classroom (which had no furniture) because they wanted to use ours for a exam. Last minute changes and surprises. Grrr. Another 30 minutes wasted in the chaos. Anyway, at this point, I remembered some lines from the Teaching As Leadership book. I quote ” The most successful teachers and leaders are quick to make strategic adjustments when incoming data and information signal a change in the circumstances. These teachers bring wise adaptive judgment to their plans as they execute them, staying loyal not to the path in the plan but to its ultimate purpose” There have been so many surprises at School over the last 4 months and something tells me that it is just going to be like this and I must be prepared to accommodate such changes and still keep going, keeping in mind the “ultimate purpose” which is student achievement.
I digress. So, at the end of a really exhaustive day, I walk to the train station, get into a crowded train and it started raining. Not the heavy rain but the constant annoying one. When I got down at Kurla, it was raining heavily. The auto Q line had 50+ people waiting. None of the buses to my route were in sight. I had no umbrella. I was drenched in rain, my extra bag broke and papers started spilling out and that was the point when I thought I had stretched myself fully for the day. Just somehow, when the rain started pounding heavily, I sighted a bus that goes till about a few kms from home. Ran, got in and heaved a sigh of relief. But, when I got down at Diamond garden, it was pouring and I just could not get any auto/cab or bus. Stretch. I told myself. Accept. “Matra sparshas tu kaunteya, Sitoshna sukha dukha da” Thank you Lord Krishna. Kind of you for these words. A year ago, such a day would have left me utterly frustrated, sad, fuming and I would have come home angry. Livid. Not now. Instead, there was a constant reflection going on. So many questions and answers. Debates. Sankirtan in the mind. Cymbals and drums included. There, squished between so many sweaty bodies in the narrow aisle of the bus, I just kept recollecting what Anand Shah told us at the leadership forum – “Immerse because it teaches you. Stretch because it tests you”. If I think this is misery, how are the millions of poor living everyday life in this insane city ? How much more difficult is their life? What soothes their wounds? What brings comfort to them at the end of a tough day?
I don’t know the answers. Back in the barracks, I am just lying down, thinking about this intense experience. I am sure that there are many more such days coming up. How I accept them and learn from them will help me deal with life itself in a better way.
If you have reached till here, God bless you. I’d like to share some ‘lesson learnt’ for a TFI aspirant or applicant:
- When you choose a placement city, be very sure and base your decision on as many solid reasons as possible. (I don’t regret my choice of Mumbai but I do think I should put in more thought into where I live in this city for year 2 of my fellowship)
- As a Teacher, you are already handling so many demands and challenges. Travel to and from home should not be one. Spend time thinking about travel and food. Talk to fellows and friends before choosing to live in a place in your placement city.
- Try to minimise all other challenges and stress factors in life during the fellowship. Everything else that drains your energy outside teaching is going to be detrimental to the progress of your kids.
Yesterday, when the kids and I went out for a visit to the shopping mall, we started at the Food court because we were all hungry ! So, I spotted a McD there and decided to speak to the Manager to find out if they have a special deal for school children from a low income background. He promised to give them all a free softy and a free tour of the spanking clean kitchen cum cold storage.
The kids entered the kitchen, marveled at the way burgers were made, french fries bobbling in hot oil and finally entered the cold storage. There, the Manager asked them, “So, children, isn’t it all fantastic? When you grow up, will you all come and work in a McDonald’s?” Pat came the reply from Ganeshan – “No, Bhaiya, I become Doctor. No burger” !
Yesterday, Gaurav Singh, a Teach For India 2009 fellow gave an interesting presentation at TEDxChembur. Being the first of the 3 speakers, he spoke about 3 things – One need, one solution and one question. His entire speech was built around these 3 points, which made it easy to understand and takeaway. Delivered in chaste Hindi, Gaurav blended his pre TeachForIndia life, decision to join TeachForIndia, the needs of India, his class children (in particular, the story of Ashish) and what each one of us can do.
Describing his TeachForIndia experience as the most exquisite symphony of failures that he has ever created in his life, he talked about encountering failures in the classroom. As a Teacher, I could identify with his points because I face very similar challenges every day. But, what left me inspired was this – “What is failure for me means the LIFE for a kid. What is success for me means a NEW LIFE for a kid”. I have been mulling over this line since yesterday. it is so profound. If a child is not behaving well in the class, not paying attention and just not interested in studying, I could just focus on other kids and not spend a lot of time and effort on him OR take him up as a challenge and invest in him without giving up. Because, if I don’t do this, it could mean that the chances of failure in life is high for that child. Just by persevering with that child, I could be showing him that “one glimpse of absolute quality (one solution)” that is needed to get him to be invested. Just by trying harder, I could be ensuring that the child will someday get hooked and start learning.
The one question: “What will I do about it?” Gaurav has been teaching his kids to ask this question when they see a problem. Rather than just talking or criticizing someone else, you ask yourself – Ok, this is the problem. I see it. It exists and needs a solution. What will I do about it? Gaurav showed pictures of his class kids living this question and reaching out to other classes, teachers, strangers, MCGM officials.TEDxChembur happened right in the middle of a slum community in Chembur-Govandi area. So, most participants were from the community.Gaurav’s speech will soon be available online. I’ll share the video here when it is available.
TEDx Organisers are planning for a TEDxDharavi next year and I hope it is as inspiring as this one was.
Having spent a few months in the classroom (and TeachForIndia) now, I can conveniently classify my life as BTFI/ATFI (before joining TFI and after joining TFI). ATFI could also mean After the Fellowship at TFI, but then, I ll write about this in 2012. Right now, it is too early to say anything about my post-fellowship plans !
So, BTFI, I used to work in the Oilfield , where most workers are on call 24 X 7. I often spent more time traveling to the wellsites than the actual work. Once I got to the rigs, depending on the work, I could be awake anywhere from a few hours to days. The longest has been 2 weeks of intermittent sleep. SO much loss of sleep and hardwork. But, more than the fat invoice and bonus, it was the satisfaction of completing a really challenging job that often brought a smile when we “rigged down” and went to sleep, sometimes even without eating anything. Sleep was more important than anything else.
BTFI, I used to think that the fellowship might not keep me as busy as before and I ll be able to spend a lot of time in doing things that aren’t related to work. And I must admit that I was way off the reality ! I could start rattling off the oh-so-many things to do as a Teacher and a TFI Fellow but then I don’t really want to bore you with all that right now. It is 1:31 AM now and all I want to write here is the sudden thought that struck me when I was in the train today – I am often spending more than 13 hours out of my apartment. In Mumbai, where traveling takes up most of one’s time, this just means School + a meeting + dinner + back home. Nothing fancy. At TeachForIndia, there are regular training sessions, meetings, leadership forums, sharing sessions and debriefs. I had a debrief today. About yesterday’s class that was quite a disaster (oh well, that is another story !Will write about it soon). After that, I traveled all the way from Parel to Parle (Just one shuffle of alphabet but so much of travel !) to pick up digital cameras for my class kids. An acquaintance was giving them to the kids for them to take home and shoot their home, family, friends and surroundings and give it back to us to see what the kids liked to click. Today was the cameras. On other days, it is something else. Amidst all this, it is quite a challenge to try and maintain even a semblance of your life BTFI. Meeting friends, catching up a movie, going for a run or a swim or whatever that you love to do and need time might actually become a challenge if not impossible. I love running and cycling and still find time to do these in this crazy maximum city.I find time to get that coffee at a CCD, watch a movie, go to the beach or just relax at home listening to music. I even managed to go home twice ! Yet, this life is not for the weak hearted or those who easily give up. A Teacher is a juggler. A master juggler. With the To-do s constantly hovering over one; head, a Teacher needs to prioritise everything, manage time effectively and maintain a balance between strengthening what is already going well in the classroom while thinking/researching for ways and ideas to implement that would accelerate learning. But, as I can tell you now, it is the end of a really long, tiring day. I am going to sleep with a smile. I am hungry though 🙂
Challenges. Questions. Tiring commutes. Crushing crowds in trains and buses. Sweat. Headache. Fever. Noise. Pollution. Ankle deep sewage water. Hunger. Insomnia. Austerity. Constant struggle with myself and the outside world. Euphoria one day. Dejection the next. Pat in the back one day. Biting the dust the next. Still, I come to School to see your smiles. To see your eyes light up at my sight. To see you running down the stairs to call me when I have not reached School by 12 30. To see you start using words in English; words that slowly string together into sentences. To see the pride in your faces when you get the answers right. To see that confidence taking shape. I don’t need to look anywhere else for one. YOU are my Yellow Hat.
Sleep at 3.Enter test paper data. Correct test papers. Reach home at 10 PM after being in a overcrowded bus/train for 1 hour. Buy food to eat later in the room. Enjoy the few minutes of silence while having a post-school tea. Retreat into the Tea Shop Cave. Teach/laugh/jump/act/put up a hand puppet show/skit/deal with staff/Principal/rains/non stop high decibel noise/open manholes/wandering cows – for 5 hours. Eat Parle G for lunch. Drink tea for lunch.Rush to School to be on time.Drenched in Sweat.Dead tired.Catch the train, switch to bus/auto to School.Carry one backpack and another bag full of teaching aids, stationery, charts. Brave the merciless elements. Eat vada pav for breakfast cum lunch. Wake up with pain in every bone and muscle because of insomnia. Go to Sleep at 3 AM.
Teaching is austerity.