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.