This is the twenty-fifth year of our school, a good time to muse on many parts of our experience.
In the year 1990, when the school began, we had classes pre-Nursery to 5. I was the one who devised the curriculum for each.
For the pre-school, I went by what I had learnt from bringing up my children, then nine and four, through seven and two years of school, respectively. Irfana had gone to Hyde Park Pre-school Program from age three to four, and had gone to Kindergarten and grades one, two and three in Providence, RI. She had studied in Rajghat Besant School in grade 4, and in the middle of many different classes in Loreto, Lucknow. These four places, Chicago, Providence, Rajghat and Loreto comprised three different kinds of knowledge. And before them all, Irfana had been for one year in a Parents’ Co-op.
In the Co-op I learnt to respect children. We had these five children and even when the parents had left them to one home each day of the week, they were in fact always looking over the host’s shoulders. Everything could be discussed in the meetings, which were frequent. So, even if initially it may have seemed to be a game, how children were treated, time and peer pressure wore away my habits. Every child had a personality, had personal dignity, expressed in preferences and reactions—and we were to respect these. Connor liked cars and still wore diapers, Victoria liked cheese and her curly hair, and Stephen liked to pick his nose and eat his snot.
Equally, I learnt to plan. If you did not have a plan, you would suddenly have a house full of children and be helpless before them. I was also embarrassed to find that far less qualified parents than my husband and me always had a plan in place for the day they were the caregivers. Out of shame and peer pressure, we too started to plan. Once we did it, we liked it, and could not do otherwise.
In Hyde Park Pre-school, I volunteered and observed. They had three classes, two, three and four year olds’. They used the upstairs of a church unit, a corridor and three rooms and an office. It was expensive, as all pre-school programs in the USA are. Here I learnt that there is a procedure to everything, a vocabulary, a set of duties and results. I learnt actual content, that three year olds coloured between lines, cut and pasted, did gross motor and fine motor activity.
In Providence, Nandini started going to a Pre-School for the whole day. Initially she cried at being left, as had Irfana. Then she was in her element. In this pre-school I understood how the physical space was supposed to look. A bare, carpeted space with a mezzanine in one corner. Shelves and boxes of toys and manipulables. Low desks and kid-size chairs. Blocks and wagons. Paper and crayons. Child-friendly bathrooms. Many assistants. Parents talking to teachers and assistants as they drop off and pick up their children. Nandini standing in the middle of the room with her hands in her pockets, like a gang leader, wondering, “So where should I start today?”
Irfana was meanwhile in Kindergarten in Martin Luther King Elementary. It was interesting that by that time I understood enough of the American aims and methods to realise that this kindergarten was a little basic. They did all the same things by then familiar to me, but they did everything mechanically. Irfana’s social life in the classroom was more interesting to her than anything that came from the teacher.
When we set up our school, we put all the right materials in our pre-school classes. I personally taught in one full time and guided the teachers in the others. For years we gave them in-house training, since they had never had relevant training before. This I learnt from scratch. This I taught myself. This is something I had never observed and picked up.
I was extremely gentle initially. I was a friend to my teacher-students. I would suggest something with anecdotal backing, broad smiles, and the hint of an apology. I considered them my colleagues and was apologetic that I was teaching them. I was alarmed to be the reformer-educator-moderniser and would rather they all magically rose to the level of the imaginative, innovative teachers we needed.
It took years for me to face my failure and acknowledge that the method was entirely too subtle and grossly inappropriate for what I wanted to achieve. I then tried to plan more carefully.
Some teachers did begin to understand, through my growing interactive techniques and use of materials and spaces, how to, say teach Maths in Primary classes, or beginning English reading and writing. The success, even if partial, was immensely encouraging. I began to believe that teachers’ education is indeed possible, and also to glimpse that success in it was directly related to the educator’s comprehension of the level of the teacher-students and the degree to which she was willing to labour over her planning.
Now when I hear that “teachers can’t do __. They are hopeless at __,” I think to myself, not too kindly, “Yes, ma’am (it’s usually a Principal speaking), that’s because they have not been taught properly.”
Together with this confidence, however, goes a lot of modesty. At the very time that some teachers were learning from my labours, there were others who were looking attentively at me, nodding, participating—only to go on to never applying anything of what they had certainly understood in their classes. Again, I am a nice person and it took me longer than necessary to acknowledge that there was a certain relationship in the school that made it rational for them to cut corners and not actually follow policies. I was also naïve, still. Instead of pushing some important methods as ‘rules’ or ‘policies,’ I still presented them as suggestions. Teachers still remained my respected colleagues and trusted peers.
One huge problem in Indian schooling that I have encountered first-hand for twenty-five years is that, no matter how brilliant a curriculum you design, the teacher could sabotage it. He/she (I am really reluctant to be anti-gender hierarchy by using a ‘she’ normatively as I would otherwise do, because in teaching there are mostly she’s, and these disappointing trainees I am thinking of were in fact mostly he’s) might do so in a number of ways.
You ask for a weekly submission of their planning. He will submit something week after week that is so obviously just a summary of the chapters of the book that it’s like a clear message to you, “You want me to plan? See if you can make me. I’ll take five minutes and write down the topics from the contents page of the text book.” You explain to him again, knowing he is intelligent and understood the first time. He nods, smiles, and does the same thing the next week, and for every week for months to come. Your choices are: fire him—a limited choice, since with this choice, you might end up always firing everyone; do the damn planning for him, or, same thing, sit with him and dictate and waste your breath explaining—can you do this each week?; excuse him from the planning and hope to shame him into cooperation. I am sure there are other, smarter methods I could have tried, but what actually happened was the last.
Then there was the retiree, as I thought of him. You have discussed from many angles the problems of class management, the school’s philosophy, the nature of the child, how to create a certain culture and milieu in the class. Yet when you go to the classroom, the teacher is following none of this. He is shouting at the children, striving to ‘discipline’ them in pathetic ways. They are louder and more disrespectful by the minute—all thanks to him. He then retreats and let them act free, teaching almost nothing. Yes, he just sits there. The children run around tossing their books in the air, a party in each period. The teacher would turn the tables neatly: “What can I do? These children are so ill-behaved.”
Then there are those teachers who decide that enough is enough with all the imaginative and creative stuff and they will get to the brass tacks now and they totally subvert the teaching ideas gone over and over. They take the textbook and they make the children read repeatedly. They dictate answers to questions. They put up meanings on the blackboard. They give dictation. They put red marks on the copies. They bark and they threaten and they preach moral outcomes and praise and criticise shamelessly.
This was perhaps the worst of all. Why, why would one start and run a school premised on change, only to be thrown back into the pit by one recalcitrant young person who thought she was too smart for you?
I am sounding antagonistic, but really my problem even at that point was that I was not strict enough. These were very young people, far younger than me, far less qualified, far less trained and experienced. It was simply my ignorance about what constituted ‘management’ and my misplaced ideas about equality and collegiality that produced this dreadful situation.
To be continued…. How this is ‘postcolonial’….