Reflections: Teachers Day

Every year Teachers Day in India is celebrated on September 5th. (and everything that I write here is based on the Indian perspective) The special day for teachers in India is dedicated to a quintessential teacher’s birthday: Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a teacher, statesman, philosopher and former President.

Teachers Day

What is the scenario at schools today? Low pay packets; humongous expectations from both parents and management; overburdened with work; crowded classrooms clamouring for individual personalised attention and instruction; callous, unconcerned pupils; technological challenges that make one a refugee first, immigrant next and a native per force in the digital world; the obsession with standardised tests and thoughtless one size fits all propositions of boards and education bodies…
Teaching has never been tougher as it is today.
Being an educator by profession, I can’t but help taking a critical look at the education system prevalent in our country. 

I am just back from home after summer holidays and saw the reality of it playing out everyday at home. I have a nephew who is studying in Class IX (CBSE). Everyday he comes home with projects galore. There is time only to do homework and projects.
So, when is the time to read and understand lessons done at school? I have no clue.
Without systematic study, how is he going to cope with his studies? I have no clue.
(Mind you his school is just a 10-minute walk away. His tuition teacher is a stone’s throw away.) 
After seeing it all, I only felt sorry for the young boy. True, he too has some time management issues but he is a child after all. 

Studies are no longer interesting. They have become mundane chores. The spark of curiosity is totally, totally missing. It is just regurgitation of lessons learned in answer papers and notebooks. There is nothing beyond books and lessons. Sorry, textbooks. Is there nothing beyond grades and scores? What about igniting the passion for knowing the unknown? Missing, totally. What about discovering and honing other skills like music, drawing, painting, sports etc? Nope. Where is the time? Now you might ask aren’t there children who are doing all that and coping with studies? All I am saying is that they are exceptions than rules. My nephew, a smart and clever chap, is bored beyond anything else. I know, if you need to keep him hooked, you need to really be thinking on your feet and package it in a ‘smart alec’ way. At this rate I am afraid he will burn out too soon and lose all his yen for studies. He is already on the verge of it. In fact, the scenario was so disappointing and depressing that I have started reading articles on “Unschooling”. 

If this is the plight of students, what about teachers? Not too different. While it is true that every profession has good and bad professionals, methinks the the scale is too tilted in favour of the inefficient in the case of education. The best ones are not attracted to the profession. There is no money or respect for the profession is the common rejoinder I hear. Besides many parents still are obsessed about a couple of professions: medicine; engineering; computers & software (though there are a handful of students who take up offbeat courses). The leftovers are often insipid and tasteless. They are teachers not because they are passionate about teaching – but because their job gives them holidays in line with their children’s and some pocket money. And from such kind of teachers, stakeholders harbour inordinately high expectations. Parents expect them to wave a magic wand and make their child a whizkid. The professional course (B.Ed) is an antiquated course. Teachers are forced to teach what they learned yesterday to students today so that they can handle their tomorrows well! Can that ever happen?

Students. Sadly, they have very few role models before them. Many parents have no time for them. It’s work, office, and material considerations. They cannot even give quality time – even if it means just an hour – to their child / children. To compensate this they offer them material rewards or even a huge sum as pocket money. Instant gratification is what is sought and easily provided. Value systems don’t matter and many don’t inculcate any in their children.

The management. Results. That is the yardstick of whether a school is good or great. Crass commercialization has corroded the innards of educational systems and systemic decay is visible even to the naked eye. Administrative bodies. Standardised tests rules the roost. it is a one-size-fits-all proposition. A student is judged by the grades and marks he gets. Though collaborative project based study is required, paucity of time in schools make teachers give it to students as individual projects. (As many as 10+ days were declared as holidays in Kerala due to the fury of the monsoons this time; over and above this is our fanatical obsessions with bandhs. The Supreme Court banned it but we reincarnated them in another name: Hartal! It is freedom to protest, folks!!) Many a time parents end up doing these projects for the child. Now how will that be a learning exercise is a good question to ponder over.

So, do you get it – we are in a totally messy situation. Celebrations apart and notwithstanding the challenges, it is time to introspect: Are we as teachers –

  • Passion-driven? Without this our classrooms will be dull and drab.
  • Action-driven? Without this we will never be able to infuse energy & bring the fun element to our class. Isn’t it because of the fun aspect that PE periods are students’ all time favourites? 
  • Empathetic? Without this we will never be able to strike an emotional chord with the child. This in turn will make our students compassionate individuals too.
  • Lifelong learners? Learning just does not end with the classroom; a key point that must be driven home over and over again!
  • Being Mindful and Reflective? We need to help pupils stay on course and be aware – not only about things around but also things within themselves. Self awareness is key to effective relationships and achieving success in adult life. It is always easier if we ‘catch ’em young’!
  • Encouraging collaborations and curiosity in classrooms? It is these skills that our pupils require in the 21st century to function as effective citizens and humans. 
  • Patient and Persevering? Without this none of the above is possible!

Let us think of every day as a Teachers Day, by enjoying what we do in our classrooms. Let us transform our classrooms into hubs of activity where pupils take responsibility for their own learning. Let us make our classrooms engaged, connected spaces so that our pupils will learn the art and science of collaboration. And may we succeed in making each student a passionate lifelong learner, the most critical objective of education. And thus let us contribute immensely to nation building.

Looking at Possibilities

While doing my MOOC with Coursera on Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence*, Prof. Richard Boyatzis, the Course Instructor shared with us a host of videos that were inspiring. Of it all, the one that captured my attention and being was that of a YouTube video on Under Four Trees – a school that was started by Mrs. Zikhali for a small community in Nkomo Primary School in rural KwaZulu Natal, Mnqobokazi, South Africa. The amazing project is sure to leave you inspired. Do watch this link below – and if you are in the field of education, this is a must watch.

To me it focused on two things:
The power education can wield even making the poorest of the poor, rich.
Passion for what one does can convert all of the problems into possibilities.

Two wonderful lessons. It is not that these are eureka moments – it has always been there. However, when one sees the fruits of the events through videos and films, it conveys home a very strong message, and encompasses you with an unshakable faith that there is nothing that we cannot accomplish. 

When Nomusa Haslot Zikhali, the Principal, reached Mnqobokazi to start the school, she was flabbergasted. There were no buildings. No resources. Just a wild field replete with undergrowth and bushes. The challenges were too many. Inclement weather. Rains that would make the stream they had to cross overflow with water. Crocodiles in the stream. Dust laden winds. Parents wanting their children to look after cattle or even younger siblings. And that was when she decides to move closer to the community and set up the school. She had to go from home to home in the community to impress upon them the need to educate their children. Her passion to educate these children weighed high than the troubles and travails.

In spite of that, in January 1999, there were just 10 children ready to join the school. And where was the school started? Under Four Trees!!! Each class – Classes 1 ,2, and 3 were allotted one tree each and the fourth one was Mrs. Zikhali’s office. As an educator, I am ashamed to say that I would have given up and just left the place for greener pastures. I am sure 99% of us educators would have done that. But not, Mrs. Zikhali. She persisted. And converted every problem into a possibility. The government did send other teachers to start the school, but they all gave up. Mrs. Zikhali on the other hand took the challenge head on. Thus from a one-teacher-220-student school, Nkomo Primary School has moved into another league now: 900 students and 23 teachers. Eight classrooms. And plenty of support from Africa Foundation to raise money for infrastructure.

Another challenge Mrs. Zikhali had to face was the presence of most vulnerable children in her school – whom she calls Child-headed Households, a chilling euphemism for those whose both parents were dead. Her school now has 153 of them – i.e. 17% of the under-13. To persist under these challenging and emotionally draining circumstances requires determination and the keen desire to make a difference in these students’ lives, which she had in plenty.  Her inspirational tale of nurturing, educating and transforming has been made into a movie called Under Four Trees by filmmakers Suzanne Cross and John Simpson.

Inspirational Leader

Inspirational Leader

Thank you Mrs. Zikhali for teaching me some very crucial lessons. The best one I will cherish and practice is to convert every problem into a possibility! If we look for solutions we can think creatively and find a way or two. However, many of us look only at the problems and therefore the possibility of a solution is just not there in the vicinity or in the periphery. May your tribe increase and be beacons that will enlighten the path of many educators like me.

Resources:
1. Mrs. Zikhali’s photograph from http://underfourtrees.co
2. http://bit.ly/14THso9

[* I wrote about being a fan of online learning vide my post http://bit.ly/18t4aUI. Am delighted to get a certificate signed by Prof. Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio and to have completed it with 84.5%. If you have never tried a MOOC, please do it today! 🙂 ]

A fan of Online Learning

My tryst with online learning started in the summer of 2012. I stumbled upon this link:  http://www.powersearchingwithgoogle.com/course/ps/course.html got interested & enrolled for it. The six class affair happened at the right time for me. Summer holidays were on; students and teachers were on holidays. Besides I was going on holiday only after a fortnight.  I could not have asked for a better time – an impetus to plunge headlong into the course. Ahoy, Power Search! (I see that there is an advanced course open now – and yes, you guessed it right – I am hitting the ‘take the course’ button now! 🙂

I took all the lessons during the fortnight and took the final assessment from home though I was busy planning and preparing for my daughter’s wedding. And the result was most gratifying. It empowered me with a handle full of tips and tricks like these:

  • Colour filtering
  • Choosing effective search words
  • Word order matters
  • Use of these in searching: site; file type [pdf; doc; txt]; symbols like –, +; and words like define, OR etc.
  • Search by image
  • Shortcuts like date/time range
  • Verifying authenticity of information

    Oh, boy, the best was yet to come! On 25th July I got this – a multi coloured one – my certificate of completion. Though the scores were not mentioned in the certificate, the course staff sent me the feedback: Mid-class assessment score:  100% Post-class assessment score:  74%. It was truly a happy moment.

    Google Pwer Search

    The end of 2012 saw me participating along with a dear friend Ms. Sheela Anand in a Mentoring Programme titled Developing our Mentoring Skills offered by Electronic Village Online (EVO) http://evosessions.pbworks.com. Taking the course with a friend is a very enriching experience because one can engage in conversations and dialogues about various aspects of the programme as well as enriching perspectives for the assignments. the programme gave us insight into these:

    • use various synchronous and asynchronous web tools to communicate with colleagues worldwide,
    • interact through e-mail, text chat, voice chat, among others,
    • reflect on and define our mentoring skills through exchange with peers,
    • discuss possibilities of implementing the skills in our communities of practice.

    Though the programme did not give me any certificate of participation, it gave me a lot more by making me reflect into my own practice. I have mentored in the past and continue to do it even now. Therefore it impressed upon me that as a Mentor I am only a support / guide / listener. I must never don the roles of a saviour, parent, lawyer, banker, social worker or even employer. I can only listen and gently assist in encouraging the mentee to find solutions on his/her own. This was very insightful as in introspection I remember I have taken roles of a problem solver and an advisor while mentoring!

    This summer of 2013 saw me take up a MOOC – Massive Open Online Course. Online courses available on the world wide web are rapidly changing the face of education and learning. Many famous Universities have open up their portals for such online course which are free. Besides there are signature tracks available for those who are looking for credits for their higher studies. The MOOC that I participated in was Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence conducted by none other that Prof. Richard E Boyatzis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Boyatzis   from the Departments of Organizational Behaviour, Psychology, and Cognitive Science and H.R. Horvitz Chair of Family Business, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. The Coursera site on the instructor says,  “Using his Intentional Change Theory (ICT) and complexity theory, he continues to research sustained, desired change at all levels of human endeavour from individuals, teams, organizations, communities, countries and global change.” https://www.coursera.org/instructor/richardboyatzis It is also worth remembering that he is an authority on the concepts of resonance in leadership and emotional contagion. This was a challenging course and as I write this I await the last week of July for the results of my course. Right now I am doing a Course in Psychology from www.udacity.com.

    That is not all. Now I am enrolled for at least half a dozen online courses offered by Coursera and Udacity, in the course of the year. It includes two courses offered by the University of Edinburgh on Critical Thinking in Global Challenges and E-learning and Digital Cultures respectively. I have thus become an an addict. An addict for a right cause – of taking in a share of the exponentially growing knowledge that is available around me. And the best thing is I can proceed at my pace.

    Why don’t you explore MOOCs? I am sure you will also turn to be a fan of these delightful affairs.

The Sky is the Limit

Learning has undergone a sea change in the last decade or two. From the clutches of the expectedly all-knowing fountainhead of wisdom, the Teacher in the classroom, it has been liberated! Two decades ago when I needed to gather information about Hiroshima or the Sinking of the Titanic to equip myself to handle the Class XII lessons in English of the same names, I relied heavily on encyclopaedias and reference books which were aplenty in the school library. For English comprehension passages, I took refuge in magazines Down to Earth, Readers Digest, National Geographic and the ever reliable Hindu newspaper. With the advent of the information age came Google. Everything is now available at the click of a mouse. Ouch, the mouse seems antique now with touch screens and styluses available in smartphones, tablets and net books. According to Richard Alleyne, “Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.”

Learning

In the current scenario the Teacher is now meant to be just a learning facilitator, a guide, a resource provider, a curriculum and instruction specialist, a mentor, and a classroom supporter as well as manager. Everything else, but the store house of knowledge. Rightfully so. Today’s students are digital natives and even have much more knowledge than the teacher in an area of his/her interest. It is best that our young students are never underestimated. Even though I have hardly taught in the digital era (I moved up to be an administrator), and taught only in traditional classrooms, I have been enriched by the perspectives offered by my young adolescent students. They have indeed enriched me with wonderful insights into the dynamics inside and outside of the classroom.  So, it goes without saying, the teacher needs to be a life long learner. Move from a digital refugee to a digital immigrant and then transit into being a digital native. It is possible with some perseverance.

So how does one be a lifelong learner?

  1. Nurture a good element of curiosity. It is this CQ – Curiosity Quotient – that enables one’s quest for continuous learning.
  2. Be passionate about teaching (read: about what you do). Well, Thomas L Freidman in his paean to globalization, The World is Flat, calls this PQ – Passion Quotient – and even argues that it is more important than IQ.
  3. Explore. The World Wide Web is full of opportunities to learn and hone our skills and practices. At the same time be perceptive about what is authentic and what is not.
  4. Enrol. Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs and enrich your awareness about anything that interests you from History of Rock music to Volcanic eruptions. Many of these courses are offered by universities like Stanford and MIT and are mostly free of cost. You can look for courses in www.coursera.org and www.udacity.com. Edmodo also features interesting courses for professional development.
  5. Find time. Time is always at a premium. You must find time for your up skilling – you owe this to yourself as a professional.
  6. Persevere. Don’t give up. It might be challenging at times. It is these challenges that make or break people.

I did some courses online. I will share my experiences of them in my next post.

The Challenge of our Education System

Sir Ken Robinson in his pertinently titled Ted Talk, “Schools Kill Creativity” declares “All kids have tremendous talents — and we squander them pretty ruthlessly.” (Read – ‘in schools!’)
Seth Godin in his Stop Selling Dreams quips: “The current (educational) structure, which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards, is killing our economy, our culture, and us.”
Godfrey Canada in his Ted Education Talk, “Our Failing schools: Enough is Enough”, asks vehemently, “Why is it that when we had rotary phones, when we were having folks being crippled by polio, that we were teaching the same way then that we’re doing right now?”

ted_schoolskillcreativity-800x332

Many thinkers have gone hammer and tongs about the ails of the present day education system. I think this is especially because the percentage of very passionate teachers in our educational system is miniscule. Therefore the killing of creativity.  Therefore the mediocrity. Therefore the one-size-fits-all approach. And therefore we don’t create thinkers, creators and problem solvers but create conformists in plenty.

Today while at a our corporate strategy session we were overwhelmed at the requirement of the number of passionate teachers we will need in the next ten years – a modest 320,000! We find it difficult to fine one good hand – how will we find so many inspirational teachers? This set me thinking.

When we look at schools around us, there is one thing that simply bamboozles me. In many of the Indian curriculum schools, we plan career mapping sessions for our pupils. We introduce them to people from different walks of life. Doctors and Engineers abound the list – the Indian parent clientele have not outgrown that, sadly. Computer specialists, Researchers and Scientists also are not left far behind. Some of us do have a passion to bring in those from other professions – from designers to pilots, psychologists to lawyers, and representatives from the Armed Forces and the Services – IAS, IPS, IFS and the journalists. Some of us venture a little more further and bring those from off beat professions to expose those to impressionable minds – singers, actors, dancers, forensic experts (we did this at our school) and even conservationists. However, do we ever speak about our own profession, Teaching? No wonder then that even a teeny weeny number (not even one per cent of the total number of Class XII students) ever want to try their hand at one of the noblest of professions: Teaching! Whom can we blame but ourselves???

Today Teaching is taken up not by the passionate and those who have an aptitude for facilitating learning. It is embraced eagerly by those who want to have a comfortable job.  Your children can be in the same school; you will have the same holidays as your children and (a candidate at an interview candidly put it across to me), “In which other job will I have a two month vacation in summer and nearly a month long in winter?” (That the said candidate got rejected immediately is beside the point!).

To all passionate teachers out there: Can we spell out the pleasures and joys of the teaching to our pupils? We must be advocates and advertisers for our own profession. I am ashamed to admit, I am also one to be blamed. For it is most rightly said, “Teaching is the one profession that creates all other professions.” I guess I will start with my own school. Correction starts from me.

Resources and links:
http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/docs/stopstealingdreamsscreen.pdf
http://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_canada_our_failing_schools_enough_is_enough.html
Doodle Courtesy: http://sunnibrown.com/doodlerevolution/showcase/ted-schools-kill-creativity/

The Euphoria of an Award

15th April 2013 will remain a red lettered day in the annals of my school’s history. It was this day we were presented with the Khalifa Award for excellence in education in the educational institutions category. When our Acting Principal, Mrs Asma Gilani collected the Certificate of Excellence, a gleaming trophy and a prize of AED 100,000 we made our tryst with destiny. We are the Best of the Best, the first Indian School to win this coveted award. Moreover we are the first amongst the GEMS Schools to get into this ivy league.

OOS

In 2010 March when I walked down the blue and white portals of this School as Senior Supervisor, little did I realize that I would be part of the history making phase. We saw leadership changes. We embarked on and embraced change. We saw us taking giant strides in improving the quality of our exam results – 100% is the norm here. It is a matter of pride that from just about 7% students with an aggregate score of 90% in the Class XII board examination in 2010 we catapulted to 35% 90+ scorers in 2012.

We are such a huge school. Just about 8000 students. 😉 Yet, what makes us winners? What do we do differently? On introspection, I think it is all of these:

  • Amazing teamwork. No one competes here against one another. All for the school. It is one for all and all for one. 
  • Super teachers – in my 29 years of being in education, I am yet to find a more dedicated and focussed lot.
  • A great set of students who love and cherish every aspect of the school. Most of the students are self motivated and bring loads of laurels to their alma mater – be it in academics or co-curriculars.
  • Great leadership with an all encompassed vision.
  • A huge community of support staff who are the cogs in our wheel and keep the systems moving.
  • Phenomenal systems in place – so much so that the school can easily run on autopilot!
  • We do boast of a very low teacher attrition rate. When teachers leave, it is mostly to relocate to their home countries.
  • A very supportive parent community who engage with us whenever needed – substitution, trips, sponsorship and in scores of other areas.
  • If I may also add it is a happy school – so less stress for all and more smiles around!

To each one of you who helped us leave golden footprints in the sands of time – here’s a toast to your effort and Gracias! Merci!!

Khalifa Award

I am proud to be part of this wonderful institution. Awards and Prizes bring more responsibilities and challenges in their wake. Yes, we need to keep improving. We need to tweak and fine tune things. We need to work harder than ever. Complacency should never set in… So even while basking in the euphoria of this fabulous achievement, my mind reaches out to the enchanting final stanza of ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening‘ by one of my favourite poets – Robert Frost.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Yes, I do have miles to go. We do have miles to go… ahead with our responsibilities and commitments. Make every impossible possible. Make every difference in each child – all of whom have been so trustingly entrusted to us! Cheers to us!!! 🙂 😀 We surely rock!!!!!!!!

Resources:

  1. http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/sharjah-our-own-girls-school-gets-award-1.1170797 Photo credit also to this article.
  2. 2nd phot0 credit: http://www.gemsoo-sharjah.com/home.php

Are we equipping our Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs?

The other day, I was reading a very interesting hypothesis by the celebrated columnist and author, The World is Flat fame, Thomas L Friedman. His formula for knowledge acquisition in the 21st century is CQ+PQ>IQ. i.e. Curiosity Quotient + Passion Quotient will be greater than Intelligence Quotient. Thomas Friedman states that when curiosity is paired with passion in the exploration of a subject of interest, an individual may be able to acquire an amount of knowledge comparable that of a person who is exceptionally intelligent, because of the vast amount of information resources available through the Internet. He goes on a step further and declares, “Give me the kid with a passion to learn and a curiosity to discover and I will take him or her over the less passionate kid with a huge IQ every day of the week.” IQ “still matters, but CQ and PQ … matter even more.” For an educator this is sweet music. But are we equipping our students with these smart quotients in the classrooms is a million dollar question?

Juxtaposed to this is the resignation letter of Mr Gerald Conti, Social Studies Department Leader at Westhill High School, New York. After 27 years of teaching, he felt his profession no longer exists. The policy makers, he felt, have sold out education to private industries like Pearson Education, who have gone hammer and tongs with standardized tests. (I must add here that CBSE has launched an assessment training programme. No prizes for guessing. Yes, its partner is Pearson education!)

Seth Godin in his Stop Stealing Dreams says, “as long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble. The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it?”

“Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.” says Bill Ayers in his book, To teach: the Journey of a Teacher, by William Ayers.

To me the crux of the matter is simple. Let us make schools places of joy and fun. Let us make our students thinkers and creators. Decades from now, they will thank us for inculcating in them these skills. Let our children not say “I hate school”, like in this cartoon.

Meanwhile, it is sad to see the ‘assembly line’ model working stronger than ever though we have moved away from the Industrial Age where conformity and standardisation were the norm. Without teaching creativity and being inspirational in the classroom how can we create in our students CQ – Curiosity Quotient and PQ – Passion Quotient? Without these it is not possible for them to take up jobs of the future!

Mr. Conti, you have hit the nail on the head. You have done your best. So may you be able to live a superannuated life free of guilt!

Resources: