This post is about some of my reflections and learnings from the Teach For India Fellowship. A collection of all such pieces is filed here.
Towards the fag end of my two years of teaching in an underserved community, I wrote in detail about self-awareness as an important element of excellent education. Observing the real world now for a year and a half since I quit teaching, my understanding of what education must unconditionally achieve for our children has again and again led me back to the same answer: awareness of self and others.
My Fellowship and my peers at Teach For India during those two years taught me to seek excellence, but I’d never thought deeply about where the lack of excellence in education could lead to, other than the vicious cycle of poverty, patriarchy, crime and suppressed ambitions: truths contextual to the students I taught and the communities they came from. What about the middle- and upper middle-class: where does rampant lack of excellence in education lead them?
My belief – that inspiring self-awareness among children is essential to excellent education – now has more clarity, and my examples are no more kids who achieved, but adults who failed. When I moved out of the Fellowship, I was suddenly appalled to observe people I’d failed to notice before: people who had been able to afford good education but had an utter lack of purpose, control, and confidence in life. Family, friends, and social circles were falling to societal pressures of races they were not meant for, marriages they were not prepared for, materialistic goals they could not justify, and jobs they did not love.
These 18 months have helped me look back at my teaching years, and I have realised that education must be explored for what lack of excellence in it does to us, across economic strata. This is essential so that we stop subjecting our middle- and upper middle-class to education that just about works, and our underprivileged classes to education that, at best, appeases. When we say education, “excellence” must be implicit, not a modifier.
Like the friends, family, and social circles I mentioned, I have also been a victim of that lack of excellence. I could not articulate at 20 about myself what I enabled my student Kajal to do at seven; I did not know the values I live for till I came to Teach For India; I did not reflect over my actions, motivations and purpose in life before my manager and mentor at TFI sat down with me to discuss these. I did not know my inner self. While those two years as a teacher helped me learn a lot of what 18 years of education could not, I know that for a lot of those friends, family, and social circles, life continues to be the same.
When we do not know ourselves deeply enough, the best we have to emulate is the world. And a world in which faith continues to take lives, and apathy and inequality continue to propagate each other, isn’t really the best world to depend on. Something is definitely not right with the education that leaves us with nothing but such a world to look up to, without giving us the resolve to lead our own selves and our people into lasting change. An excellent education must push for the ability to lead oneself and our society as a person and citizen.
Over the last few months, observing how lack of self-awareness around looks like has been a real learning for me. Constantly looking for social validation – falling for peer or family pressure, settling for smaller ambitions, conforming to beliefs and comfort zones – is only part of the symptom. I’ll give only a few common examples to illustrate my point.
1. In personal and professional lives, we blame circumstances more than ourselves because we do not know, and acknowledge, our weaknesses. We find excuses, not ways, and this is dangerous because it limits our potential and prevents us from finding solutions within ourselves so as to do better the next time. It makes us comfortable with settling down for less. An excellent education could have replaced this tendency to seek external reasons with intent to reflect and improve oneself.
2. Awareness of self leads to awareness of others, and we fare no good on that either. We blame circumstances also because we expect too much from others and the world around us – and this shows lack of awareness of others. We give people labels based on how they make us feel, not on what they are. We are more likely to say “He is nice to me” or “She is a total bitch” than we are to say “He is a generally nice person” or “She struggles with understanding others’ points of view”. Not being able to evaluate people and their actions leads to a lot of hatred around us, and this is dangerous because we might also be the object of hatred for some out of sheer misunderstanding.
That hatred could have taken the form of acceptance if education had taught us how to explore people. The world would be a much nicer place if we could identify people’s strengths and weaknesses and their struggles with themselves.
3. We are often afraid of questioning authority. A summon by the boss or a teacher leads to a chill of fear, because formal education is a system that runs on others identifying our weaknesses for us and rebuking us for it. Had education been a system that taught us to evaluate ourselves, be confident of our strengths and work on our weaknesses, we would march towards our boss or teacher with confidence – confidence, enough to be sacked from work or to have parents summoned to school, because we know what we did wrong and why.
These are only some examples, but hopefully give a fair idea of how lacking self-awareness is dangerous and why it is an intrinsic problem with our education culture. Education need not create ideal human beings, but self-aware human beings, and definitely not confused, malicious human beings whose thoughts and actions are in a constant attempt to align with those of peers and society.
As the small bubbles of our individual worlds continue to limit the potential our role might have in this world, education is the only means that can help us see the larger picture. Our classrooms teach us academics and how to ace exams, respect teachers, and win competitions. As for leadership, it is wrongly believed one is born with it. But it is not so: leadership can be inculcated from childhood, by schools and teachers, by an education culture that has the vision to build leaders.
Leadership is not the art of being prefects and house captains at school – that is more a lesson on handling power. Teaching leadership is not the art of bringing up future prime ministers and CEOs either. We already subject our children to readymade templates of life which are difficult enough to adhere to – school, college, one secure job, one secure marriage, children, promotions and salary hikes, saving for children’s marriage, retirement, and death. So, why lead them into believing that being leaders equals being larger than life?
Leadership is simply, the art of being in control because you understand yourself and others around you – in terms of actions, thoughts, experiences, motivations, goals, responsibility, and purpose. When our children can do this, they will be able to do great things for themselves and the society.