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Exploring Excellent Education

This post was written during my second year in the Teach For India Fellowship. A collection of my memoirs are filed here.

When Teach For India lays down its vision, “One day all children will attain an excellent education,” people usually get fascinated by the word “all”: friends of Teach For India Fellows often post comments about how amazing that person is for joining the Fellowship, serving poor kids. Even Fellows, me included, often bask in the glory of doing “something for the society”. We keep bringing the phrase “underprivileged, low-income kids” in our conversations, and bring the focus on the wrong things.

Amidst all this, we all fail to look at the word “excellent”. I have studied in good schools, had a highly educated upbringing, have taught kids for a year and a half, and for that long, also been amidst passionate people who have explored education deeply. And only very recently have I begun to understand what “excellent education” might mean.

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It was ironic but fascinating that my recent inspiration for what “excellent education” might mean came not from the people who train and manage us, but from the students we teach. My first conscious encounter with excellence was when a 10-year-old child from one of our classrooms was talking on gender equality, education, philosophy, and life, with wisdom that I didn’t have when I was 17. And when 12-year-olds articulated their self-awareness effortlessly, they were putting to shame final-year engineering students who spend hours brushing up their “strengths and weaknesses” to reveal, sans conviction, in front of the interviewer the next day.

Then there were little students helping their communities in their free time, kids conducting surveys and talking about problems with the education system, and still others showing unbelievable respect for diversity of perspectives. And when I started meeting such kids at a more frequent basis, my insides turned: I started realizing what it takes, and where it takes. I realized what it means to imagine about our students: “Where they come from should not determine where they go.”

The difference between those engineering students and these little kids was the vision of excellence their teachers had for their education. Not that some of them were bad teachers; rather, the culture of teaching we traditionally have hardly opens our minds to what teaching should consist of. Much of it is a cultural issue, not a skill issue.

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Exploring excellence in vision

Recently, I conducted a parent–teacher conference in my school, to explain my vision for my students. I started by describing three components of my vision – (a) being good in academic achievement, (b) being a good human being, and (c) being a responsible citizen in the society at large. I explained how these three would look like, five years from now, ten years from now. I showed them videos of my students doing things and articulating thoughts on their own to show how they were on the journey to achieve that. The parents agreed, approved, and applauded. But that was not all.

“We do have many people around us who become these three things: academically sound, good ethical human beings, and responsible citizens. But then, there is a subset among these people, who possess an additional trait: leadership. Academics, values and citizenship aside, what do you think should the teacher do extra to bring that fourth aspect into our student vision?” I put the question.

Parents thought; they had never been made to think so deeply about education before. Even the most educated parents and teachers often fail to think over this; education for many means taking a journey planned by people dead long back, whose vision we don’t know. That template of the journey is validated by many stories of random successes we hear; but we fail to recognize that it’s invalidated more than validated, by ample stories of mediocrity, sorrow and struggle around us.

So, the parents came up with different answers, but I kept pushing them towards the answer I was seeking, and it did come: “For that extra trait, our child needs to understand himself and others deeply.” Self-awareness and awareness of others. How much do we incorporate self-awareness in our vision for excellent education? All the Teach For India students who were changing my perspectives on education every other day possessed this one trait that set them apart from even their privileged counterparts from high-income schools (so much for mere “charity work”!): self-awareness.

Next, I showed them a video of a student of mine, Kajal, all of seven years of age, confidently articulating things such as:

  • her feedback for her teacher (me) – what I do well and where I lack
  • critiquing herself, on what she does well, which values she finds easy to follow, which values she finds difficult to follow
  • how she has changed in the past year and a half, ever since I started teaching her,
  • what she has learnt about herself as a person in this time,
  • what her strengths are, and where she needs to develop on,
  • what are the strengths and areas for development for others around her,
  • what she wants to become, and what is she doing today to reach that goal.
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When I was 20, even after the best of education that I got, I would have struggled to think about all this about myself with supreme clarity, let alone articulate. The video was followed by a string of questions to think upon for the parents:

Is she able to understand others’ actions and provide honest critical feedback to them? Does she appreciate the fact that everyone has some positives and some weaknesses they can improve upon? Is she able to reflect on her own actions? Is she comfortable with having weaknesses, yet determined to work upon them? Can she identify things she does well – things she needs to continue doing to be successful as a student, as a person, and as a citizen? Can she assess herself and her growth as a person over a given time span? Can she connect her actions today with her vision for herself a decade and a half later?

Above all, is she, at seven today, on the path to reach that “extra” goal of becoming a leader of tomorrow?

The parents knew better that day what I was doing with their students every day.

“Self-awareness” – the focus of this post – is just the first step in my understanding of one way of looking at excellent education. There are dozens of other perspectives, and each perspective has so many wonderful components, still unknown to me.

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The path to excellence

My students are in the third grade currently, and whatever Kajal said was possible because of the independence in thought process that was unintentionally facilitated by me over a year and a half. I had never realized before this that I could actually work on the self-awareness of these students at this age. But seeing what many of them can articulate already, I wonder where they will be if consciously trained for all this. Soon, “daily reflections” and “giving and receiving mutual feedback” entered my classroom… independence started making appearances, self-critiquing started becoming a habit – the training that intends to make students independent leaders must be a process that allows them independence in the first place.

Our classrooms have ample stories of that vision of excellent education coming alive. The background of these students may just make the path to excellence tougher; it doesn’t lower the bar of excellence itself. And this is where it becomes easy to understand why the Teach For India Fellowship is such a difficult place to get selected for. To sustain the pursuit of excellence at teaching for two years is no easy journey. There is a reason why teaching fails at the ground level in our country – we lack training, exposure, perseverance to stick with the commitment for years, and above all, we lack a student vision.

We have conventionally been imparting education that follows a tradition and hopes for an “IAS, doctor, engineer”. A planned vision, on the other hand, enables us to impart an education that aims for a certain goal, and works towards it by planning towards it. So, while a noisy classroom where students are clueless and the teacher relaxed may not fit in the conventional scheme of things, it probably does, in the context of a teacher whose vision requires him to facilitate experiences that build independence among the students.

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The next time you appreciate a Teach For India Fellow, please try to think of the impact on the set of kids that Fellow teaches, and not about the background of those kids. Our Fellows are not doing charity here; we mean it when we say “excellent education”: something that the best and the richest schools in the country often fail to give. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the vision to.

Amidst all this, I am sure it also becomes clear why the Fellowship changes the lives of the Fellows themselves, in terms of their own self-awareness, skills, values and mindsets.

Published inCampus DiariesExperiencesFeaturedTeach For India Days

2 Comments

  1. Vindhya Vindhya

    Hey Tanay! I’m glad I chanced upon your blog 🙂 you’ve articulated your thoughts and experiences very well! I’ve applied for the fellowship this year and I just got done with the final round last Saturday.. Waiting to hear back now. Could you tell me about some of the toughest and most challenging situations you’ve faced as a fellow? Would love to hear about it. I want to prepare myself mentally for the road I might take.

    • Tanay Sukumar Tanay Sukumar

      Hey Vindhya!
      Let me know what the result is. All the best. 🙂
      The path will be challenging no doubt, do have a look at my other post “A Year At Teach For India” (link at the top of the above post). It is not really about challenges per se, but the post will give you an idea about the journey.

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