Friday, July 03, 2015

The Joy of Small Things

I have had a great last month in terms of learning. It's been hectic. It's been intense. It's been tiring. Being the third long week in a row, the pace was beginning to cause some fatigue.  To keep me going, I just needed a reminder of my purpose. And today's over night stay in the community was just the answer.

I spent time with three families, each different from the other. In Devika's, I saw the potential of an invested parent. In Snehal's, I saw the potential of an invested teacher. In Sakshi's, I saw the willingness to challenge the status quo.

As I moved from one to another, the houses kept getting getting smaller. The love, however, remained unchanged. Whether it was treating us to grand meals, sharing with us their life stories or listening to our journey in the fellowship, I saw the same sense of warmth and openness flowing through.

I am currently sleeping in a house which is less than 100 square feet in area. I am sleeping in a house with 7 other people. I am sleeping on the floor, with a thin bedsheet and my bag as my pillow. There is no toilet or shower. Even then, I am feeling at home.

I am at home because I am free from judgement. I am at home because I see selfless giving. I am home because I see respect and humility working both ways. I am at home because I have all the minimum things I need to live well - a roof on my head, food in my stomach and love for the heart.

I do what I do to stay connected with my self. I teach for India to constantly challenge the biases the world forces me and its kids to conform to.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Their Legacy

I just completed the first week in my new role. Through the week, I had a growing understanding of what I must do to achieve my goals and fulfil my responsibilities. Moreover, I had a deepening understanding of how the fellowship had changed me to be able to see everything through a different lens. 

While talking to the incoming cohort of Bangalore city, I realised how much of my present self is a function of the experiences of the last two years with my students in Jafari. Those 35 kids have left an imprint on my life that changed me in ways I am only beginning to imagine. 

My children taught me to be thankful for everything that was going right. I remember a time when I was struggling with class in the absence of my team members. This absence had thrown a spanner on my ambitious plans. I stopped seeing the outcomes of my actions until I receive a letter from Mehak, one of my students. She said it was a difficult time for them and me. In my actions, she saw my strength to stand up for my friends to help their children.  In my high expectations, she saw my believe that they could all be excellent. In the link to vision slide of every lesson, she saw how each lesson was not only teaching her Maths and Science but making her a better person. The values I was focusing on were self control and teamwork, but she was learning much more than what I had intended. 

Having a strong focus on excellence meant I set unrealistic expectations from myself. Not meeting those expectations led to a constant feeling of pessimism. In my conversations with children who faced far more challenges in their 12 years than I have in the 29 years of my life, I learnt optimism. I learnt that it is okay to let go. If not today, then tomorrow we will get there. It's useless to make a small failure a representative of who you are. Your time in your life is flying and every day spent without hope and purpose is a day wasted. Even more so in the fellowship when you cumulatively have only 320 days for a herculean task. 

Being strong at critical thinking and problem solving often made me not see the humane side of things. I used to struggle in understanding the people behind the roles and identifying the place they were coming from. Often, I was hard on my children when I started teaching because I did not know them. To solve for their problems in classroom forced me to understand their stories - to truly feel what they were going through. Seeking to understand them showed me the power of empathy in planting seeds of change. 

Being in the classroom, I learnt to trust others and believe in the power of collaboration. In class, the only ones truly in control are the students. The only way for me to be able to change the weather was to let go of the illusion of control and empower the students - it was only then that I would be able to reach out to every child across the achievement spectrum in my classroom. The more I did that - the more it freed up my bandwidth to focus on bigger goals that I had for my students and the more it made my students drive their own learning.  

Lastly, I learnt the value of grit - just sticking out through those difficult phases. My children came to school despite not being able to sleep at night for the lack of electricity and the excess of heat. They came to school despite their mother being hospitalised. The girls did all their homework despite having to do a far share of the housework. I had to persevere in the classroom as they persevered in their own lives. A stream that flows constantly can permanently shape a mountain. Nothing never changes. 

During the two years of the fellowship, I did not travel much. However, the fellowship took me to  more places that I had never imagined, beautiful places that were hidden inside me waiting to be discovered. My 35 companions helped me view the places through different lens. I don't know if I had transformational impact on the children, but I surely had a transformational journey.

Monday, April 13, 2015


I was going to school today feeling a sense of finality of everything. The exact same pre-school morning routine. Packing my bag after checking for all the essentials. Meeting the same people in the lift, other children who go to better resourced schools and their parents. Taking a rickshaw to school with the meter reading between Rs.44-46 everyday (as per the latest fare revision - fares changed thrice during the two years). Reaching school before 7:10AM, the time for the first bell. Signing in on the teacher's muster. Leading my class line for the assembly. Being greeted by a "Good Morning" by my students.  Setting up the class for the lesson - the closing lesson of the year. Taking attendance. Executing it to the tee, well almost. The video collage of photographs of some of the key moments of our journey made them realize that this was the last time I was taking a lesson for them. That was when it dawned on them and me that I had only a few minutes left in that class as their teacher.  

Students started to rest their heads on the table. Students looked away from each other - avoiding eye contact. A tear dropped roll down Kaneez's cheek. On the other corner, Firdos started crying. And gradually the grief of parting spread to many others in the classroom - Mehak, Zeba, Madiha, Farhin, etc. I wanted to appear strong. I did not want to make the kids to feel any worse.I kept stepping outside the class time and again on the pretext of work, while I was actually just wiping a tear that was waiting to roll out of the corner of my eyes. I asked the kids to pose for some photographs, making the girls laugh by passing random comments with the help of the boys. After around 30 minutes, we managed to get out of the gloomy phase and set up for the open house.

And then I met the parents. They asked me "Who will teach them after I go?","The kids really like studying with you. We are not sure how their next teacher will be." and "Why I was leaving?" Those questions hit me like a hammer hitting iron kept in the furnace. I was not sure how long I will be able to hold. To make matters worse, Zeba's mom started crying. I consoled her - telling her I will be around and reachable - but both her and I knew that wasn't always going to be true, that things were going to change forever, that I was no longer going to be her teacher. Even then, I did not cry.

The kids left with their parents. I sat in the classroom watching the charts on the wall, soaking in every moment I had left in MY class - Metamorphia. I read the anthem and the pledge. I stood at the place where I would start my lessons from, my most common view of the classroom. I stood at the window from which I could see the homes where some of the kids stayed. I stood in the corridor looking over the door to my classroom. I stood waiting for someone to come, something to happen. But no one came and nothing happened. 

I wished the other teachers good bye and sat in the rickshaw to home. That was when it hit me - it was over. This was not just another end of day procedure. The dam of tears that I had held back through the day burst in the form of a river, that trickled down my face. I didn't try to wipe them. I didn't try to stop them. I knew that nothing could stop them today. No words could console  me. No hugs would bring happiness. No person would bring me peace. The void that was to be filled was deep.

When I taught my students something, my students taught me much more. They gave me a part of themselves and I gave each of them a part of me. Today, when we said the good bye, we knew that something in each of us had changed forever from the first time we had met. We were not individuals but a living body that was a sum total of all our thoughts, values and voices. Going our separate ways, we would never truly be alive again in the same way.

Today, I am depressed that the journey is ending, but in the future, I am going to take great joy and pride in the fact it happened. I have two educational degrees none of which have taught me how to live my life. I have worked in two organizations before this, but the intensity of learning in the fellowship was incomparable. No amount of power, money or comfort could replace what I learnt going back to school to those 35 stunning children everyday - the courage to endure and rise above the challenges; the compassion to be gentle when I was vulnerable; the wisdom to make hard choices; the stories of truth and hope; excellence without excuses; honesty without fear; and the children's philosophy of life and living. Most importantly, the road that leads to a country where all children attain an excellent education is long and what I have learnt in these last two years is going to be invaluable while I am on that path. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

It's the climb

The Ups and Downs of the TFI Fellowship in Jafari

Off late, I have been thinking a lot about whether my students have made any progress at all. However, I think I was always asking the wrong question. I should have continued to ask myself "What have I learnt? How have I made others feel? What are the bonds that I have made?"

I had this realization after speaking to one of the students who was a part of the Maya project in Pune. She told me, "When you think about where you are, you may feel you haven't done an excellent job. At this stage, I would ask you to think about how long and difficult the road you have covered was and what you learnt from it." Children can unscramble life in the simplest of ways to help you rediscover the 'why' again!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

To the A-Team of the J-School

I can't imagine how much more difficult the last two years would have been without each of you. You have been with me through each trial and tribulation and through every success and jubilation. You are the incredible 11 who I have had the fortune of working with during the 2 years of the fellowship - my co-fellows, my co-travelers and my friends. I am writing this post to deeply express my gratitude to you.

I worked more closely with you than anyone else in the team. We had our backs against the wall with the children barely showing any progress at the end of year 1. We put our heads together to envision a classroom like Jafari hadn't seen in a long time. We saw a part of that vision become a reality, even though the reality was short lived. We were able to drive a sense of focus and a love of learning in many kids - sparks of which are still alive in many of the kids. We were consistent in our high expectations, which has forever made me believe that any kid can deliver if excellence is demanded from them in every small thing on every single day. I couldn't have believed in the potential of every kid had it not been for what we achieved together. I couldn't have kept reinventing myself when faced with repeated failure had it not been for that belief. I owe my sense of possibility to you. 

If I were to call someone a Universal Giving Tree, it would be you. The selfless and unending support that you gave us during the first year of the fellowship helped us handle the multiple crises in school this year with equanimity.  Despite your incredibly difficult first year, you came back and truly transformed the environment in school to make it conducive for the new fellows. I had always been a lone warrior but your conduct taught me the value of compassion, empathy and trust in human relationships. To inspire others to action is the toughest thing and you did it with tremendous ease, which is why you will always be someone I look up to.

I know you believe you are a disruptive fellow and you have let your actions impact the well being of your class and your self. Considering the amount of stress you have faced working with just half the team for more than 3 months in this academic year, you have done incredibly well. Many others would break down a lot sooner than you did. I take pride in my tenacity, but even I feel that this time, the burn out is palpable and has impacted my effort in the classroom. You have shown tremendous resolve in just being there in the classroom everyday. You have shown a lot of care for our team, in ensuring we are not alone on the most difficult days, the ones that mattered the most. It takes a lot of courage and you have plentiful reserves of that.

Despite not being in the same grade and teaching the same classroom, you have been one of my most active thought partners and sound boards. I have almost thought aloud everything on my mind and in my heart with you. You have always given me sound advice and unrelenting support. The second year in particular would have been impossible with you, considering how much our grade team struggled with serious and unexpected crises. I would love for us to work together in the future as well because of your high levels of accountability, professionalism and wisdom. Stay strong and remain the source of strength for people around you!!

You are a big man with an even bigger heart. I have rarely met a better listener than you. We could turn to you at any moment and you wouldn't disappoint us. You would always be there for us - giving your free hugs, massages or advice. How I have missed that this year!! There are few people who have a deep sense of conviction in their dreams and you are one of them. I am glad you have chosen the path you have, for it will bring out the best in you.

You have one of the most innovative approaches in the team and it shows in the way you engage students in the lessons. More importantly, you also actively document and share your experiences and reflections with us, which pushes us to think harder about integration. Whenever it comes to creativity in the classroom, I always turn to the examples you share with us. The cool way in which you deal with the classroom of adolescent 8th graders is commendable. It has helped you create one of the strongest culture among classrooms in Jafari. Harvard has a lot to gain by giving you an opportunity to join their ranks. Always remain a thinker and innovator and don't get caught up in the details of management - leave it to mortals like us!!

Last year, you were the 9th fellow in the team. If there is one person we have all missed this year, it is you, considering we have had only 7 fellows in school everyday most of this year. Through you, we could connect with the kids in ways the framework of the fellowship didn't allow us. Through you, we could keep the team sane in situation of crisis - because you were one person who could handle and teach any class on the floor at a moment's notice. We could share our frustrations with you knowing you would always understand and never judge. Even this year, despite the distance, I have always turned to you for help (in matters pertaining Neerja and the kids) and you have always responded in time. You would make an incredible teacher, considering the passion you have for kids. I hope someday you come back to work for them and spread many more smiles!!

You have been able to create trust among kids beyond a level that is comparable. Your deep connect with each of them amazes me, because that is a teacher that I haven't been able to be (partially by design, partially because of lack of aptitude)!  This year unfortunately saw you out of action at many different points due to circumstances beyond your control. I wonder how different things would have been for Neerja and me if you were there through those days. We have missed the sense of calm you bring to the sections on our floor. We have also missed all the dirty talk that lightened up our days last year - in the company of Jigar, Harry and Neerja. I hope you make the most of your new found freedom in a new country!! 

For a first year fellow, you have shown tremendous grit in coming to school every single day of the first year. After institute, Jafari hits you as a rude shock but the calm nature you showed during the first few units was commendable. Not just that, you had Rajesh's huge shoes to step into having most of his kids in your classroom.  You did well to reach out to each of them. In the month of September, agreeing to merge your classes for the sake of our grade when your class was beginning to show a semblance of culture was a huge sacrifice you made for us. I couldn't imagine how Neerja and I would have lasted the month had Piyali and you not stepped in to help us. Your passion for achieving success with these kids is eminent. I hope you always remember the reasons for taking on the challenge in your mind, before thinking of the reasons to compromise on your vision for your kids.

You started slow but your learning curve has grown steeper with time. There were many days in the last term you may have felt like not coming to school, but I am sure the kids saw those days as a show of your strength and grit, eventually respecting you for the effort you put in for them and complying with your directions. I am immensely proud of where your class has reached as far as management goes. Six months ago, I would have never thought I would say this but I see you as a 'voice of reason' among the 14ers considering the way you built consensus in the team in discussions we have had off late. In Jafari, seeing success is incredibly hard and I know you are struggling with it. I hope you develop a keen sense to reflect and identify your small achievements. More importantly, it is even more important you celebrate them whenever they come. That will always keep you going.

You are the man who saved our life. You probably had to do the toughest thing to do - leave one family and call another one your own - especially with the other one being what it is! The struggle you have faced teaching across the three classrooms with varying cultures has been humongous, more so with us not always being available to help you. Yet, I have never seen you shy away from stepping into a tough situation and taking control. Your levelheadedness and maturity beautifully balances Subhankar's visionary streak and Sara's critical thinking. With the right amount of shared planning in the vacation that incorporates learning from the last few cohorts as well as closely coordinated execution, you can lead the grade team and the school team to success. 

They say the true colours of people show clearly in the face of adversity. We have had more than our deserved share of adversity during these two years. I see each of you has shined even more brightly as the months have gone by - even though some of us are in a place where we don't see it yet! 

As we end the fellowship and as some of the battle scars heal, I hope we never forget that we stood together despite everything that went wrong - not giving in and not yielding. I wish we see the success we achieved and the lives we positively touched. I want us to leave holding our head high - without regrets.

PS: I have been doing this Gratitude Experiment the whole of this week. You should try it out too to get off the hedonistic treadmill.