Saturday, March 05, 2016

My Why

While I haven't been blogging, I have been writing more religiously than ever before in the form of weekly reflections to empty my mind and synthesize my learning. Over the last few months, I have been exploring the many reasons behind why I do what I do. I am going to capture all these reasons in this one post on my blog.

Story 1: Students' Self-Awareness 
I saw a beautiful example of the connect between the classroom and community, through the learning circle Siddharth conducts every morning with his kids. It was great to see the students discussing issues like "challenges faced by working women" in which Siddharth roped in the guest Ms. Kamal Bajwa, who was accompanying me. Kids asked questions like "What were the problems you faced as student?","What values did you show to overcome them?","Are those values still useful?" (not exactly with this grammar, but headed in this direction).

I asked them why their first response to getting into groups was to find other people of their gender. A student named Pawan said that "When we are outside class, people make fun of us if they see a boy and a girl together." It was great for me to see a grade 4 student being aware of the society's action and not basing his choice on judgement of the opposite gender.

Story 2: Inspiration from and for Parents

I went to the community with Archana to understand the root cause for the lack of educational attainment. The first round of primary research indicated factors like financial constraints, lack of secondary schools, interest in studies and safety as the top reasons. The five-why approach brought out two startling beliefs that lie at the core of the challenge - the belief that every child is God's gift and the belief that women are entitled to nothing but the service of men. The underlying challenge was fundamentally different than what the symptomatic challenge was. I was amazed at Aliya's parents ability to articulate the problem with its many complexities. Given their views, actions and own journey of change, I feel safe to know Aliya and her sisters are on a different life path and happy that I have contributed to their journey in some way.

Story 3: The Change In Your People 
I was thinking about the reflections that Meghana, Gowtham, Ashwini and Navneeth shared at the end of the EoU step back in terms of their observations on the way the team operates and the beliefs that drive our choices. The first time we had the conversation in our MY Retreat in October, we spent almost 2.5 hours debating where we were on some of these aspects. Most of us had an increased sense of awareness of how we were operating which helped us align in 30 minutes this time. I saw a similar trend emerge in our strategy discussion that followed where we weren't just open and honest with one another, but open and honest about our own beliefs - using the words "I see", "I wonder" and "I think" with increasing confidence over the two rounds of discussion.

Story 4: Alignment With What You Truly Love 
I enjoy photographing, writing, travelling, strategic thinking and teaching science for I love creative expression, perspectives and curiousity. Underlying these is my inherent habit of observing, learning, detailing, creating and sharing and a tad-bit of adventure. Underneath all of this, lies my love for confirming or discovering patterns in the way people around me and I make choices that impact the world. This probably explains why I could do with little photographing, writing or travelling during the peak of my classroom journey because I was fully indulging in my love for patterns while executing my plans for the classroom. It explains why I enjoyed teaching science more than math in the secondary grades because I could make the students see connection between their choices and their world everyday. It explains why my hobbies are all the ones that allow me to be a spectator than an active participant (for example, sports). It explains why operational delays tire me and strategy and reflection excite me. My current role allows me to focus on what I love for a large part of my time.

Story 5: Lowering the Stakes Without Lowering Expectations 

Each of my eight team members are extremely passionate about children and work relentlessly towards their educational outcomes. However, we know the work we do is hard and we do laugh our way through the stressful phases. This balancing of lowering the stakes without lowering expectations and remaining focused without stopping to see the lighter side of things is crucial to sustenance in our work. Lucky to have a team aspiring for this very balance!

Story 6: The People 

Not a day goes by when I don't feel challenged, pushed and provoked by someone who I work with. Having worked in other organizations before, I know it is a rarity.

Story 7: Opportunity to Change Mindsets 

What the world needs is people who are aware of multiple aspects of the ground realities, who process information they intake with wisdom and empathy and who question with reason have the humility to admit they were wrong. Through the spaces we create and the change makers we meet, we have the opportunity to do just that.

Story 8: Better Humans, Not Human Resources 

 It was interesting to hear Jo share that curiosity is the need of the hour in our education system. Our system has evolved to systemically remove it from every child's psyche. These young girls conforming to an 'acceptable pose' in the photograph made me wonder how we have created an assembly line to churn out better human resources instead of better humans.

Story 8: Power of the Collective 

 The problem we're trying to solve is complex, but to think we can do it alone is foolhardy. Bringing stakeholders together to build a shared understanding is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Story 9: Change in Students 

Many many stories of values learnt and followed, goals set and achieved, challenges endured and overcome and beliefs lost and restored.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


In a planet with a life of five billion years in a universe with a life of nearly fourteen billion years, the average life of a species is between 16-25 million years. Considering our propensity for choices prone to self-destruction in the long run, I will be surprised if we even touch the million year mark considering how young we are as a species. Darwin's law of nature has been created by man and he will have to break the law if he has to play a longer role in the story of our planet.

We live in a world that measures success based on economic and political growth and power. In such a unilateral world, how are individuals going to break free from measuring their own success in terms of money, achievement and power?  What will make them think about the future cost of their present choices? Unless the way countries perceive success changes, individuals are going to tread on the same path.

However, that is a restrictive mindset to operate with. I think the right question to ask here is "Since our lives (and that of our species) are not forever, what will we leave behind for the future generation and probably, the next species?"  We are not insignificant in the scheme of things. While not everyone can change everything, but each person can change something to make the world better. When enough people start doing something about the one common thing they care about, they create a movement for change. Once the movement becomes large enough, the change becomes more pervasive.

One of the ways we may live beyond our lives is through the impact that we create in the movements we participate in or lead. We may be forgotten but a part of what we believed in will stay alive forever. I recently went to Auroville where the vision statement reads: "Humanity is not the last rung of the terrestrial creation. Evolution continues and man will be surpassed." Yes, man will be surpassed, but his legacy may still live across time if he musters the courage to make the right choices. 

Friday, September 04, 2015

Teacher = Leader

If someone asked me what is the one thing that I would take with me if my house was on fire, I would take all the cards that my students made for me during my fellowship days, especially the ones given on Teacher's Day (like this one or this one). I would take these cards because they are a reminder of the lives I touched and the lives that touched me, of the seeds of change I planted and the seeds of change that were planted in me. I would take these cards because they reflect the shared value we stood for, students and teacher, together. I would take these cards because they are the most honest expression of emotion that I know. I would take these cards because they are an acknowledgement of the leadership skills I developed and showed as a teacher every single day.

 Whilst the other factors were apparent from day one of the fellowship, I wondered, during the initial few months of the fellowship, where the leadership is in creating and sharing a vision (what does that even mean for a 12 year old?), making and executing five-step lesson plans, planning for and implementing culture, teaching and driving values, having school team meetings and meeting parents. I later realize I glorified leadership often thinking it is a big deal. It actually isn't. It is a set of many small things, consistently done everyday with a clear vision in mind.

Think of two of the greatest leaders in human history - Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. How could they have inspired people into action without having clarity of vision and the ability to make people see the possibilities? How could they have succeeded without creating a value that formed the crux of the movement (non-violence in their case)? How could they have organized nations into a movement without a plan? How could they have implemented the plan without trusted people? How could they have won without awakening the sleeping conscience of the masses? Don't forget that each one of their struggles ran into decades. They tried, failed, learnt and tried again. And then they succeeded, not because of being who they were, but because of the one small thing they did - STAY.

My school was a microcosm of a nation, my school team my trusted people and I was one of the leaders in its movement towards change. I had the community to awaken to bring about change in the classroom. I had 2 years instead of 2 decades.Even in these two years were long for I faced situations that tested me to my limits, made me want to accept compromises, but I kept telling myself one thing through the challenges - "STAY. This too shall pass."

I wouldn't say I succeeded in achieving my vision. But then, is that failure? Probably not. Again, think of Gandhi and ask "Is India truly free now?" or think of MLK Jr. and ask "Is there equality between races in the US?" Probably not. But Gandhi and MLK Jr. remain legends of the Indian Freedom Movement and American Civil Rights movement respectively. My reflection was that my legacy is the function of only my actions towards change for the good.

If you are a teacher, remember, you demonstrate leadership in everything you do in school and in your classroom. And what you do everyday becomes a part of you in seemingly unknown ways. There is no success, no failure, only the journey to a better you and a better world.

 Happy Leaders' Day. Oops, Happy Teachers' Day.

PS: If you feel inspired reading the post and want to join Teach For India's movement for educational equity in our country, click here.

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.