Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Reflection from 2017 and Wishes for 2018

The break over the last 10 days has given me a lot of time to zoom out and reflect on my journey over the last year. I wanted to begin the year by recording a personal reflection, to remind me of everything I have learnt about myself and this world I live in.

Around 12 nautical miles into the sea, I could see only the ocean as far as my eyes could scan. I realized at one stage that the only landmass if I continued further south would be the Antarctic continent! The vastness of the ocean made me feel an immense sense of insignificance. I am not even a full stop in the book of the universe! 

At the same time, I was thinking how my perceived insignificance doesn’t absolve me of responsibility. It is this individual responsibility or the lack of it that’s going to save or irreparably damage the future of our planet [looking really big picture :) ].

Looking back at the year, I could only think of the seemingly passing moments that shaped the way I saw my own journey. First, the moments when someone said or did something that shifted my thinking or energized me. Second, the moments when someone acknowledged how what I had said or done had impacted their outlook. In both the cases, it was the receiver who saw the significance of the small acts, not necessarily the giver. I was thinking how my insignificance doesn’t reduce my ability to have a significant impact on my world and its people.

A subset of these small acts I spoke about above, is small acts of kindness. There were multiple moments in Sri Lanka where my skepticism about the goodness in people was challenged. For example, I found people to go out of their way to help me with directions, sometimes even walking with me to show me the way. One of my hosts made me an additional snack for the bus journey ahead. When I traveled by public transport buses, I kept my luggage near the driver, away from where I was sitting. I was worried about it getting flicked. Not once did that happen. In fact, I saw strangers ensuring it stayed in place during the twists and turns of the journey. 

Initially, I wondered if there were hidden motives, a benefit, an ask they’ll make later. However, in most cases, I realized people did these things simply because they were good. When I returned to Bengaluru and saw the end of year coverage in a few magazines, they made the world seem like a horrid place. After all, this tendency to foresee the worst possible outcome has been one of our guiding evolutionary traits, that has led to our species’ success. Nonetheless, things are not as bad as we make them (click here to see the evidence and why it is under-reported). I was thinking how I can create many more reasons for even people to believe in the goodness in the world, to shift the narrative that’s making us lose hope. 

On the first few days of the holiday, I kept using my phone to capture what I was seeing or plan for what I’ll do next. I began to think how this was a symptom of my inability to live in the present. Later, when I actually started leaving my phone untouched, I found it to be incredibly powerful. Watching sunsets, sunrises and observing how each of them was unique, like a fingerprint of that day. Meeting other people and seeing how each of them was made of beautiful specific details. Even talking to Pallavi to discover unheard stories from her life. It took me back to my Vipassana days, leaving me committed to making time for it in the year ahead - to simply be, rather than become! 

I hope you realize the significance of the small things you do, believe in the goodness in people & yourself and live in the present in the year ahead. Wish you a great 2018!

Saturday, April 09, 2016

There is no blame

Yasmeen was neither the star or the struggler in the classroom. She liked learning but would rarely participate in any after school activity. She grew by 1.3 years in the span of a year with Pritish and me (between two MYs). Her participation in the class had increased significantly too. 

 The situation at home however was different. Her parents had been meaning to withdraw her from school for a long time. They would show little interest in her education. Adolescent had hit her hard - attraction and crushes were a part of her life.They wouldn't acknowledge her changing moods and interest and often beat her up at any expressed emotions of adolescence she would show. They would draw her into family politics, that was especially complicated with their extended family. Emotional or mood contagion (which we read about this week) was a reality for Yasmeen and would play out frequently in the classroom in the form of elaborate story telling about fictitious incidents of her life to lies in small things around day to day work in class. 

Yasmeen wanted to create an imagined reality where she was living the life she wanted to, which was far from the one she had. I was not in touch with her after I left school. I am unsure of what circumstances led to her alleged suicide last evening. 

 Here, I want to take a step back and think about the link between the concept of dynamic emotional resonance (again from the article we read) and teaching. In an environment where moods are often not homogeneous, Rahul, who took over Yasmeen's classroom from Pritish, could have at maximum catered his resonant response to the average of a classroom. Given how complex the situation in the community is, being able to get to the stage of an average response itself is big progress to make in the first year. 

 However, Rahul is not an average fellow. He knew what was going on in Yasmeen's life. He understood the risks that were involved, but Yasmeen's story was not the only story in class. There is Ahmed's story of the constant threat of near homelessness. There is Takee's story of participation in local gangs. There is Shorabh's story of a learning disability. There is a story behind every child. Which child's story could a first year teacher have prioritized? How could he have catered to individual needs? 

I further step back and think of Angie. Given how wicked the problem is in M-Ward, how could a PM no matter how experienced, have guided Rahul on which kid to prioritize in addition to working with him on his teaching skills, his reflective practice, his collaboration within the school, his development leader? For Angie, there isn't just Rahul, there are 22 other teachers and 600 students whose stories remain to be surfaced in conversations. 

 Stepping into Venil shoes, I know she acknowledges that it has to be a well thought through collective effort. We don't know what kind of forces do we need to activate to bring about a change that will empower the fellows, the parents and the students themselves to be able to make these hard choices and seek out the right support. It's a social experiment that will take time. While we figure the right course of action out, we will still not be able to identify the time bombs that are waiting to explode in the form of the risk to another child. 

 At the same time, I think of what would become of these children if they did not have a Rahul, an Angie or a Venil working relentlessly towards improving their lives. Things seem bad but they could be far worse. They are doing what they have planned with full vigour so that we all can learn. The cost of our ineffective support, lowered expectations of our people or missed learning is too high for our children. I know each of them and each of us is cognizant of it. 

 Lastly, I am thinking of the days when I went back to school after the death or near death in school. Those were the hardest days. The community (including the students) is so used to it that they would move on quickly as if not much had happened. However, being a fellow, it was never easy. I knew that every life is precious and every act of forgetting is a set back in the movement of change. I remember stepping out of class during the IP and just letting the tear roll off my cheek because I couldn't forget as quickly. 

Nonetheless, I would go back into the classroom because I knew our work can't wait for our motivation and moods. Every minute in the movement is precious. All I would do was read my reflection to the children at the start of the day. I would receive a letter from Mehak or Aliya and a card from Madiha, Firdos and the others. I would hear a joke from Farzan and Faizan to cheer me up. I would see the class being a lot more independent, them knowing that I was having a difficult day. I knew that seeds of change and the seeds of empathy were gradually getting planted.

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.