Wednesday, December 31, 2014

For the sake of others

I am neither a misanthrope nor asocial. I am not driven by rebellion or non-conformance either. However, I am strongly driven by values of secular humanism, chief among them being fairness, simplicity, respect, integrity, wisdom, efficiency and scientific thinking. I also judge my actions by a simple thumb rule. I always ask myself "Is what I do thoughtful, helpful, inspiring, necessary or kind?". If the answer is no to any question, I choose to avoid the action. I call this the "THINK" rule.

During the months leading to my wedding and the weeks following my wedding, I have often heard the phrase "man is a social animal" being used as a driver of certain actions that seem illogical but indispensable part of our fabric. In addition, many practices are disguised under the veil of apparently righteous terms like "culture" and "tradition". Many of these actions or practices surrounding the wedding strongly challenged my value system. I was able to reach a mid path on many of the practices I objected to. However, some of my objections were vetoed due to my lack of seniority in the household despite the logic being sound.

In an ideal world, I would have preferred having a court marriage or temple marriage in presence of my parents, closest relatives and friends. This would be the wedding that would minimize effort, money and time and would significantly enhance the quality of time spent with my loved ones, including my wife to be. After the wedding, I would want to spend some time relaxing at home or away from home, bonding with my spouse and her first family.

India, on the other hand, is still a collectivist society where decisions are taken incorporating everyone's view. Everyone's view in turn is governed by societal acceptance and image. No where is this seen more than in a marriage. While I am not against maintaining an image in the society that is a reflection of who you aspire to be, I am against maintaining an image that is corrupted by my community's perception of how an ideal wedding and its participants should be.

For example, I do not see the reason why a bride must conceal her flaws under tonnes of make up. I do not see the sense in buying and wearing dresses that will probably never be used again in a life time. I do not see why hundreds of people, some of whom have never visited your home, need to be treated to a lavish spread of food. It is absolutely fine to indulge in these practices if you think they will make the wedding memorable. However, if you have strong logical reasons to reject them, then you shouldn't blindly follow them for the sake of society.

Moreover, the problem with the community perception is it hasn't changed with time. The reason behind some traditions no longer exist - which makes the same traditions irrelevant in today's society. However, we not only continue following these traditions but also impose them on others, just because they have gone on for centuries.

For instance, calling the community to the wedding was a norm because in olden days, everyone stayed in a close knit village. You interacted with everyone on a day to day basis. Bonds were formed not just because your were related by birth but because of mutual coexistence in a restricted geography.

The people who now form a part of the guest list, technically are not a part of your community because community is defined as a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. Apart from their lineage (because my great-grandfathers lived in the same town in Pakistan), many people neither live in the same place nor have anything remotely in common with my family or me. Yet, we are expected to be a part of their celebration and they are expected to be a part of ours.

What has made the practices worse is the impact of carefully planned marketing driving comparative materialism through the roof from one wedding to another. It is true that people have spend $500 Mn on Indian weddings, which is about as vulgar as wastage could get in a world where inequality is in extremes. You don't need to hire a Mercedes for the bride and groom nor do you need to buy expensive jewellery because someone else from your social strata had it at their son's or daughter's wedding.

When you indulge in tradition and social norms with understanding the rationale, the marriage changes from being a happy union of two people and their families to an exhibition of materialistic power and an exercise in branding.  These practices are the cosmetics that whole families together put up to conceal their insecurity of being rejected by the society, many of whose members wouldn't turn up to help you on a rainy day.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

2014: Gratitude

2014 has been the year that tested my tenacity in more than one way. The year posed many challenges on both the personal and professional front, which took away incredible amount of energy from me. I wanted to end the year on a high, but on the contrary, I am feeling at my lowest ever. My marriage, being the largest exercise in managing egos of diverse stake holders, took away my focus from my classroom. My students, who were on the path of transformation, have now lost the momentum towards their goals thanks to my distracted inputs and the absence of my co-teacher and thought partner.

I am mentally tough and well planned, which has helped me deal well with the stress, but I am disappointed with the permanence of the outcomes which my dedicated effort in the classroom have yielded. Everyone tells me that I have fared fairly well considering the circumstances. For me, these two years were not about surviving, they were about pushing the limits of my belief, of what I can achieve. I have managed to achieve push boundaries for myself, but that hasn't been the case for my kids.

The crucial thing is the year is still far from over - I have 3 months left. I need to plan and carefully channelize my energy towards effective inputs that have a lasting impact on my kids. Before that, I need to get back into a positive frame of mind and there is no better way to do that than showing gratitude.

I am thankful to my wife Pallavi (she is now :) ) for understanding why my work is my first priority during the fellowship duration. I have never been forced to choose between my students and her, because she has always been willing to sacrifice our time together for the sake of my students. She is truly my "giving tree".

I am thankful to the Jafari team who have become my strongest pillars of support. Without them, I would have found it incredibly hard to maintain my sanity. I am thankful to Sarvesh, who has made a huge sacrifice for the sake of my school team. I am especially thankful to Piyali and Neerja for being patient listeners and selfless friends. I can't even express how much Rajesh's presence and advice means to my team and me, despite him having moved on from Jafari.

I am thankful to my children for showing love and patience in what has been a difficult two months. The warmth with which they welcome me when I returned to school motivated me to work even harder for them. They have been open and honest in their feedback and constructive in their inputs. I am thankful for writers of songs with meaningful lyrics because they help me bond with my class better.

I am thankful to Saba madam for showing me what grit and selfless commitment looks like. She is an inspiration. The educational scenario in India would be different if many more people had a mindset similar to hers.

I am thankful to my younger sister Niki. Her high standards of achievement and focused inputs always encourage me to push myself to excel at everything I do.

I am thankful to my friends and family, who have repeatedly compromised on their time with me when I was faced with unplanned demands on my time. Among them, I am especially thankful to Ankita who has been superbly supportive and a real best friend, despite the distance that separates us. Like Pallavi, she never has had any expectations from me, but has always been there when I needed her.

I am thankful for the challenges that have come my way, for they have taught me the value of optimism and resourcefulness in the face of adversity.

I am thankful for my ability to plan and prioritize. For the first time in my life, there have been phases where I haven't had a plan in mind and these phases have been the ones that have disappointed me the most. Henceforth, I will always plan both on the personal and professional front - before I start execution. Efficiency and effectiveness are always a turn on.

As much as I am saddened by what happened in Peshwar, I am thankful for the attacks because they have reinforced my belief in what I do and what I want to do for the rest of my life. Coming around my marriage, they have made me see the importance of events like wedding ceremonies that bring people together, rather than divide them.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Ghazala

Having finally got a holiday, I decided to catch up with Haider. I had received mixed reviews about it, but since it is a Vishal Bhardwaj movie, I was willing to take my chances. I was not disappointed. The adaptation of Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet' in the context of Kashmir's history was masterful. The story was stretched unnecessarily at certain points in the plot, but the execution and performances were so stunning that I was not complaining. I am not going to review the movie in detail in this post. Instead I want to capture the feelings which Tabu's portrayal of Ghazala evoked in me.

Ghazala's role is a complex character. She is torn between her love for her son, her commitment to her husband and her passion for her lover. At no point does she have all three of them due to which she is always left wanting in the movie. The void itself is difficult to portray because all these relationships are defined in a manner that would be considered unorthodox in India.  Apart from her unfulfilled relationships, she is also in the dark about the complete truth, which makes it difficult for her to fully support one of the many narratives that exist in the story. Moreover, the setting of Kashmir of the mid-90s where the people live in the shadow of militancy and military brutalities takes a further toll on her life.

In a recent post, I had spoken about excellence and Tabu sets the benchmark in excellence for modern day actresses. Not only does she looks incredibly beautiful as a Kashmiri woman, she portrays the many shades of Ghazala with relative ease - the fear of losing her loved ones, the passion of a lover, the compassion of a mother,  the duty of a housewife, the indecisiveness in choice and the courage to do what is right. She does all this putting on a believable Kashmiri accent. While I don't have a clue about acting, I don't think even an accomplished critique can do justice to Tabu's performance.

When a great director, a great actor and a great character meet, magic happens. You don't have to be a student of the art  to recognize the brilliance you are witnessing. You just have to surrender your senses and soak in the emotions. Tabu makes you empathize with Ghazala's predicament. You want to help her but you can't. You want to give her a shoulder to cry on, but you can't. You want to scream out the truth to her, but she can't hear you. You only watch. You only wait to know what becomes of her, despite it being a slow paced movie. You remain mesmerized in her life.

Not discounting a fabulous performance by Kay Kay Menon and a career best by Shahid Kapur, it is Tabu who keeps you engrossed in the movie, making you take notice and applaud. You leave the theater with part of her soul latched on to yours and her words playing on a loop in your mind

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Mehak's Lesson

Mehak is one of the advanced readers in my classroom who demonstrates a high degree of value based leadership and takes immense pride in her team’s and her own learning.

In the month of September 2014, our team was struggling with two out of four fellows in the grade being out of action due to severe illness and the rest of us struggling with our own wellbeing. As a contingency plan, we had to reshuffle fellows among grades 7 and 8 to ensure continuity of learning. Due to the sudden changes in class structures and increased number of students to manage, the quality and quantity of my interaction with my own class fell significantly. I was feeling dejected that I couldn’t finish the term on a high after starting off on a strong footing.

Noticing my mood, Mehak wrote to me a letter. Among the many things she wrote, she mentioned how I was the one who told her “how each chapter links to the vision” and “made her goals more clear”; how I showed her the “importance of friendship” by “caring about people who I have a relationship with”; how she learnt the “importance of putting the same emergency (urgency) in studies as I put in planning”. Lastly she expressed confidence that I will find a way to “make my mind happy again”.

 I had never explicitly taught Mehak about urgency, friendship and compassion. I never asked her for the letter. I realized she was simply mirroring the many things I consistently did for the class through the year. Even while I thought I was mediocre then, Mehak proved to me she was learning the values of grit and commitment.

 Mehak made me realize how being a teacher gave me the power to change the mindset of my students, even when I am at my worst. She showed me a way to be happy again.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Value Challenge

I strongly believe that the only way your students can imbibe a value is if you demonstrate it with utmost consistency in the classroom. I have focused a great deal on teamwork, hardwork, honesty and self control and have been able to demonstrate these virtues everyday. In addition, I have started  implicitly teaching my kids about excellence, empathy and gratitude.

The last two weeks have been unimaginably stressful. It has been a true strength of my mental and emotional stamina. My focus has simply been to ensure continuity of learning despite everything that has changed inside the classroom and in our lives. In this time, I have often been slacking on some of the values of the class - especially excellence and self control.

 I have realized how efficiently classroom systems and procedures helped me manage my energy this far. Many of them have gotten undone with changes in class and team structure. The burden of many small decisions has fallen back upon me, which takes up more mind space than I imagined. With all this on my mind, conscious teacher modelling has become hard.

Excellence is incredibly hard to maintain in an environment that is unpredictable. While I have never gone to class without a plan, some of my recent plans have been disappointing by my standards especially in the new content areas I have taken over. I have seen myself let go of some points on my performance goals. I convince myself by saying that this is a contingency situation and I need to realign my goals to meet the changed needs of class - both expected and unexpected. Internally, I am not okay with mediocrity. At the same time, I am aware I have limits - physical more than anything else.

Showing self control is difficult in an environment where you have temporary untested systems in place, you have students who are in changed settings and your own energy reservoirs are on emergency backup. I have raised my voice with students, including some highly invested ones, at least once every day of this week compared to probably once or twice in the rest of the semester. I even shouted on some of my friends during conversations (which have barely happened), just because I have been on the edge.  While I know the change in my temperament is temporary, I need a system restore to go back to state of high equanimity and awareness.

At the same time, I have compensated for the lack of some values with some others. I have been forced to show extremely high levels of team work and hard work to make the grade function.

I have collaborated, supported and been supported by many people (including team members and students) often this month stepping out of my comfort zone. I have shown high levels of empathy. I have purposefully worked on differentiated management approaches to different individuals. I have been open to 'sharing and caring' as well as 'seeking to understand'.  I have shown leadership in planning and I am glad my team has played an active role in implementing or executing my multiple fall back plans.

I have also worked non-stop for almost three weeks - with just one half day break - to ensure minimal damage is done to the long term plans for my kids. I have taken initiative and additional responsibility to make sure I provide the basic inputs that are needed to keep classes on track towards their big goals.

Some of my more intuitive students and some of my closest friends have sensed my recent vulnerability. They have been incredibly supportive in giving me that time and space to recover and re-energize every day for many weeks now. I am proud of having them in my life.

I don't believe in the concept of work-life balance. I think work and life need to be integrated and have a free flow. If you can master the art of doing that, you can feed the positives from one into the gaps in the other to balance the stresses. At the same time, it allows both your professional and personal circle to be able to support you strongly when you are in dire need. Like the say, if your work turns you on, you don't need to ever switch off  in your life.

Most of all, I love how much this month has taught me. After I recover from the physical tiredness, I know I will be much stronger. I have been reading these lines by Tennyson and Tolkien for their therauptic value and appropriateness to the situation:

"All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

"It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
- Alfred Tennyson, Ulysses

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Change and Children

Our 7th grade team is reduced to half its strength because of which the remaining half, Neerja and I, have had to put in four times the effort in the class. I have personally had a terrible week in terms of engagement and management of the classroom. It is difficult to teach two classes well simultaneously if you are a single teacher. You need extremely strong structures and procedures, which currently don't exist in all the three classes. I have reached that stage again where I have started looking at everything in school negatively.

I sometimes begin to wonder if their has been any change at all. I realize that the stress is just overshadowing everything that we have achieved this year. I am going to pause  the frantic pace of work this week to think about each kid in my new class.

Alisha CB now comes to school regularly and participates in all classroom activities.

Aliya and Mahek have matured into a strong and gritty leaders, learning to manage the different working styles of their classmates.

Sadiya has learnt the value of self control and shows much more maturity while in the classroom.

Ali has gradually, though forcefully, started taking more initiative in the class.

Raghuveer has spoken more English in the last two months than he did whole of last year.

Ragib, who once had three detentions in three days, has got just one in the whole term.

Asgar who refused to sit in section C first has now started participating in the class and helping his new team.

Nida has been on task and following rules of Metamorphia from the day she joined the class.

Anam's distractions have reduced considerably from when she started.

Mallika has shown more confidence in the last few months, no longer willing to be subdued by pressure.

Junej has shown much more hardwork in his studies and has improved as a team member.

Mahfooz, despite his occasional anger issues, has been more reflective and understanding of the classes need. His honesty is commendable.

Shabbir, as a consequence of his actions, has seen a huge increase in his mother's involvement in his studies.

Kulsum has already started taking initiative in the classroom, helping the class learn better.

Insiya has grown much more in self control and started acting responsibly in the classroom.

Fareen and Shofiya have helped bring balance and calm to group three, while challenging them by thinking harder.

Sufiya has been completing her work with much more regularity as well as studying for the tests.

Sumaiya has become a strong problem solver and one of the best critical thinkers in class.

Avesh has learned how to control his anger and focus in the class.

Sufiyan has started studying more for the tests, though he is yet to deliver results.

Taufique has participated actively in class and shared openly. Moreover, his friendship with Raghuveer is inspiring.

 Alisha has significantly reduced the time for which she gets upset because of consequences of her action and has become more mature as the Culture Minister.

Farhin has had a difficult group to deal with and has never given up on her team - so much grit!

Fatima and Halima have pushed group four to think harder and helped Farhin to raise the bar for self control in the group.

Mahek Khan has started answering in class occasionally. Earlier, she was barely able to focus.

Aman and Touhid have started studying again and worked harder on their own exams.

Firoz is new to class but has made friends quickly with Aman and Touhid.

Kaneez had a bad term last year but has come back strongly to find herself on the Marvellous Metamorphian wall again.

Saba and Sumaiya have shown tremendous team work to make group five a champion team.

Faizaan has come back strongly in Unit 2 after a weak performance in Unit 1. While struggling with self control, Farzan and Faizan are more aware of their actions and open to working on changing them to become a stronger leaders.

Arsaan has introduced a passion for general knowledge in Metamorphia.

Ufera, Areeb and Taskin have shown patience in giving our class a fair chance. Once they are aware of the class systems, they will take our class to even better places!

Kaniz has shown resilience in trying to make the team work despite many issues with some members.

Madiha has become a shining example of the values of Metamorphia.

Zeba has shown much hardwork and commitment to her studies, while balancing a tough situation at home.

Muzamil, has continued to be in school and do his homework, despite me being strict with him.

Sk. Touhid has started writing regularly in class as well as answering questions. His marks show his hard work is paying off.

Aman has been open in sharing his problems with me to be able to learn better in the class.

Mahek and Alfiya have shown leadership without being captains in the group, helping the group in Kaniz's absence.

Knowing each of my kids, I am sure we will again become an excellent class with excellent students soon. This is just a small break in our journey towards our big goals.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A lot to be thankful for

This week has been one of the toughest weeks of my life for many reasons. The good news is it is over. I need to adapt to the changed circumstances and quickly regain the momentum. Before I get lost in the craziness of planning and execution, I want to spend a few minutes looking at the bright side of the week that went by.

I am thankful to Pritish for reaching out and considering me a true friend.

I am thankful for how Metamorphians saw this week through. This week gave me a chance to see the independence which my kids have achieved. They were incredible. In a week when I was lost and lessons were haphazard, they held the class together on their own, showing tremendous patience with me and a lot of grace under pressure in handling the class. I owe them a celebration.

I am thankful that our 7th grade team is reunited. We had parted for the sake of consistency and connect with the kids, but circumstances have brought us back together. As Neerja and I were thinking about the new structure, we believe we will be able to drive significant learning for all 140 kids in the units to come. It does seem a step back for now but it will lead to much synergy in the time to come. It is only about meaningfully seeing the next two weeks through.

I am thankful for having Neha as my manager and more importantly, friend. Like me, it was a week of many firsts for Neha. What we learnt about one another will give us a chance to take our collaboration to a whole new level and impact the school more strongly.

I am thankful for having closely worked with Rajesh and Harry. There cannot be a bigger example of selfless giving and caring.

I am thankful for Neerja's new found resilience in coming to school every single day of the week despite all the aches and pains and being there for the kids and me. Without her, I would have broken.

I am thankful to Piyali for sharing and caring.

I am thankful I work in an organization where people are always at the centre of everything we do and where empathy and gratitude are practiced and encouraged.

I am thankful for the understanding shown by my parents, sister and Pallavi - giving me the space and time I needed for more pressing work related issues.

I am thankful to my Masis for having managed the household chores in my absence without asking for appreciation. It saved me a lot of effort and time in what was a stretched week.

I am thankful to my seven year old cousin for tolerating a boring baya at home.

I am thankful that my health  did not get any worse than it was at the start of the week and Akriti did not have a relapse of her illness. Fingers crossed for everyone's well being.

And I almost forgot, I am thankful for having Jigar as the one person who has truly intended to be with us through every day of the week and faced the frustration of not having been able to do so. 

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Get Well Soon

The monsoon season brings with it the onset of seasonal diseases. A concentrated number of incidents occur in areas which have a conducive environment for the vectors and microbes of illnesses to thrive, like Shivaji Nagar, and the high density of people in such areas ensure they spread rapidly.

No matter how much care one takes of themselves, failing health is a constant challenge during the season. A five day outbound retreat, multivitamin supplements, preventive medication, regular exercise, additional hours of sleep - nothing works. I have strong plans for my kids, but I don't know how to over power the constant attack of illness. I recovered from viral fever last week and am currently suffering from conjunctivitis.

Further, it doesn't help when not just you but the whole team is struggling with the problem. A team member recovered from malaria a fortnight ago, another has just recovered from typhoid. My co-fellow had a bacterial infection accompanied by high fever last week. All the absenteeism significantly increases the pressure.

I have been focusing on everything positive for the last many weeks. The only thing that is currently keeping me going is my love for my kids and my desire to utilize every second I have left with them. It has helped remain gritty and be in school every single day of the last semester.

There is only so much mental strength you can conjure to face the daily stress of working in the area. However, it has not been easy. I can't wait for this season to end soon and my health to fully recover so that I can shift gears from this conservative pace.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Excellence makes NO excuses

Aliya (see picture) is one of the sharpest and most hardworking students of my class. She is an exceptional leader. Above all, she is tenacious and raises her bar every time we require her to. Considering how most parents are in Shivaji Nagar, I had assumed her parents would be well educated to have trained not only Aliya but also their other two daughters well. I had assumed that they would be financially well off to afford education for all their three daughters in private schools or colleges. My visit to her house today proved me wrong.

I had never visited Aliya's house because I always prioritized other parents over Aliya's  considering her parents' and her own investment in her education was high. I was at Mehfooz's house when he told me that Aliya lives in the neighbourhood. I told him to take me to her house after I had met his parents.

He took me down the pathway to the street bordering the garbage dumping ground, which is  the largest in Mumbai. The stench was appalling. The lane kept getting narrower until we finally reached Aliya's house. Unlike many of my students who live in pucca houses with asbestos roofs, Aliya's house had walls and roofs made of asbestos sheet.  I removed my sandals at the doorstep to enter her house. My foot fell into a puddle as I took the first step into her house. At that moment, I realized her house had no flooring. The walls were so thin that you could hear one neighbour's television and the other neighbour's conversation. The house had minimal lighting and no air circulation.

I saw Aliya sitting on a mat on the floor and studying while her father was lying down on an old bed, that was in no better condition than the house itself.  Her father  was dressed in an old torn towel and a t-shirt while Aliya was still in her uniform. Unlike the houses of my other students, there was no storage space except a rusted metal cupboard. There were very few utensils and almost no crockery. There was no bath or toilet in the house. Considering the size of the house, I assumed only two members would fit on the bed while the remaining three would have to sleep on the uneven floor using a carpet laid out on a plastic sheet as their bed.

As I spoke to Aliya and her father, I discovered that her father had diabetes due to which his foot was in a pain. His medicines cost him Rs.1200-1500 in a month. As a result of his pain, he couldn't work with the same intensity he used to. Aliya's mother contributed as much to the household as her father, but even then they earned only Rs.12000. In Rs.12000,  they managed the cost of their daughters' education, utilities, medical expense, travel and groceries.

Despite all their constraints, her father spoke with great pride about his three daughters and his intention of sending each of them to college. He said he will do everything for his children's education because it is the most important gift he can give to them. He spoke with great interest about my own background. I shared with him stories of my sister's and my own education and work.  He urged me to stay in education and continue helping other children like Aliya. In the meanwhile, Aliya had forced me to eat something saying "Bhaiyya, you have come to my house the first time and it does not look good if you don't have something."

I was having a discussion after school with a group of my class, of which Aliya is the leader. Each student had to share a story that inspired them to work hard or work for the good of others. While other students spoke about incidents, Aliya spoke about her father. He had started working in the villages of West Bengal at the age of 8. He never went to school. However, he was one of the wisest and most hardworking persons she knew. Unlike other fathers in Shivaji Nagar, he did not want to get them married. He only wanted them to do what he couldn't - study and work in a comfortable job. I realized the respect and pride was mutual.

I had tears in my eyes after I started my journey to return home. I should have visited Aliya's house not because Aliya needed it but because I needed it. If Aliya can be excellent despite all the hardships, I certainly have no excuse to be mediocre with the comforts that I enjoy. Excellence makes no excuses.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Raising the Bar

I have been thinking a lot more about the year with my students in school. My vision for them is to leave them with a sense of independence so that they can drive their own actions everyday to become better people, regardless of how good or how bad their next teacher is. I want them to be people who go to a college, work honestly and contribute to their family, community and country. I want them to be people who are critical thinkers and strong speakers who can differentiate between right and wrong. I want them to be open to new ideas, culture and people.

I started on the right note - setting clear norms in the classroom and creating a common language among the kids. I can see the difference in the class with things being much better than they were this year - both in terms of lessons and in terms of classroom culture. However, being better is not enough. My children have to be excellent.

For being excellent, I have to change the tone from one that is negative to one that is positive. I have to change the culture from being reward and consequence driven to one that is self driven. My children should start doing things because they believe it is the right thing to do - not because of the fear of consequences or the love of rewards or recognition. My children should do things for the love of learning - learning that will help them walk on new paths and move to a world that is full of opportunities. For this, my children need to be consistently managed, but at the same time, they also need to be deeply invested.

I am fairly clear about what next steps I will take to move a step closer towards excellence. That is my own journey. While I know the path they must walk upon and I can show it to them, I cannot force them to walk on it. No outside force can lead to lasting change. Only small steps taken by their own choices can make change meaningful and permanent. While I know what they need to do, they need to tell me how they want to do it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What is so holy about matrimony?

I live with a high degree of objectivity in most everyday aspects of life. On the other hand, I also live with a high degree of romanticism about certain things -  nature, friendship, purpose and poetry. Marriage falls somewhere in between the two where the lines of romanticism and objectivity meet.

On one side there is romantic love. It is unconditional and selfless. It does not have an ounce of materialism but tonnes of spirituality. It is organic, flowing and boundless.

On the other side, there is a 'ritualistic project' that has an objective of showcasing  the union of two families to the world, or at least those who they know in the world, on a scale that appropriately projects the image of the two families. Henceforth, I will call this project a marriage for the ease of reference.

Being five months away from my own marriage, I am facing a tough act juggling the two - my firm belief in romantic love and the 'ritualistic project' that is my marriage itself. I am inherently biased towards the former because of its appeal to my subjective spiritual self and biased against the latter because of its lack of sound reason. My family thinks otherwise, which means I have to constantly check the weight I assign to my beliefs in making choices for the ceremony itself.

Some say the wedding day is one of the biggest days of our lives. It is a day when the fate of two families are intrinsically bound with each other for the rest of their lives. We will tell stories from this day for the rest of our lives. However, is an Indian marriage actually focused on us - the bride or the groom? Again these proponents of a traditional marriage would yes. I differ in my views.

The actually ceremony itself is a one to two hour long ritual that does not require anyone except the bride, groom and their parents, along with a priest and some basic ritualistic material. If the believers of traditional Indian weddings  were right, then they would stop there. The wedding would still be the 'biggest day of our life', stories of which we could share for years to come.

However, we complicate matters a little - just a little. Since it is the 'biggest day of our life', we need to look good. To look good, we need fancy clothes. With fancy clothes, we need jewellery. Since its a marriage, not any but only authentic gold or diamond jewellery would do. To capture these moments for life, we need a photographer. Now that a photographer is going to be hired, we need to ensure our make up is professionally done, so all our flaws are artificially concealed - not that we look hideous but it is important to look perfect.

It is not only the biggest day of our lives but also our parents (probably because I may be their only son or daughter). In order to share their 'happiness', they need to celebrate with others. We need to call everyone whose wedding they ever attended. Phone and e-mail are impersonal - we need to make invitation cards that will be personally handed over to each and every guest.

We need to book a venue that can seat all our guests. Since they are going to be with us for a few hours, we need to serve them food. To make the atmosphere feel like one of a celebration, we need to decorate the venue - again only real flowers can adorn such an important gathering.

We don't stop at just the  marriage - there is a reception, sangeet, mehandi, cocktail party, bachelor's party - among other things. Yes, we need to click a picture with whoever was present at the wedding. Yes, we need to announce our love story to the world by distastefully dancing to the most cliched love songs that are played at every wedding. Yes, we need the world to see how henna is put on our hands.  Yes, we need to get drunk and dance with random relatives. It is after all "the biggest day of our lives." Not really - they are now the "biggest days of our life."

Logistically, we require money and time for everything we choose to do. The money we spend could be used for many other useful things - like buying a house, a comprehensive insurance plan, higher education or a rejuvenating holiday. While these things may not bring us lasting happiness, they will at least improve our personal well-being in the long run. If we have enough for our own needs, rather than spending it on a marriage, aren't we better off helping people in need? On the other hand, it is also probable that the money we spend is not even our own but borrowed, but we will borrow because it is the 'biggest day of our lives'. The alternate use of time is something I don't even need to get into - but think about everything we could do in 3 complete months of man hours given back to us.

We are social animals and we need to live within the norms of the society. We need to share our happiness with others. However, is there no other way to do it in a manner that is more meaningful? Is the magnitude of the celebration worth the hype? Is it truly the biggest day of our lives?

No, marriage is not the biggest day of our life. The logical argument to this is as follows. If marriage is the biggest day of our life, what about the day we found love? What about the day we have our first child? What about the day we lose a loved one? Another way of looking at it could be that if things go wrong on the day of our marriage, would we mourn the day we got married as we would celebrate every anniversary? If our marriage fails, will not the biggest day of our life become the biggest mistake of our life?

Marriage is a means to an end, which is a union that is socially and legally compliant. In our endeavour to live up to our own societal image, we unnecessarily scale up and complicate this act of compliance. Instead of celebrating everyday of our lives together after the marriage, we make a big deal of this one day and spend the rest of our lives reliving its memories.

Happiness is nothing but our achievement minus our expectations. If the difference is positive, there is happiness, otherwise there is regret. The very nature of human happiness is such that it can never be attained. We may be happy for a few moments or days after attaining a goal, a milestone or a materialistic possession, but eventually we will start craving for something bigger, better or newer. Think about the last time a new cell phone gave us a lasting high. A marriage is something very different, yet the high it gives us is similar to that of a new cell phone. How can one spend so much time, effort and resources on something whose effects on our personal well being and happiness are ephemeral?

 A marriage is full of materialism where as love is spiritual. A marriage is all about pleasing the ego - our own and that of others - where as love is selfless. A marriage is governed by the norms set by the world but love is governed by the voice of the heart. A marriage is a tangible event, love is an unending journey. A marriage, in its current form in India, can never be a celebration of something as pure as love. At the most, it is only a willfully, forcefully or ignorantly accepted contradiction of love.

PS: This is not an account of my own experience. However, parts of it may be true and applicable to my own case. Please read with discretion and focus on the intent rather than actions.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Letter to Humanity

Dear Humanity,
Congratulations. You have successfully shifted gears in the journey towards self-destruction. The events of the last few weeks have absolutely convinced me that there is nothing much we can do to slow things down. You have adopted a multi-pronged approach in ensuring we moving faster towards the goal of annihalation of our race. Whether it is conflict over a piece of land (in Gaza and Ukraine), whether it is fighting for religious supremacy (the Shia-Sunni war in Iraq and the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria) , whether it is killing for power over civilians (in Syria, Egypt, Somalia and Sudan), whether it is demonstrating the superiority of the male gender (rapes in India, including the rape in school) and whether it is carelessness in handling deadly epidemics and their carriers (Ebola, MERS, screw up - for the lack of a better word- by CDC), you have done it all. Like an icing on the cake, the collateral damage of your endeavours has even included the death of 298 people on a commercial aircraft that was hit by an unknown missile.

I am not saying I know who is right and who is wrong. I am not saying I know the answers to your problems. I am only wondering about your actions in response to what has happened. No matter what the truth is, nothing justifies the death of thousands of people because of your deliberate choices. I am disgusted but no longer shocked at the way you are responding to these problems.

Your actions keep reminding me that the problem is of an epidemic proportion. Your choices keep sapping the optimism that I have about the world changing for the good. It is hard to swim against the current of negativity to stay afloat in this battle for survival.

As a teacher, I praise my students for their correct choices and chastise them for their wrong ones. I spend hours teaching them the benefit of imbibing and acting with values as well as advantages of learning to act in a peaceful and orderly way. I do this in the hope that they will develop the wisdom to filter out all the negative stimuli that their world is filled with. I do this in the hope they will become a ray of light in the darkness that engulfs them.

However, for everything going wrong, there are somethings going right, that are worth celebrating. Everyday in the school, I see acts of speaking the truth, showing kindness and care, demonstrating self-control against provocation, leading by example and taking a blow for the team, winning with humility and losing gracefully. I see friendship. I see love. These moments are all worth cherishing and holding on to.

If I observe with equanimity, I know there are many more positive moments than negatives ones in the day. It is about what you allow to get to you. I may not always be the candle to light up a dark room, but I can always be the mirror that reflects it. After all, darkness is nothing but the absence of light.

Yours truly,
The Illuminator

PS: Here is some great advice I read in an article on  being positive:

  • Remember that there are two kinds of pain: pain that hurts and pain that changes you. 
  • Everything in life is temporary. 
  • Remember that true happiness begins to arrive only when you stop complaining about your problems and you start being grateful for all the problems you don’t have. 
  • You can’t make the scars in your life disappear, but you can change the way you see them. You can start seeing your scars as a sign of strength and not pain. 
  • You will realize that the struggle is not found on the path, it is the path. And it’s worth it. So if you’re going to try, go all the way.
  • Do what makes you happy and be with whoever makes you smile, often. 
  • You might not end up exactly where you intended to go, but you will eventually arrive precisely where you need to be. 
  • When you feel like quitting, remember that sometimes things have to go very wrong before they can be right. Sometimes you have to go through the worst, to arrive at your best.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

What I learnt from Master Shifu

Entry two - 5th July 2014

I had the first movie time of the year in school. I showed my kids the movie "Kungfu Panda", which they absolutely loved. They have come to realize that movies are no longer just fun time. They will have to think and they will have to write. At the bare minimum, they will have to apply the skills they learn in comprehension and listening, they will have to make connections between the movie and their own life and they will have to think about values of the classroom every time they watch a movie.

After the movie was over and we finished discussing the characters and their qualities, the big idea and the examples of values shown in the movie, we moved on to discussing what we could learn from it. I asked my students to write it in their diary so that we could share it with the class. And as is the case with every time they write their diary, I write my own blog.

Being a teacher, what I learned from Kungfu Panda is the teacher can have no favourites. Master Shifu once had a favourite student called Tai Lung (the leopard). He was so dear to him that he raised him with the dream of becoming the dragon warrior (a super duper awesome Kungfu practitioner). However, when the moment came, Tai Lung realized that he was not the one who would wear the crown. He couldn't accept the reality of being deprived from the honour. His arrogance turned into anger. His anger into hatred. His hatred into violence of the highest order, so much so that he had to be put in solitary confinement. He escaped to return to Master Shifu to seek his revenge. Fortunately, in this case, fate favoured the truthful and brave Po who helped Shifu defeat Tai Lung.

As a teacher, I can have no favourites. The favouritism could forever boost the ego of the student to the level of arrogance. This arrogance could further lead to many negative emotions in their minds which will take them away from their primary goal. Moving away from their primary goal will only cause further negativity in their minds. The favouritism, thus, will send students on the path of self destruction instead of encouraging them to do better.

I get scary reminders in class itself, when my students place their self above their team and their egos above their goals. They spend undue amounts of energy and time on quarreling over petty issues instead of utilizing them on work.

Sumaiya and Mehak, the two leaders who represent the class in front of the school and  handle the role of Central Ministers, acted in a manner that led to the loss of a beautiful opportunity for their class today in the Science exhibition. They were so dejected that they simply gave up on each other and the competition. I was saddened to see such a weak display of values by the leaders of the class. Clearly, I have not held Sumaiya, Mehak and the rest of my class to the same expectations in class, which is why they couldn't demonstrate leadership and teamwork when they were put to the test.

I have to learn from Master Shifu's example, give my kids their dragon scroll and show them what they can truly become. There is no secret ingredient, only the truth within them. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Little Bit of Sunshine, A Little Bit of Rain

With the effects of Vipassana reducing and its practice ceasing in the last few days, I realized I was becoming more and more irritable at work and at home. I have to find someway that doesn't necessary require me to practice meditation in silence everyday but yet acknowledge the state of my mind and body with equanimity. Hence, I will start blogging with notes from the day everyday - trying to focus on finding a little bit of sunshine in what could also be a miserable day. Additionally, this will serve the purpose of the daily diary I read out to my kids in class.

Entry One: 2nd July 2014
Today was a special day. The monsoons came back in their full splendour to the city. With them, they brought their share of smiles, laughter and some much needed relief from the heat of the extended summers.

As is the case with every  monsoon, I was excited to step out and play in the rain. However, I couldn't because I had classes to take and meetings to attend. I had thought I will have some fun in the rains once I am back home, but unfortunately they came back a little too late in the day. "Some other day," I said to myself, "The monsoons are here to stay".

Nonetheless, some of my kids ended up having my share of fun. They ran out in the break and purposefully soaked in the heavy drops of rain that were quenching the thirst of the parched Earth. When they returned, I chastised them despite knowing the joy which monsoons bring to our hearts.

I scolded them not because it is wrong to play in the rain, but it is wrong to do so without taking adequate precautions. Someone could have slipped. All of them could catch a cold because they were all wet to the skin and none of them had a change of clothes or a towel to wipe themselves dry with. More importantly, the first rains wash away a lot of filth that has accumulated in the surroundings, which means the chances of catching  a bacterial or viral infection are extremely high.

I felt awkward because a part of me that is the monsoon-loving Mumbaikar wanted to let them be and have fun and a part of me that is a teacher wanted them to be aware of the risks and its implications on their learning.

Though I didn't get wet in the rains, I clicked some pictures with my phone that captured the atmosphere there was. Those pictures made me happy.

I hope the rains go on for at least three months now.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Letter to the Team

Hi Guys,
I have been focusing on optimistic realism after Vipassana and this mail is one of the many exhibits of that.

Despite the unending stream of challenges, the constant burden of planning and executing, a massive achievement gap and the constant lack of external motivation, we have set ambitious targets for our kids. We have taken these targets because we genuinely believe things can change. We have taken these targets because we know that it will be too late for the kids if it is not now. We have taken these targets because we know if we get anywhere close to them, we will probably draw inspiration from this one year of our life forever.

This will not be easy. There will be days we feel low, there will be assessments where our kids and our confidence is shattered, there will be students who will make us want to give up on them and there will be times when things are in turmoil on the personal front. On those days, I want us to be there for one another. To remind each other that we won't compromise on the dream or give up on a child. To give one another a day of rest and a shoulder to cry on, but then again come back the next day, expecting excellence within the classroom and in the conduct of our students.

We do this despite and in spite of what is happening in the classroom next door.  We make our students see the difference their choices make every single day.We make our children self-reliant so that they can guide the incoming fellows.

This is of course not to overwhelm one another but to change what the benchmark of efficiency and effectiveness is for a Jafari fellow. We will all be there to support one another all the time. Together, I know we can do it.

Compassion and Courage.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nothing Never Changes

Seeing the new fellows who have joined our school team, I am reminded of how we started our journey in Jafari. I am reminded of the long path we have walked since that day of 24th June when we first met my kids.

Looking at the journey of the fellowship from an everyday micro perspective did not make the growth easily apparent. However, when I compare my classroom now to how it was last year and when I compare our instruction style as compared to our incoming batch, I realize somethings have changed.

I am much more perceptive of the needs of my children and how to reach out to them. Not only that, I am aware of how to convert the insights of perception to instruction in the classroom.

I see how my teacher presence has improved significantly, how I am a lot calmer in the classroom now and as a result, a lot smoother in executing my plan.

I understand the need to spend time investing my children in what I believe is good for them. Neither academic, values or exposure are complete without the other. I know that only one-third of the battle is fought in the classroom, of which only one-third is academic.

I sense the power of collaboration and team work. Powerful ideas can be sharpened with the help of multiple perspectives. Painful rework can be avoided by smart distribution of work. The learning curve can be shortened if you share your experiences openly within the team.

My belief that "Right is right even if no one is doing it. Wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it." is further reaffirmed. People eventually see the returns on investing time and effort in setting a high bar of excellence and maintaining a strong process orientation. The challenge is to keep going without giving up on anyone - whether kids or team members.

Lastly and most importantly, I realize the power of a vision and keeping every action of my students and my own rooted in that vision. It takes a lot more planning but everything falls into place beautifully if you pull it off.

The vision gives me a sense of purpose. When the days are dark, it is that purpose  that keeps me going. When I am tired, it is that purpose that gives me energy. My state of mind reminds me of a dialogue from Matrix - "We're not here because we're free; we're here because we're not free. There's no escaping reason, no denying purpose, for as we both know, without purpose we would not exist. It is purpose that created us, purpose that connects us, purpose that pulls us, that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines us, purpose that binds us."

Monday, June 09, 2014

And so it begins again...

My school reopens tomorrow after the summer vacations. I am so glad I had the break. It gave me an opportunity to zoom out and think about many things - both related and not-related to the fellowship. It gave me the time to plan keeping in mind where exactly I want to see my children and how I can link my every action with that destination I have decided for them.  With all the thinking came the feeling of being overwhelmed, about how much I had not done in the year gone by and how much more there remains to be done for my kids. I did quite a bit of planning that puts me in a comfortable position as compared to some of the others in my team, but I still feel I haven't done enough to fulfill the vision I have for my kids.

With all the goals that I have set for my kids and the sudden turn of events in my own life, if I achieve 70% of the ambitious short term goals I have set for my kids, I would consider I have done a fair job. In addition, by the end of the year, I would have started a library in school. By the end of the year, I would have finished a project in training teachers in my school. By the end of the year, I would have had packed and moved to another place again. And by the end of the year, I would be married!! Yes, matrimony was the 'sudden turn of event' I was referring to earlier.

Considering what I have learnt at Vipassana recently, I will ensure that I do not judge the result with a sense of pride or disappointment. Whatever percentage of my personal and professional goals I achieve will be a source of inspiration for the future. Whatever percentage I don't will be valuable learning for the future. I have to come back to this post and read it with complete honestly, every time I feel like being hard on myself. The only time I will give myself the permission to chastise myself is when I falter in my effort.

Regardless of what the outcome, I going to come out a stronger person. Awareness and equanimity will be the key to making the difference to my kids and my self.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

A Monk's Life for 10 days

I attended a 10 day Vipassana program as taught by S.N.Goenka. I wanted to write a lot about it but I decided against it. I think each person's experience should be their own, since the technique itself works within the framework of one's own body.

Here are the reasons I liked it so much:
1) It is universal and secular. Anyone above the age of 18 can practice it in its pure form whereas youngsters have age appropriate courses.
2) You can experience its effects then and there. And no, they are more than the effects of not communicating or not accessing technology for 10 days.
3) It doesn't promise miracles but offers a way of gradually being happy (or liberated, if you believe in after life or rebirth) through a logical argument based on:
a) morality of action - One must only perform actions and do work that benefit others or work that does not harm others. The intent or motive is more important than the verbal or physical manifestation of the action.
b) complete control over the mind - One must develop the ability to focus by observing the natural breath alone and not use any visualization or verbalization. Both visualization and verbalization can never be involuntary and without the conscious mind's involvement. As such, they only act as a distraction from worldly issues.
c) cleansing of mind - Every volition of the mind is a biochemical process within the body. This biochemical process is triggered after the brain accepts and perceives inputs from one of the sense doors of the body. You cannot control what is outside your body, but you can control the sensations within your body that are a result of the biochemical process. This is done by training your mind to remain aware of and equanimous after every sensation. The more you practice, the more you can prevent the habitual response (of anger, pleasure, pride, hatred, aggression, attachment, etc) to certain situations. Every act of equanimity leads to a craving or aversion being dislodged from the depths of your mind. (I am a beginner and yet to experience this first hand!).

While this post may seem abrupt, I just wanted anyone who comes across the post and doesn't know about Vipassana to be at least introduced to it! Whether you choose to adapt and practice the technique regularly is up to you, but I will urge you to give it a fair chance by attending one course. I came back inspired!

Thursday, May 01, 2014

What have I learnt?

Days became weeks, weeks became months, months became semesters and semesters became a year.  If I were to make a relative comparison to the other years of my life, I have had the shortest year with probably the longest days. What changed? I joined the TFI fellowship in one of the most challenging schools in the city.

During the year, I did not ever take the time to zoom out and think about what I was learning. I did put in a lot of thought about my work and my students but never about my own development. One month down the vacation, I have been wondering if I learnt anything at all - and I have decided to put this conversation with myself on paper in case my future self wishes to refer to it.

What did the year teach me?
1) I learnt to value what I took for granted, though gratitude is still a work in progress -an upbringing that gave me the wisdom to choose wisely, a privileged education , access to books and internet, supportive family, encouraging friends, love, travel, freedom,  among many other things.
2) I learnt to be more patient. Having been a person driven by efficiency and logic, I often have been impatient with those to who it is not second nature. I learnt to calmly handle people in the latter group and adjust my expectations to who they were. I am going to further work on achieving synergy in the team.
3) I learnt where to draw the line between work and personal life. I never faced an issue with this earlier as I was good at planning my time, but I was often guilty of planning without buffers. The mental, emotional and physical stress  that had built up by the end of the academic year forced me to re-look at how I planned my work  keeping in mind my own well-being.
4) I understood the need of working in a team, even though I was teaching independently in the classroom. I will make a conscious effort to master this in the year to come to further improve effectiveness of the second year.
5) I was always a stickler for structures, but learnt the importance of how consistently enforcing them can take away the burden of the tiny everyday decisions away from your head. I need to create and implement a weekly schedule to ensure structures work smoothly both in professional and personal life.
6) I learnt how the problem facing education is a mess. No unilateral action can ever fix it. Solving one difficulty could create a thousand others, if not effectively thought through. I will explore the situation at a macro-level further.
7) I learnt to work as an entrepreneur - raising funds, planning goals and actions, measuring outcomes and again fine tuning the inputs based on analysis.
8) I learnt to self monitor for excellence. It is easy to lose focus or let the guard down in a role that involves remote management and supervision.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Real Steel

Inheriting a history of repeated failure,
Yet achieving the impossible in his tenure,
Wounded in battle, but standing tall in the war.
What is this man made of?

Completing a journey of a million hurdles,
While his own demons he handles,
Tired on the path, but always in motion.
What is that man made of?

Making a voice heard in a jungle of chaos,
Speaking with courage for a worthy cause,
Choosing the right, rather than the easy path.
What is this man made of?

Remaining calm in the face of calamity,
Holding back anger as a reflex to stupidity,
Never showing frustration, but reason
What is the man made of?

Melting hearts that were frozen since ages,
Lending a ear to the ones in dark cages,
Free falling often, yet being a pillar of strength 
What is that man made of?

Working without support nor appreciation,
Never boastful of his contribution,
Of a royal stature, yet living in a humble abode
What is that man made of?

PS: Dedicated to one of the most awesome people I know - BJ!! 

Song on my mind: Strictly, in the spirit of true friendship!!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Random Act of Kindness

I was at Powai lake the  other day for a meeting with my manager. (Yes, we do have occasional meetings at places of our choice to set the a mood suitable for the nature of the discussion)  After the meeting, I was taking a walk along the lake while watching the sunset. I hadn't eaten anything after lunch so I was hungry. I couldn't find any place nearby despite searching. I saw an old Sardarji and his friend eating a vada paav. The Sardarji was on his phone while his friend was waiting for him to finish the conversation. I asked his friend from where he got the vada paav. He gave me directions to the place. I thanked him and was about to walk towards the place when the sardarji indicated to me to wait. I decided I will respectfully wait. When he finished, he told me "Son, that place is far. You will have to walk around 10 minutes. If you are hungry, you can take one of our vada paav as we have got extra ones." I politely refused and told him I was anyway walking in that direction to meet a friend. He smiled and told me "Have a good evening."

We had met for the first time and yet he offered to help. Him choosing to do so despite having no vested interest in me put a smile on my face. It is surprising how I unintentionally miss out on many opportunities through the day to make someone's day memorable.

A small deed of kindness only asks for a large heart. No money. No gifts. Just the act of wanting to make a difference. I will keep that in mind henceforth.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Vote of Thanks

My first year of the fellowship is almost nearing an end. It has been one crazy roller coaster ride with its share of highs and lows. I have too many things on my mind and I am hoping by writing them down, I will free up some much needed mind space for other equally important things.

Showing gratitude was one of my new year resolutions. I want to end the year by thanking everyone (or everything) who (which) has helped me see this through. In no specific order, I would like to acknowledge:
  • My students, Mehak and Aliya, for constantly showing me the mirror and setting high expectations of me in the classroom - whether it is in my conduct or in my effort.
  • My students, Muzammil and Awesh, for making me see that permanent change has no easy fixes.
  • My students, Alfiya and Farheen, for making me believe that transformation is possible and there is a leader in each of us that is waiting to be discovered.
  • My students, in general, for all the love and for providing me the toughest challenge of my life.
  • BJ, for demonstrating leadership against all odds and showing the value of relationships.
  • Harry, for all the free hugs and making us feel at home, wherever we are.
  • Pritish, for the passion he has shown for kids beyond the classroom and the courage with which he has spoken for the betterment of the kids.
  • Akriti, for showing me how you can build the sense of independence in kids.
  • Neerja, for all the craziness and for genuinely working harder than she ever has.
  • Suman, for being at the "forefront of a revolution" and being an incredible ideator.
  • Piyali, for being the ocean of calmness and for being the confidante she is.
  • Jigar, for being whoever we have wanted him to be, whenever we have asked.
  • Nicky, without who, I would be a fraction of the teacher I am today.
  • Pallavi, for letting me follow my dreams and for zealously following her own, despite the distance.
  • Niki, for being a silent supporter and never questioning my priority for the classroom.
  • Mom and Dad, for taking interest in my work, giving me my own space to grow and paying for my trip to Europe!
  • All my grandparents, for managing when I have not been able to be there for them.
  • Rekha aunty and Seenu Uncle, for seeking to understand. 
  • Priyanka and Varuna, for the time of my life that I have taken away from them.
  • Ankita and Amal, for not letting the distance drive the course of the friendship.
  • Shalmalee, for always reminding me that excellence is not relative.
  • Paras and Vinny, for taking risks and making me believe I am not alone.
  • Nanda, without who my house would become a junk yard.
  • An ex-boss, for being the egoist who  helped strengthen my decision to take a different life path and whose memory still keeps me going.
  • The terrorists of 26/11, who made my city bleed and fueled in me an anger that became an inspiration.
  • Paris, for making me believe in a way of living and thinking that I didn't believe could exist.
  • Berlin and especially the Museum of the Murdered Jews of Europe, for reminding me the importance of not forgetting, yet moving on (how relevant this has been to the history of Jafari!!!).
  • Mumbai, for helping me find my own feet.
  • Nature, especially the Himalayas and the Western Ghats,  for re-fueling my mental energy reserves whenever I am drained.
  • The Intouchables and Queen (movies), for making me relive the sense of freedom I want my students to experience.

Song on my mind:

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Delicate Balance

I had a very forgettable day at school yesterday. Somehow everything seemed to be falling apart in school. Our classes which are otherwise the more disciplined ones were have their off days.I discovered some students who were leaders in the class had chosen to be dishonest. Some others had chosen to not show respect to their team members and some even to their teachers. I was mighty upset at how I realized progress in the classroom was just a delusion I was living in. And in my frustration, I did end up showing my anger to my kids.

I came back home. I decided against calling parents of kids who I had chastised for an update and give myself time to process information with clarity. I chose to take the evening off. Thankfully, my friend was here from Delhi. I did speak a lot with her about the state of things. While our conversations were not necessarily restricted to the classroom, I could connect back a lot of what we spoke back to my students.

Both of us decided to watch Queen the next morning and headed straight for the movie after breakfast. While the movie left me feeling very optimistic, throughout the auto ride from the theatre, I kept thinking about the amount of work there was left in the class and how I have let procrastination get the better of me in the last two months.

I could give many reasons for procrastinating - physical and emotional fatigue, excessive socializing due to planned and mostly unplanned visits by friends, rework due to the lack of understanding of where the kids were academically and more than the usual household commitments. All these reasons are justified, considering it is as important to sustain myself and my social life as it is to be committed and persevere towards excellence. But in the struggle to balance both my own well being and my professional goals, I favoured my personal wellbeing more  in the last 3 months than my professional goals, which I have always chosen otherwise.

Did I do something wrong? Definitely, no. Did I have an alternative? Probably, yes. Did I make time to find the alternative? No, I just tried working harder and that had a contrary effect on my own health. What am I going to do about it now? I will make up for it by executing a supremely well planned strategy for my time with the kids post summers.

I have always looked into the mirror more than I look through the magnifying glass. I have always been hard on myself. I took a break from being that for the first time in many years. While it lasted, it did feel good. However, mediocrity leaves a bad aftertaste.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

All you need is love

I had taken some of my kids who had received the Avasara Scholarship to the American School of Bombay for the award ceremony. There were seven of my students, their mothers and some of their siblings.

One of my students Amrita was accompanied by her mother and two siblings - Jyoti who was four and Gayatri who was less than two years old. Jyoti was not supposed to be attending the event, but had to join her mother at the last minute due to her dad not being at home (which is also their vegetable shop) to attend to her. I thought what could go wrong with having an additional kid as long as their mother was accompanying them. However, meeting Jyoti was quite an eye-opener for me in understanding what some of my kids may have faced as they grow up at home.

Since her mother was busy attending to the youngest daughter, Jyoti's care was left to Amrita. Amrita being a child herself and having no experience in handling kids did exactly what she saw her parents do at home - asking Jyoti to follow or else get beaten. Jyoti, who was agitated at being dragged along, would start crying every few minutes.

I couldn't see the child being treated in the brute manner so I asked Amrita to leave her to me - and she did. In her time with me, there were three instances that I clearly remember.

The photographs of the winners were being flashed on the big screen. I asked Jyoti to clap when she sees her sister. She clapped with me for all winners. When her sisters photo came up on the screen, she screamed loudly "Isko maaro. (Hit her!)" I was shocked at the reaction. How could a child so young know violence and that too for her own sibling? What could have provoked her to dislike her sister and express it in a explicit way?

I did not have to wait much to get the answer. It had been two hours into the event and I was getting tired of baby sitting Jyoti. After the event was over, I let Jyoti walk around freely while I spent some time engaging with others at the event. I heard Amrita screaming at Jyoti and in return Jyoti was screaming back at her - shouting "Maa ki ch**t" repeatedly. Amrita's mom slapped her to shut her up - so now instead she started wailing  I did not interfere. I was appalled that a four year old child was using an invective for its intended purpose, without knowing the meaning of the word. The only place where she could have learnt this was at home, where it was being used with regularity for her to have picked it up. How then can I teach my kids to use kind words and show respect when they don't see their role models do it for three quarters of every day?

On our way back, Jyoti started crying because she did not want to go back to her mother or sister - she only wanted to be with me. I personally was exhausted after a tiring week and did not have any more energy to entertain her. I did not give in to her protest. She lay on the road and refused to move. Another girl's mother convinced her to walk with her and she unwillingly agreed.

In a matter of two hours, she had bonded with me more than she had with her mother. Even a young child can sense compassion and love and reciprocate it. I was worried my students get so little of both when they are growing up, especially considering they are replaced by another child younger than them within 2-3 years.

Our challenge as teachers is more fundamental in nature - it is not academic growth but making our kids humane! We need to spend more time at their homes than just in the classroom - knowing them and their families and investing them in the importance of education.

We had shining examples in front of us - mothers of Shofiya and Mallika, whose daughters reflect maturity and wisdom that is far above what you see in the community; parents of Aliya, who have taught all their three daughters English and send two of them to college; Ufera's mother, who teaches kids (without corporal punishment) in her neighbourhood so that they can do well at school.

Regardless of any of them going to college, I at least see Shofiya, Mallika, Aliya and Ufera becoming loving and compassionate mothers, learning from what they have seen their mothers do for them - every single day of their life. I see their children learning from them and certainly going to college. We ourselves have a lot to learn from these student's mothers - because while we are here for two years to make a difference, they have been making a difference all their lives!

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Ultimate Goal - Independence

I was happy after school yesterday.  Mahek and Aliya were conducting extra classes for kids. They were helping people learn math and complete their homework.  Despite there being no teacher in class, the kids continued working independently following all the rules.  No other students from 6th or 7th who stayed back showed such self control.  It was the first sign of my  Metamorphians being the best class in not only the grade but the whole school. Studness is happening.  I can't wait to see them grow and learn next year.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Whatever doesn't kill you, simply makes you stronger

Without wanting to sound boastful, I must say I am proud of my mental toughness. I am. Rarely in life there has been a situation where I have felt I can't overcome a hurdle. I have always achieved what I wanted by being planned, focused and tenacious. However, I think in the fellowship, I have met my match. The first six months were difficult but manageable, but the last two months, when my stamina has reached its fag end, have been incredibly challenging.

It is not that I am working lesser than earlier. I just have an increased cognizance of the effectiveness of what I am doing now. Many inputs are working for a majority of my students. My class has come a long way in terms of investment. There is a sense of oneness in the team. There is pride in belonging to the class. My students are working towards protect the class culture. I have a strong set of class leaders, who are learning to act with ethics, fairness and compassion. They have started sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other through our journals. They have had new experiences in the form of field trips and interactions with the world outside through the pen pal initiative. They have learnt art, craft, debating and dancing through the Jafari Artists Project. They have indeed come a long way.

However, the challenge is not in the majority. It is in the student who when asked what is 5+3 goes "5 ones a 5, 5 twos a fifteen, ..." It is in the student who when asked to recognize the letter "d" says "b". It is in the student who will count four objects as four, but change the answer to three the moment your teacher eyes show the slightest of doubt. It is in the student who will copy their homework or independent work every single day, thus not learning. It is in the student who will refuse to give the correct answer despite knowing what it is for the sake of maintaining his reputation. It is in the student who will not come to school every other day because his parents don't want to go that extra mile in helping him go to bed early. It is in the student who will beat his classmate because he doesn't know any other way of communicating or resolving issues.

The 80:20 rules applies beautifully - 80% of our energy is spent on 20% of our kids. This 20% requires such specialized attention that it becomes difficult to plan for considering the time and energy constraints. Their literacy and numeracy levels are extremely poor, their parents are non-cooperative, their willingness to learn is low. As teachers, we cannot be okay with any of this but as beginning teachers, we don't have all the answers. We will find the answers and they will learn. We will make it amply clearly that there is no escaping change. We need to bide our time.

Outside the classroom, what makes the job more difficult is the amount of you it takes away from you.

Firstly, it is not a job where you can go home and cut yourself off from work - you can't when you are so emotionally involved with the lives of your kids. It is hard to isolate your personal interactions with your friends and family from the effects of the classroom. You can't vent out on your kids, but you do end up showing some of your frustration to your loved ones, who have done nothing to earn it.

Secondly, you also spend less time on them and yourself, making things harder. You don't do this intentionally but its effects show gradually on the quality of time you spend on your social life as well as hobbies. The drop in quality again leads to further wear and tear.

Thirdly, you have a team of amazingly driven people who want to make a difference, who are each facing their own set of challenges. You want to have their back all the time, because without them, your work load will multiply. However, you can't have their back all the time, because you yourself are stretched. All you can do is appear strong - and that is not easy all the time.

Despite the personal struggles and the classroom challenges, I know I am growing tremendously. I will make choices to sustain myself without compromising significantly on the kids. Next year, I am going to change the equation from "I will survive" to "I will thrive". All I ask for from everyone, a little more patience till I figure out how!!

All said and done, I may be losing the old me, but I am rediscovering my strengths. Metamorphosis is not easy. You have to shed your old self to make way for a improved one. It is the period of transition that is the hardest. If I see this through, I will emerge much stronger.

On a lighter closing note, whoever put the line "Are you ready for the challenge?" in the fellowship recruitment communication was clearly not joking. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Enlightenment

As is evident from my last blog post, I have been having a tough time in the classroom for the last few weeks. To break the monotony, my co-fellows (Harry and Rajesh) and I decided to take our kids on a field trip on Thursday. We left immediately after school to save time. On board the train, we debriefed the kids on where we were going and what they were going to do to make this a memorable experience.

Our first stop was the St. Xavier’s College, Harry’s alma mater. Harry’s friends were kind enough to show the kids around the college. The kids showed tremendous enthusiasm in greeting and meeting the collegians as well as explore the campus. Some of them for the first time saw a grand old college building, a chemistry lab, a fully functioning library, preparations for a college festival and a canteen where college goers ‘chillmarofy’ when they are free. We all grabbed a quick lunch and then moved on to our next destination, the 321 school.



The 321 school is first in what will be a series of charter schools founded by a TFI alumnus. It is a path breaking model aimed at bringing quality to low cost education in India. However, the purpose of visiting this school was not just to show them what the school was. Harry, Rajesh and Rima (a 321 teacher and a friend of Harry and Rajesh) came up with the idea of making the Jafari (my school) kids teachers of the 321 students.

It was an experiment in creating an opportunity of learning exchange. Our kids were going to teach the 321 kids skills and content in art, craft, phonics, science, general knowledge and language through 5 minute lessons in small groups. All of us as well our kids were a little nervous as to how this would go, considering it was a first for all of us. I myself was unsure if the two sets of students would connect, if the Jafariites would confidently execute what they had prepared and if the 321 kids would learn something new. After the visit, I am mightily proud to say that Rima’s and our kids nailed it!! (see reasons below!)

We returned to our school at 7.00PM after a tiring journey in a crowded train. While our faces were tired, the sense of achievement and learning on the kids face was unmistakeable. Despite the hour, we made the kids stay back and reflect on their experiences of the day – they protested initially but gradually, the silence in the room grew as their thoughts took over.

We made everyone share how they were feeling, what the best moment of the day was and what was that one thing they learnt today. And as a part of that reflection and a promise to my kids, I am writing my own learning here.

1) An act of kindness and giving doesn’t need an opportunity 
 Madiha spotted a young girl while walking to Xavier. She drew Madiha’s attention because she was blind and walking with a stick. Madiha asked me about the girl so I told Madiha and her friends Ameera and Mahek to go and find out. And they did – they found out her name, her destination and her occupation (she was a student at Xavier!). They also saved her from hitting a branch of a tree that was in her way. I stood there as a silent observer, but I couldn't resist smiling. This was our Humans of New York like moment in Mumbai!

2) You don’t teach subjects to kids, you teach them a way of thinking
Ali and Madiha were going to teach the 321 children the 5 senses of the human body. I loved how they took from the experiential approach we use in class to make the kids feel the 5 senses – for example, making them taste a chocolate or smell a perfume. It was their own plan and their own implementation and I was feeling proud to be their science teacher.


3) Children have no qualms about talking to strangers
While we were in the canteen, I had asked my kids to find people who were standing or sitting alone and find out one thing about them. After an initial push, they realized it was easy – and soon they came back with a list of names of the new Bhaiyyas and Didis they had just met and had also figured what some of them were studying.



4) You can learn from anyone or anything, if you ask the right question
Anyone

As a part of their introduction our kids asked the 321 kids “How are you?” Without a moment of hesitation came a choral reply “We are fine. How are you?” It was not a set of words put together in a sing song manner as you would expect from 5 year olds, it was a set of words said with precision, strong diction and the right tone. Just after the discussion broke, Ali came and told me, “Bhaiyya they are so confident.” I gave him a teacher-like reply “See, this is why I tell you to speak with us in English all the time.” And in my mind I was telling myself “You are not the only one who is doing the teaching today!”

 Anything
While I was standing in the train, I had given Ruksana and Aamna, who were seated, a bottle of water to hold. It was a water bottle with the words “I ran the 2014 Mumbai Marathon” printed on it. I told them to ask me 5 tough questions about the sentence and they will learn 5 new things. And before I knew it, they had discovered my love for Mumbai, asked questions with all the 5W’s, learnt what a marathon is and solved three math problems on fractions. We had to stop only because we reached the destination station.

5) Photography makes me happy 
It is strange it took me this long to come back to myself. While the kids were teaching, I was clicking so-so pictures trying to conserve my heavily depleted camera battery. And I realize how clicking pictures makes me happy – should definitely do it at a higher frequency!


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Perceptiveness and Perfection

I am doing much more in the class than I was doing before but I still feel I am not doing enough. As I have grown as a teacher, I have also developed my ability to sense the pulse of the class, gather finer data and gain frequent feedback. This has helped me plan in greater detail by incorporating feedback faster and modifying lesson plans.

Despite its many advantages, a higher degree of perceptiveness changes your definition of excellence. If you are one of those who is not okay with being just okay, then every compromise makes you feel a little more miserable about the falling level of excellence. But wait a minute, did I just say compromise?

Till the last unit I was focusing just on lessons. In this unit however, I have changed my approach by bringing in a strong focus on the classroom culture. I realize that it is probable not all my kids will be equipped with the academic skills to make it through school in the time considered the norm, but it is certain that with the right inputs, I can invest them enough in their own education. I want to make them believe they can overcome any barrier to their education with hard work, resourcefulness and discipline.

Laying a strong focus on class culture alongside academics is however stretching my time even more! I had hoped I would have reduced my lesson planning time significantly by now but instead, the focus on more depth and retention along with an extremely low literacy levels has led me to spend even more effort on planning.

After the rigorous last unit, I am feeling worn out. I need a break but I also realize this unit will set the tone of how the next year begins. And hence, I have to persist.

More importantly I have to sustain myself, as a result of which I make small compromises. I compromise to ensure my kids don't ever end up with a day I miss school because of ill health. I compromise by working 11 hours a day instead of 15 hours. I compromise by spending more time on friends, family and activities I consider relaxing. I am not feeling guilty about it, but I am not feeling great either.

Two months to go before I spend some quality time analyzing and fixing this issue - for good.