An exchange of stories: what I remember my students by

Ankita Rajasekharan

Calling myself a ‘teacher’ is something I have struggled with. There is a certain weight to it that I find difficult to push against; there are connotations that I do not identify with, it comes with a responsibility that I was threatened by but have had the opportunity to challenge and explore. I then came to describe what I do as ‘work with children’; I’d say – I work with children on language and art, I work with children on socio-emotional skills, I work with children in nature. I feel it truly encompasses what happens within the classroom, with or without walls, for a classroom is anywhere where there are learners and an experience to enable learning. When I ‘work’ with a child on, say art, it is not me instructing the child in what art is, how to make art, what good art is; it is the child and me understanding one another’s ideas on art, it is an exchange of skill, knowledge and thoughts. It is a conversation that flows both ways, a conversation of words, actions and emotions.

I remember one evening, during my volunteering days in college, I was sitting amidst a group of children. We were rehearsing for a sponsorship program and taking a break. Settling down, I crossed my legs and re-tied my pony tail. I shifted a little and straightened my back. And then I noticed an eight-year-old sitting across me, looking keenly at me, sitting as I sat, tie her hair as I did. I smiled at her; she came to me and said – ‘I have bangles like yours. I will be like you. I want to speak like you and look like you’. I remember feeling flattered and rather touched that a child looked up to me and wanted to be like me. For months since, around children, I began to feel the need to be a perfect adult – one that can be aspired to grow into. On my first job as a teacher at a school, this attempt at being the perfect adult was forcefully challenged and I am so grateful for that. I couldn’t simply be an individual that sat, spoke and lived in patience and calm all the time. There were times of annoyance, of hurt, of wonder, of compassion, of dislike, of care. One child was especially hurt by me and thought I was unfair for having shared a book with another child instead of with her. She expressed her anger with tears and words that were hard for me to receive. Needless to say it affected me, but I found myself trying to empathize with her hurt while also holding my ground, even expressing my emotional state that was now affected by her pain. She listened, as I listened to her. We acknowledged each other’s perspective of the situation and the difference therefore, and that was all that was required. Neither had to succumb to the other, but only respect and truly be present to one another’s experience. I began to see every child I came by as a completely independent being, meant to grow into their own unique potential. My ego is no more flattered by children hoping to be me when they grow up. Instead, I strive to be able to enable the child to believe in and be proud of their own being, encouraging a life that will allow for that self exploration and self actualization.

I haven’t been persuaded to re-think and re-question my views and understanding on so many things as much as I have been in the course of my interactions with children in learning spaces. The very process of learning, the way I had imagined it, came to be unravelled and re-worked on so significantly over the last many years. One of the classrooms I worked in had children who were first generation learners. I had always believed that learning was born out of curiosity first and then rigour. But it would be years before I saw a startling example of that. A child (10 years old) had been struggling for months on end with English. It wasn’t her native tongue, it wasn’t even spoken locally as much and here she was, trying to learn to read a language so foreign to her, the words were nothing but sounds put together, holding no meaning. One morning, we took a walk before school (this was a residential space where morning walks were something the teachers and hostellers went on) and she was fascinated beyond measure by the variety of clouds in the sky. She had questions about the names of the clouds, why some were thick and fluffy, how one knew which ones brought rain, what caused clouds to be formed and more! At school that day, I showed her a book from the library that had pictures of clouds and short descriptions of each, in English. She was frustrated as much as thrilled. I offered to read it out to her but she wanted to read it again and again, by herself. The rigour in her phonetic practice that followed was astonishing! She went from feeling alienated by a language to a fresh zeal to comprehend it, almost overnight. It was pure magic when it suddenly all made sense to her – that sounds put together made words and that’s how reading happened. Over the next many weeks, she went on to read the book on clouds numerous times, learning what the words meant along the way, wanting to know more and spending endless hours watching the clouds and checking the book, attempting to pronounce words like cirrus, nimbostratus, altocumulus. We are all curious about something, there are things that make us wonder and the pursuit of that could be our journey of learning. Recognizing that each may wonder about different things and that learning when it came with value and meaning was the most exciting space for the learner and the facilitator/teacher was something I discovered from many such experiences.

I have often heard that teaching was something that did not have immediate results, that the results of teaching were to be seen only years later, when the child has become an adult. After having been in classrooms and different learning spaces, I feel differently. Learning is happening in every interaction, impact is being made; not always visible, assessable or tangible but it is happening. Many children come to mind who have had a lasting impact on me, for they have shared stories with me, stories of their own being. And there is nothing more valuable than that exchange. To every child that has welcomed me into their lives, I have immense and deep-felt gratitude.

The author has been working in the field of education as a teacher for four years. She is currently freelancing and working with children on socio-emotional skill development while indulging in making art, spending time in nature and reading leisurely. She can be reached at [email protected].

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