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Learning the Art of Conversation – Part 2

This follows the first part. Complete memoirs from the Teach For India Fellowship here.

Teaching in public schools often fails because of the assumption that the profession involves working just with students. In making this assumption, one forgets that teaching is essentially leadership – and the two rules of leadership I described in part 1 apply to this profession as well.

As a leader, you work with the entire ecosystem involving all stakeholders, and never only the direct beneficiary. Apart from students, other teachers, the school administration, parents, and the community the students live in, are the closest in your sphere of influence. They are all part of the challenge one must face in order to deliver quality education that helps transform students’ lives for the future, as much as for the next examination.

My ordeal with the hostile schoolteacher was the first in a series of experiences that introduced me to this ecosystem. To work with the existing teachers as a partner, and not as a saviour, was essential to the students’ education. Now as I understood the role of other school teachers in the work I’d undertaken, I could only imagine how they and I could help each other improve the ecosystem. I had access to superior techniques and global best practices; they had superior knowledge of the community, the students and the system.

I learned that as a leader, I was not to complain if they did not yield – for my challenge was not the students, but the ecosystem of which students were only a part.


The school administration and parents often complained that I did not evaluate work students did in their notebooks, that I did not write answers to textbook questions on the blackboard for students to copy, and that I didn’t focus enough on their handwriting.

Puzzled and frustrated in the beginning, I later understood how this was yet another part of the challenge. By the end of my first year of teaching, it was clear that ignoring this challenge could cost me trust parents and the school had in me, which could hurt the education I, and my organization in the longer term, wanted to give.

With a better command now over the art (and need) of difficult conversations to solve problems, I decided to meet the school principal for a chat one day. I showed print-outs of assessments I used to test my kids and my vision document. I explained how the kids had performed in similar tests earlier, and how they had improved.

I showed how the questions in the assessments were a more reliable way to ensure learning, why I was not paranoid about handwriting, and why it was more important to help students be able to answer questions themselves rather to help them fill their notebooks with answers they do not understand.

The first conversation was unexpectedly easy – but I later realized it was supposed to be so. Everybody likes to hear about new ways to tackle problems, until they settle down with old ones again. Numbers outside the mould of a 0-100 marks scale excited her, and so did children’s reading levels (i.e. the grade level a child could actually read at; for example, a class 3 child might be able to read as well as comprehend a grade level 5 text, while another might just manage to read a nursery level text, let alone comprehend).

She appreciated that handwriting, checking notebooks and even possibly “finishing the syllabus in time” could take a backseat over learning outcomes, but shared her problem: the parents may not understand all of this; how do we explain it to them? I had made a mistake yet again. I had started the conversation from my point of view, not hers. I had initiated my pitch solely to convince her of my magic, whereas it should have been to share ideas and listen to her problems as well.

I said I’d conduct parent-teacher meetings for the purpose, which she could attend. This way, I took on myself yet another test of the art of conversation to solve problems – the conversation, this time, was to be had with parents, not one-on-one, but with a diverse group simultaneously.


I called such a meeting in November 2014. The meeting, I envisaged, would help all stakeholders come on the same page, but the question was, how? I had never imagined I would write down plans and scripts for such a meeting.

Parents came in all varieties. While all of them wanted to give a good education to their kids, they might not know how or why, and what they needed to do for that (if anything) – given that many of my kids were first-generation learners. Blaming parents is easy, but as I said, they are part of the ecosystem. Gaps in how they think are to be closed, not blamed or held in contempt.

My class had parents ranging from illiterate to graduate. Some wanted to spend time with their children but couldn’t, others had a lot of time for them but didn’t know how to make good use of it. Some mothers were victims of domestic violence; many fathers of alcoholism, disability and cruel work conditions. (My first home visit to meet with a student’s mother ended up in the kid’s father turning up at school, drunk, to create a ruckus about how I had gone home while his wife was alone.)

Some saw teachers as partners, others saw us as adversaries to be dealt with strongly in order to get results. There were those who I never saw except on exam result days, and those who called me up or met me every day to know what’s going on.

Sometimes I faced resistance if I made their boys share seats with girls, because “girls are the origin of all evil”, as one parent put it. Parents of gentle, studious children wanted their kids to be kept away from rogue ones. Some girls were not allowed to attend after-school extra classes because I was not of a gender safe to give their girls company after the rest of the school premises had been vacated.

There also were times when such disputes were resolved by other parents who thought differently, or who I had convinced already. Parents changed, throughout the two years, as did their kids and I.

The parent-teacher meeting I had to get us all on the same page and to explain myself, is the subject of an earlier article I wrote, titled “Exploring Excellent Education”. The article illustrates how I undertook the challenge of explaining my vision for my students to parents – using the Art of Conversation as I understood it and explained in part 1.


To conclude the two-part series about the Art of Conversation, I reiterate what I said in the first part. Mindsets are like mountains, and change is gradual. We battle opposing mindsets all the time, in family, society, friendships, relationships and at workplace. It’s unreasonable to expect mindsets to change through protest, anger or preaching. Understanding this assumes greater importance for changemakers trying to tackle the world’s biggest problems, such as those of social inequality, religious and social conservatism, gender bias, and political ideologies.

Leadership has the added responsibility of working with the entire ecosystem of stakeholders – as understanding partners, not as condescending saviours.

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