Learning, laughing and living

Neha Pradhan Arora

I became a teacher quite by chance. I grew up the daughter of a teacher and for as long as I can remember, I wanted to work with children – be a kindergarten teacher, start a crèche…. But as I grew up, my aspirations changed and I wanted to do something to change the world and help lots of people. I had never been a teacher but had taught younger children in different contexts. But I didn’t really consider myself a teacher or seriously think I could be one.

I went on to do my Bachelors in Social Work from Nirmala Niketan – College of Social Work, Mumbai. I was the ‘teacher’ for my friends before the exams, but I still didn’t think I could be a teacher or that I wanted to be one. I then did my Masters in Social Work and thought I was on my way to changing the world. I had strong opinions (I still do), a strong mind (gotten stronger, I think) and a passion for working hard at my dreams (still working hard at newer dreams!) And a belief that I could and would change the world.

Two years and one job later, I still had opinions but my mind was confused about what my dreams were and what I should and could change. I knew it wasn’t the world, anymore. So what did I want to do? I went back to exploring options about working with children or adolescents. It was at this time that I got called back to Akshar (Kolkata). My mother had been working at Akshar for the last few years. The school itself was less than a decade old. I had helped there for a week when I was on holiday in Calcutta once. The Principal had offered me a job even then and I (I’m ashamed to say) had scoffed at the idea then. But now, I met her again and said, ok, I’ll do it till I find something else. (Temporary, mind you!)

Five years, 1 B.Ed and many (mis)adventures later, I was hooked for life! I knew that for me a classroom was one of the most exciting places because here I could create my own world. Here, I continued to learn, laugh and live, in a new way every day. Here, I knew that the largest sphere of influence that I can ever have, is on one child’s life. Loving and giving to each child is all I needed to do – the change would then take care of itself.

While Akshar was where I discovered I was a teacher, I believe my journey began much earlier. From being the daughter of a teacher to choosing another as my life-partner; and being a student in the years in between, I encountered different kinds of teachers as mentors, as guides and as colleagues. Here are five teaching-lessons I picked up along the way –

Continue to learn, simply for the joy of learning!
My mother who has been a teacher since before I was born delights in learning new tools on Excel, PowerPoint and Google Drive; wants me to help her plan her sessions on leadership for her students and attends Khan Academy Workshops when she gets a chance!

Have conversations with your students – listen to them and talk to them!
I can remember a handful of teachers in school and college who had interesting, impactful, deep and enriching conversations with us. Not because they were teaching us something, but only because they listened and talked. They shared bits of their life, their flaws, their fears, their dreams and listened as we voiced our own. I still remember the feeling of being treated as an equal.

Be available. Be there.
I was lucky to have mentors in college who made themselves available for me when I needed them. One was the vice-principal of the college, the other, a head of a very busy department but they made time to help me deal with professional, personal and sometimes ‘just me’ issues. Sometimes by staying back after class hours, sometimes giving me priority over other things – they did not make me feel special – just cared for and watched over. So even though I was in a hostel, far from family, I knew someone grown-up had my back.

You are the magician in your classroom – and outside!
At Akshar I worked with some of the most creative, fun and courageous teachers to learn that there is magic in every classroom only if you believe you are the magician. From writing plays, to having mango festivals, to fairytales and food, to theme-based games to so many firsts in the school – I saw, I tried and I learnt. I made mistakes but as with the students I was helped till I learnt. I learnt to recognize that spark of joy, of discovery, of realization in a child’s eyes that is created by the magic! When I experimented with new tools and outdoor learning experiences, I realized you can create the magic anywhere!

Staying connected – with ex-students, colleagues, associates and people who inspire!
My husband became a teacher when he was a student himself. In a career spanning more than two decades, he has created a huge network of students, parents, colleagues and associates – and he makes an effort to stay connected. We have attended shows, met people for coffee, discussed business ideas, shared practices and had many houseguests within his network. I have been introduced to so many entrepreneurs, educators and young people in professions I had not even heard of earlier. Many have brought us new opportunities of learning. He also connects with people who inspire him at conferences and on digital platforms and initiates collaborative projects. In today’s world, the openness to collaborate can only be built after we build circles of learning and networks of connections.

In my conviction and practices today, I see glimpses of all my experiences and influences. I am a grateful and proud teacher.

The author continues to explore the purpose of education and learning through her work with schools and communities. She believes it is only through the creation of empathic, empowered and joyful learning communities that this purpose can be achieved. She currently lives in Bengaluru and can be reached at neha7779@gmail.com.