Tag Archives: change

Being brave or not

When people ask me about what I have done till date, I give them a run down of my two and half years in corporate, two years as a teacher, two years as an entrepreneur in the non-profit space, one year again in corporate (well, almost) and now back to non-profit in education. Typically, this is met with comments around how commendable it is that I have left the corporate world, a few nods around how it is the right cause and sometimes a chuckle followed by “that’s interesting”.
After my first corporate stint, when I decided to do the Teach For India Fellowship, many people told me I was really brave to quit and try something so different (also known as lowly paying). I had a bit of savings, I was supported emotionally by my family & friends and I was in the deep end of the pool. I didn’t quite get how I was being brave simply because I knew the state I was in, when I was leaving the corporate world, and to me it was an act of self-preservation and not bravery.
Almost two years into my startup, due to personal reasons I moved back into the corporate world. To me, coming back was a far braver decision than leaving it in the first place. I had found something I truly believed in and then given it up. During the eleven months I spent there, I noticed that looking down on the corporate life was the new cool thing to do. There were articles on YourStory, ScoopWhoop and the likes – where people proclaimed their suffocation and celebrated their new found independence in their garage office (in Indiranagar, of course!). Their efforts were lauded and well, of course their stories read like a novella.
But what struck me most was how little we speak of the bravery of those who stick it out. The stories of those who have commitments that they cannot forego – home loans, education loans, aging parents, school-going kids, medical bills or simply life. Well, of course when one writes about these things it reads like drudgery – but keeping things going and staying afloat is an act of bravery as well. Sometimes it is easier to escape by breaking the shackles than by staying on and doing a damn good job at it.
Today, I am back in the space that I believe in and want be a part of. But I am also deeply conscious that the decision to be able to leave the corporate world is a privileged one. It is a decision in many cases that is possible because at some point in time, someone else decided to put themselves on hold so that they can support YOU.  It is someone else doing the heavy lifting, while you find your feet. Something about this tells me that, the badge of bravery in this case needs to be pinned on the other person’s lapel.
Of course, it feels good to read stories where someone felt like they were stuck and then they become unstuck. Also, who doesn’t being liked called brave? So I get how these stories are a win for all. But I also think we are getting a bit too loose with the word “brave” here.
If you are reading this and wondering how hard you struggled to get to where you are, how you jumped without a safety net to be able follow your dreams and how I am diminishing all your life’s work by writing this, then you should know that you are probably very brave and definitely don’t need me to tell you that.
But the voice in our heads knows us best.  Once in a while, we need to look within and truly ask ourselves, is it brave to be able to do what we love best or is it brave to stick out doing something knowing you could be elsewhere. The surprising answer (or not) is that it is for you to figure out and not a badge slapped on by anyone other than you.
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The search for a messiah needs to end

Before I start, let me say I am not pro- Congress. The thought of Rahul Gandhi becoming Prime Minister makes me laugh but sober up immediately at the thought of it becoming  real. So please do not leave comments drawing comparison to the Congress ruled years or the 1984 riots. I am not here to justify their acts. It is equally shameful if not more considering they have been in the ruling government pretty much majority of the years in majority or coalition.

The reason I write this is because I see a strange fervour in the eyes of urban, middle and upper-middle class India. My family is included in this as well. I see well-educated, largely cynical , politically apathetic people seeing Narendra Modi as a solution to all problems that mire India.

There are articles on Tehelka and the Open Magazine which offer a view into his PR machinery and how the backend to create this mythical persona works. What surprises me is the willingness to consume media which talks about Modi’s “Rambo act” during Uttarakhand tragedy but the unwillingness to acknowledge there could be a possibility of other truths. There are articles on how blatantly the weaknesses of social media is being exploited (being able to buy followers on Twitter) to shape public opinion. Yet I see youth from premier institutions of education, working population from reputed firms and senior citizens who have been prolific in careers of law, medicine and literature looking away because it is inconsistent with what they want to believe.

When I mention 2002, there are two kinds of responses I get. One which says yes, it happened but look at all the development since then and look how even the Muslims are now happy. The other which immediately talks about the 1984 Sikh massacre and asks me  challengingly “why don’t you ask the Congress about this”.

Sadly, neither of the two responses accept the gravity of what went wrong in 2002. For the first time in India, television was so pervasive that during a riot we could see the fire, people running with swords and deserted streets filled with smoke while sitting in our homes. Even then, it slowly seems to be fading from our collective memory. What happened in 1984 was wrong. What happened in 2002 was also wrong.

The belief that Narendra Modi is the champion of development, he can turn around our corruption laden bureaucracy, he is decisive and action oriented are all our projections because that is what we want fixed in our leadership. We are looking for a messiah to take care of all these huge problems. We do not want to think about these problems being endemic and  that it will take a long time to be resolved. We want them done now and more importantly we don’t want to have much to do with it apart from electing one person and then washing our hands off saying “my job in democracy is done”.

For the vision of change that we have, we need to step up and start engaging more with local politics and decision making. I am not saying we should drop what we are doing and stand for elections. But we need to engage with the ward officers, municipal corporations and civic authorities to start bringing change. We need to participate, ask questions and push for things to be done. If we want to have a say on foreign policy then we need to petition, have debates, make our voices heard and push for action.

That is  just too much work isn’t it. It is simpler to share news articles or photos on Facebook, follow jingoistic lines on Twitter and wait for 2014 for a miracle to strike. Makes us feel like we are participating in Indian democracy and at the same time not really pushing us out of our comfort zone either.

If our defense is that this is the best we can do or we are picking out of a finite lot of rotten apples or rhetorically asking “would you rather be governed by an Italian and her son”, I think it is just sad that we have come to this point where these are the reasons to choose who governs 1.2 billion people.

Elections are not where our job ends but where our job begins. If we want to clean up this mess, we need to get involved.

The messiah we want does not exist.

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Sexual assault – banana leaves and thorns

With the media being cacophonous over the recent gang rape of a young photojournalist in Mumbai it is hard to not just beg for numbness just to escape their empty indignation. Every time such an incident occurs there are debates on fast-track courts, police conduct and consequences in the form of castration or even the death penalty. There are candle light vigils, a few silent protests and then we all go back to our lives making sure the women we know text us the taxi number they get into late night or stay on the phone till our friend reaches back home from the airport.

While it easier to fix the externalities and pretend to solve issues, it seems to be much harder to get people to acknowledge the deep seating misogyny and inequity that lies embedded in our psyche. Of course when one is talking to the press or the media at large or for the sake of an ideological debate the question of “why was that woman in that place after dark anyway?” or “when we know such things happen, the women should just try and keep themselves safe?” would be blasphemous. But walk into a home with daughters and you will hear “Do not go to that place by yourself, its better to be safe than sorry” or “you wear a skirt like that you are asking for trouble” or worse “If someone is staring at you or says something lewd, look away and walk fast to a crowded place. Do not engage in a fight. You do not need to prove anything to a stranger. We all know you are a strong woman.” When I hit puberty, my grandmother told me a pretty graphic story of how if a banana leaf fell over a thorn or a thorn fell over a banana leaf, it is the banana leaf which would tear. Her basic point was to tell me to stay away from boys because whatever happens I am the banana leaf and I would be damaged goods either way.

Yes, I know parents are only trying to protect their daughters and wish for a life without the pain and fear of being molested or assaulted. But what is the message that we are sending out to our children at large. The answers lie below.

The Quality Education Study was commissioned by Wipro Foundation and Education Initiatives first in 2006 and then again in 2011. It was conducted in urban schools considered to be good quality education institutions. In terms of values on equity, diversity and sensitivity, it was observed that there is a deep rooted bias against the girl child even in students from families which probably belong to the educated and higher socio economic strata of the society. This was exhibited by nearly 43% of children in elementary school expressing that if there was a choice to be made, then it is better to educate the boy over the girl because educating the girl in the long run could only be a waste of resources. Also, 15% of girls in 8th standard felt that ‘girls are burdensome to their parents’. Though 15% may seem like a small number, what we need to remember is that this survey was conducted in the better quality urban schools identified for better and sensitive learning environments. This can only lend a perspective on how deeply this bias is ingrained in our social structure itself.

And this, is in urban metropolises like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and not a small gaon in the northern part of India as stereotypically assumed when discussing steep gaps in gender equity. If we go a step before schooling, right at conception and birth of a child we all know the trend of euphemistically “missing girls of India”.

So where are we heading. We are soon going to have a population of 250 million young adults (as per UN population division prediction for 2025) who will be unemployable. One can only understate the kind of social unrest and issues it would be bring.  There is a statistic which says in 90% of the cases of sexual assault the perpetrator is known to the victim. I believe in the coming years that will change simply because I believe that sexual assault is an assertion of power and dominance. I am not glossing over child sexual abuse or women assaulted in their homes or even assaults that happen to women at work places. But I definitely do see an impending social crisis of “educated” (with enrollment being high and dropouts declining over a period of time, there will be more people who complete the so called schooling experience and believe themselves to be educated and entitled to a job) men who grow up believing and seeing women being treated as second-class citizens, not being employed and feeling the need to compensate their sense of masculine power. This I believe will result in assaults on any woman who is seen to be “overstepping her boundaries” – known or unknown.

The only resolution I see to this is a complete overhaul of the way we project the very idea of man and woman. This needs to begin in schools, in media, in popular cinema and lastly our homes. The reason I put homes at last is because I strongly feel that the ingrained notion of inequity between male and female which has existed for years will not change on its own accord within homes unless represented and explained from the outside.

We need:

  1. A structured program to teach about gender equity in schools which means our teachers need to be trained on this as well. No longer just about health and nutrition and micro financing for girls but about being equal in homes, society and the rights over one’s body. No longer just for girls but for boys also. Not just a passing reference in a Social Studies lesson but structured modules with contextually relevant content and a participatory methodology to implement. We cannot have a male teacher scoffing at the content and chuckling while talking about the idea of women being equal nor can we afford to have a female teacher sighing saying all these are meant for books.
  2. Conscious development of content portraying women as equals which does not mean a woman has to be portrayed like a man to prove the point.
  3. Moving away from gender stereotypes in popular cinema will go a long way in shaping future ideas. This would include removal of lines like “asli mard hai to maar ke dikha” (if you are a real man hit me) or even ideas like “ladkiyan aise hi hoti hain, na ka matlab haan”  ( girls are always like this, when they say no they mean yes) or random acts of the male protagonist slapping the female protagonist to get her to see his point (more on this later)

These changes will not yield results tomorrow or in the next year (for that we need to fix our judicial system, police and enforce consequences) but it is about time we consciously start building the future minds and thought processes not gender neutrally but with appreciation and acceptance of diversity and equality.

P.S: I am not saying all the men in India do not value women or all families are plagued with the differential treatment of boys and girls. I am positive that there are homes where things aren’t this way, there are men who value women and respect them. But I am sorry to say that the scale of the issue sadly does not accommodate for these aberrations.




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Change in teacher education

The importance of quality teacher training cannot be emphasized enough. As a facilitator of the learning process in the classroom, the role of the teacher when defined to an ideal scale is nothing short of an omniscient and omnipotent individual who is willing to be a martyr to serve the country by shaping its future.

But the reality is far from the ideal and we all have experienced it in the form of a ‘bad teacher’ at some point in our lives. With the introduction of RTE (Right to Education) bill stating the need for PTR (Pupil-Teacher Ratio) to be 30:1, the known shortage of teachers has been clearly quantified. As per recent estimates, there is a shortage of nearly 14 lakh trained teachers in India and India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh needs 3 lakh teachers immediately to fill its classrooms.

These numbers speak of the number of new trained teachers needed to achieve the PTR target. But what about the existing teachers within the system, their development and training to be social transformation agents as envisioned in the NCF (National Curriculum Framework) documents? Any mention of the NCF only brings the refrain of how it is an idealistic dream which does not reflect the reality on ground. But the question is without an ideal can we work towards change?

I look at teacher training to be built by 4 components shown below:

teacher training.001

Investing school leadership in the importance of teaching and teachers:  The school leadership defines the culture, expectations and the environment in which a teacher performs. If the school leadership does not believe in the importance of teaching – meaning sees it merely as a reproduction of curriculum and oral transmission of defined knowledge instead of shaping minds of tomorrow, then it becomes very difficult for the teacher to deliver her best. Also, structurally schools can be difficult for a new teacher since it ‘keeps teachers separated from one another, reinforcing their isolation and sense of autonomy. Without easy access to one another, teachers may feel reluctant to share problems or ask for help, believing that good teachers figure things out on their own. Even if teachers do get together, they may not know how to engage in productive talk about teaching and learning’ (Sharon Feimen-Nemser, What new teachers need to learn. May 2003, Vol 6). An invested school leadership can help reverse this problem by creating a culture of mentorship, peer review and effective feedback.

Curriculum re-development basis current and future needs: The current teacher training curriculum while having a bit of everything does not really focus on how to truly deal with a classroom where learning levels are low, differentiated needs, disinvested families and changing social reality. The curriculum needs to be re-developed to include not just relevant content in different subject areas but also very specific skills in managing varied learning styles, using student assessment data to inform teaching decisions well defined content and clear steps to build notions of equity and diversity within students.

Teacher training: Our teachers come from the same school system that we are trying to change. Hence mere instruction on revised content does little to bring about the change in the classrooms or empower each teacher to work as a social transformation agent. The teacher training needs to be:

  • Reflective: focusing on questions leading to self awareness like “why do I want to be a   teacher?”, “what are my strengths and weaknesses?”, “what are the changes I would like to see around me?”, “why do I want to see change at all?”, “how can I bring about change?”
  • Participatory: Since the training is to develop skills, attitudes and values to influence others, participatory teaching methodology is important. Giving the teacher real case studies of students where the teacher identifies a problem,describes,analyses,interprets and appreciates the problem and then makes a decision to solve it will only help the learning process be inclusive and diversified at the same time making the future teachers stronger in capacity to act and solve problems.

This also means that along with building relevant content knowledge and grasp of language for delivery, the teacher education can no longer be restricted to 2 or 3 years of training but be a rigorous 4 or 5 year advanced degree programme.

Monitoring and Mentoring of teachers:  This is the area I believe to be the most crucial and game changing of all. I believe monitoring and mentoring of both beginning teachers and in-service teachers is crucial to provide that continued support in skill development as well as confidence building. The monitoring and mentoring can be done by creating structures for experienced teachers to help beginning teachers  as well as having qualified teacher educators review experienced teachers to help with new techniques for the best possible outcomes for the child. Most training programmes across sectors fall short in the area of following up after the knowledge transfer has occurred to ensure continuous improvement in effectiveness as well as going back to the drawing board to focus on key skills. Creating a parallel structure with qualified teacher educators, experienced teachers and involving students is a great way to help build the culture of mentoring and coaching.

In conclusion while I do understand the urgency of providing so many trained teachers I strongly feel the need to change teacher education on above mentioned parameters for sustainable long term change to be a reality.

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Independence Day

I have honestly never understood the idea of a nation or appreciated the sentimentality that it begets. Even though I grew up outside India and it is expected that my identity is defined by the country I was born in or from which my parents belong; I merely saw India as my grandparents’ home then.  I have many a time wondered how is it possible that 1.2 billion people with different dialects, backgrounds and stories feel kinship to an idea called India. There have been days when I have simply summed up the situation as the triumph of economic need to belong to a larger state over the need to carve out an own identity.

This is not to tell you that I have had a change of heart simply because of Independence dayand a few episodes of Satyameva Jayate. But I am beginning to see a kinship with the hope called India with every passing day. Yes, there are issues – not one, not two but innumerable. Inflation, currency de-valuation, illegal migration, corruption, unheard protests, foeticide, education, healthcare, nutrition, environment, caste based discrimination, safety of women –there is not a single news channel that at 9 p.m. talks about something good that transpired that day. It is about all the wrongs done by all those who could not escape the prying eyes of the camera. Of course the media should be vigilant, of course people should be pulled up for trying to hush up a rape case or pocketing 2500 crores meant for the healthcare of the state –but does it have to be only about the bad? This is not rhetoric – its something that I worry about. Is it true that there is absolutely no good happening which is why nothing makes it to the papers or TV? Or is it our choice to only see the wrong simply because the indignation compensates for our inaction in the day.

But even if I do consider the violent opposition of every action or inaction that occurs and the sceptic look that follows the announcement of any intention I cannot help but hope that it stems from a desire to simply see a system working better for its people.

This gooey optimism may not agree with most of you…I would be annoyed too if I made the kind of money you did and then pay the taxes you do! But I guess my optimism is also an occupational hazard. Everyday when I walk into class I see hope, dreams and the joy to make something new. I find it extremely hard to not believe that these kids will not have a chance to realise their potential and live the lives they want. I see them shaping their future one task at a time and incisively moving towards a goal they set for themselves. And something tells me if a bunch of 8 year olds can, then I am sure 1.2 billion across age groups, smarts and wherewithal can figure something out.

I do not relate to the chaos that is pouring out on the streets to resolve issues endemic to the system. But I do see the adrenalin for some form of change and that to me resembles hope – for if there was no hope, we would see indifference and not angst.

I am aware that there are elements who are striving to maintain the status quo to feed their source of power. But I believe that these elements too are now beginning to see the power of the collective.

Yes, there is a lot to be done. Of course you may not tell me but I am sure you think me teaching 30 kids, is not going to change anything for better. But let me tell you something, it is happening – things are changing and the future is looking up. It is for you to smell the wet earth. Like someone once said, some feel the rain while others simply get wet.

I still do not understand what holds all of us together. But I do see the shared past and glimmering future in the eyes of my kids and I feel like I belong to something that is larger than me – maybe it is the idea or hope that someone once called India.

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Journey over destination

So, without too much fanfare my first year of the Fellowship is almost coming to an end. I would be lying if I said the last one year has not changed me and touch me to my very core.

It is hard not to get nostalgic and I believe sometimes it is good to let go only to make for better beginnings for a new journey. When I was training to be a teacher, I believed that at the end of the year I would know how I fared when I see the results of my students. I was naive and to some extent conditioned to believe that the end of year numbers reflected the effort and smarts.

But today as I finished compiling the results, it was a feeling I have not encountered previously. Not exuberance, not gaiety – a sense of completion. This is not to say I was unhappy with what the students have achieved. I am as proud as any parent of 40 great kids could be. :)

But I now know that this does not define what I have seen, felt or shared with the kids. When I see the results I cannot help but see journeys and not numbers.

One such journey is of Sumit – if you have had any remote contact with me in the last one year, you would have heard of Sumit.

When Sumit came to my class this year, he was quiet for an entire week. I assumed he was shy and just needed to be made comfortable. What I did not foresee was the raging battle that we both would be embroiled in for the next 11 months. He believed that I was out to get him and I for the longest time thought all he needed was tough love to get him straightened out. From running away from school, to stabbing me with a compass, to making gangs in school to beat smaller kids up and stealing money from home – he has done it all. I have shaken my fist at him, yelled at him, pleaded with him, even cried in front of him and he did not budge. I still recall vividly holding both his hands and forcing him to read (past experience suggested that holding one hand wasn’t sufficient – that kid is slippery as an eel!). He could barely read three letter words and when I taught phonics he would intentionally connect the wrong sound to the letters. It was frustrating to watch him make cuss words with phonics and for me to pretend to not care.

He would hit someone for looking at him and then hold that person responsible for starting the fight. He would hit girls on their legs and then pretend like he didn’t do it. He was responsible for innumerable parent-teacher meetings where parents of girl children would question my capability of keeping their child safe.  I had at some point resigned to believe that he needed something bigger than me to change him. But I never stopped keeping my eye out for him. The class knew that while I was teaching I was also just waiting for him to pick his next fight.

This went on and last week during the first of the two Math exams, Paritosh sent for me because Sumit was wrecking havoc in class and not letting anyone write the exam. I went to him and pulled him out for our usual conversations. He was ready to give me a laundry list of complaints against everyone else who he felt was mocking him or disturbing him. And I was so exhausted that without thinking I just hugged him and told him to just breathe (more for myself and less for him). He was stumped. He did not know how to react. I held his hand and told him how I believed he could ace his Math paper if only he would put his mind on it. He did not expect this from me. He was all prepared to launch his tirade and I pretty much rained on his parade. I told him how everyone would be so surprised when he does so well and maybe he would feel happier and even less angry. He went back in flummoxed as never before and wrote his exam. The rest of the day was uneventful. The next day during the second Math paper, he asked to sit with me and write the exam. I just saw it as an easy way to make sure the others were allowed to do their work in peace.

But yesterday I finally saw something – a glimmer. The whole class was colouring pictures and so was I and suddenly I found Sumit colouring the other half of my picture like it was the most normal thing in the world. I feigned nonchalance and continued to colour though my head was just bursting with joy that he finally didn’t see me as an opponent. And he casually asks me “which state you come to?” I asked back “Do you mean which state do I come from?” and I was met with silence. I pretended to not notice and said “TamilNadu” and he tells me “tum madrasi hum U.P” and we both continued colouring.

Today I know that Sumit has scored nearly 60% in his Math paper and has grown from a Pre KG level to nearly grade level 3 in English. That is nearly three and half years of growth in one year. But that is not what I want as keepsake. What I want to keep with me is the picture we coloured together and sadly he took it with himself.

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Welcome to the open minded world

40 women came home for vethalai paaku today being navaratri.

Here were a few lines that I want to write down to make sure I never forget them. Though some are so memorable that even if I try I DOUBT any forgetting will happen.

Conversation 1:

Aunty1: Beta, how come you are here? Have you taken off from Gurgaon for Navratri?
Me: Umm no, I live here now. I work in the Municipal School near by. I am a teacher.
Aunty1: Oh my god! I am so sorry to hear that beta!
Me: Well…Aunty, kheer? (die woman die of diabetes and cholesterol!)

Conversation 2:

Aunty2: Beta, how come you are here? Have you taken off for Navratri? Has your husband also come?
Me: No aunty, I work here. I work in a Municipal School near by. I am a teacher.
Aunty 2: Beta, isnt that school dirty? arent kids there dirty?
Me: Umm…
Aunty2 (Not noticing my discomfort): The biggest problem in my child’s school is that hand sanitizers are never refilled properly i mean the school does not care! With swine flu and everything…you would think they would be worried to refill the hand sanitizers on time. I always make it a point to give my daughter one small bottle for emergency. Beta, does your school have hand sanitizer?
Me: I think I got a call aunty..be right back

Conversation 3:

Aunty3: Oh beta! You have grown! You are here now? Oh what about your job?
Aunty2: Oh! You don’t know? She is working in the Municipal school as a volunteer
Me: No. I am a teacher. I teach 5th grade full time.
Aunty3: Oh so you play with them?
Me: No. I teach them. All subjects.
Aunty2 (thinks she is asking an intelligent question): But you do not know marathi…
Me: I talk in English and use a bit of Hindi
Aunty3: They know English?!
Me: Yes they are learning…they are getting quite good.
Aunty2: Can they learn?

Conversation 4:

Aunty4: Touch my abs! I have been working out
Me: No aunty, its ok
Aunty4: No! no..I won’t feel bad
Me: No (looking for mom desperately)
Aunty4: Arre!
Me: One minute haan aunty…Mom! Aunty is calling you (screaming)


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