Making a difference-differently

Neeraja Raghavan

There has been an inspiring e-mail doing the rounds for some years now: most teachers (who access e-mail) may well have read it. At a party, guests are seated at a dining table, and a flamboyant CEO condescendingly asks a school teacher what she makes. Stung by such a question, the teacher hammers out a detailed response, ending up by turning around and asking him: “I make a difference to the lives of my students. What do YOU make?”

It is this earnest desire to ‘make a difference’ – and perhaps, also, to see the difference that one has made – which prompts some to choose the career of a teacher. For those who make this choice, of course, there is a concomitant closing of doors to a luxurious lifestyle. Barring a few international residential schools in India (where it is possible to earn far more than an average teacher), even today, a teacher’s salary in India cannot compare with that of a corporate executive. (As a young school teacher, I recall writing in my diary, “This work is fun, but sadly, I can never make too much money through it. By making this choice, I have said goodbye to a big bank balance.”)


But money is only one part of the story.

“Making a difference” is the biggest part, in my view.

This has its limitations in the boundaries of one school or one class. While the fulfillment of a life spent in nurturing several generations* is unarguable, many an experienced teacher has been spurred to ask if one can make more of a difference, thus asking:

Can one have a multiplicative impact on larger numbers of children, especially those belonging to the underserved sections of society?

Can one make a difference to the way teachers think? So that these teachers can, in turn, bring about a transformation in the way their students learn?

Can one develop innovative content or design exciting curricula so that learning is more meaningful?

What can one do to develop lively teaching-learning materials so as to enliven the classroom transaction of even the most mediocre teacher?

Such questions came out of the rhetorical box, so to speak, thanks to the mushrooming of NGOs over the last two decades: many of them sponsored by individuals or corporates. Funders as well as teachers were fired by the same spark: to direct their efforts towards the underserved sections of society.

I spoke to five teachers-turned-educationists who shared their feelings after making such a switch.

Ramkishan Cupala had been a Chemistry teacher/lecturer for 15 years and even did an eight-year stint in corporate quality control/R & D jobs. Some years ago, when he found opportunities coming his way to offer his services as an educator to NGOs, he jumped at the chance. He has, in the last five years, done many different things: from heading a rural school (funded by a corporate) to coordinating science demonstrations in mobile laboratories for rural children in South India. “It was my first real connection to rural India,” he says, with shining eyes. “And I love interacting with like-minded people who wish to provide education of international quality to marginalized children.” But, he admits, “when there are small schools and small people – with big dreams – often, money alone is not enough. They need to know how to get things done. Since it takes time to put processes in place, it is frustrating when the corporate culture of meeting deadlines is blindly carried over by the donors. It is great to keep thinking of issues like how does the content developed by me penetrate to the last school teacher in a remote part of Bihar? But one has to remain flexible and not give up until everyone is on board: the key is to remain open without losing sight of the goal.”

Nalini Ravel is a Hindi teacher with over 30 years’ experience in a mix of government-run and private schools. She currently consults with a Bangalore based NGO and enjoys her work thoroughly. “I can’t think of anything negative,” she replies, in answer to my question about the pros and cons of her current role. Laughing, she adds: “I certainly don’t miss corrections! …Oh, yes, the ONLY thing I miss is being in direct touch with children. But apart from that, I love the opportunity of learning about new trends and dimensions in education, experimenting without any fear of failure, reading and updating my own knowledge – something I hardly found time for when I was a school teacher! And the best part is the flexibility: I can even work from home!” For want of time, Nalini has, in fact, had to turn down offers from other corporate-run NGOs who would have liked to utilize her expertise.

Uma Harikumar is a retired math teacher with almost three decades’ of experience, mostly in a government school, now consulting with a Bangalore based NGO. She confesses to an enormous potential for growth in her current role. “Coming from where I did, this opportunity gave me exposure to a totally different way of working. So much more freedom – not at all a top-down approach! And oh, so many more learning opportunities! The most valuable thing I gained was new perspectives, unlike the periodic content based training programmes that I would be sent to, from school. They hardly ever worked with our perspective, you see! Also, I can quickly see the impact of what I am doing here. Like, when we make some digital content, we can actually watch kids enjoying them in front of us. I would never have had all these opportunities as a teacher. Most people I work with here are passionate! So I am constantly motivated, there is always something/someone to ignite my mind – this was not so in a school! Lesson planning and lesson transaction were more routine. Boundaries are less restricting here: I can even cross them sometimes!”

So does Uma find this work more fulfilling than school teaching? “No, I would certainly not make that claim. Making children learn – as a school teacher – satisfies the soul.”

What are the negatives? “There is a danger of sitting in an AC office and getting cut off from the grassroots. Ironically, one’s very aim can slip away from one’s vision and eventually be forgotten. I do miss children and the warmth of my school colleagues, sitting here in my own cubicle! But overall, I would say that for a retired person like me to feel useful and even retain financial independence – is wonderful!”

English Language expert Sunitha Amencherla went from (a decade of) college teaching to working (for almost seven years) in a corporate-run NGO. Looking for challenges beyond routine college teaching, she welcomed the switch to the development sector. Sunitha is of the view that a passionate and committed teacher will make a difference – at the micro level (with all the freedom in the classroom and limitations of curriculum, management, etc.) or the macro level. “But I feel bad about the way corporates are able to lure away excellent teachers from children, by promising opportunities for change and of course, better income! While I can see the need for NGOs to hire excellent teachers for their far-reaching work, it does mean that some children somewhere are being deprived of that teacher’s expertise!”

There is another interesting trend amongst today’s private schools: many of them seek out experts who can help improve their school and classroom processes. Some of these schools are funded by corporates: but others can afford (and wish) to keep themselves up to date with the latest developments in education. Tara Kini has been a physics and music teacher for over three decades and is now ‘a travelling consultant’. She advises several different schools across the country – working with their teachers, content and curricula. “I get to be a part of many school communities, and that allows me to engage sufficiently to be effective, but not so much as to get involved in the everyday politics – which is a relief!” she admits, candidly. As corporate involvement in education increases, Tara foresees greater accessibility to good quality education for rural children and the economically deprived, greater accessibility to digital media and therefore, greater opportunities for employment of these children. “I hope,” she says, “that corporate funding achieves greater equity in the availability of this most precious resource – education!” But there are honest apprehensions: “My fear is that, along with corporate funding, the message that ‘something is worthwhile only if it makes economic sense’ may also pervade the education scene – insidiously. This can make market economy the overarching value on which curricula are built and, in this, I see a loss of value for the more aspiring goals of education.” So Tara feels that it is important for such educationists – even as they use corporate funding – to be firm about quality in education as they define it, based on sound educational practices and their own philosophies.

All five people I spoke to seemed highly satisfied. The interactions with them left me wondering: would such enthusiastic teachers have felt the need to make such a switch if they had found passionate colleagues or their institutions had harnessed their energies right? And why weren’t schools (only NGOs) demanding that their teachers keep up to date with latest trends?

Being one who has herself made this switch, I would like to end with a cautionary note: in their zeal to effect a visible change, the funders of such NGOs may overlook the need for ripened, experienced teachers to advise them. While anyone – even an experienced teacher – can err, the danger of putting an inexperienced teacher behind the steering wheel of change is obvious. Further, weaning away excellent teachers too soon from their own schools would also be unfair: for privileged children, too, deserve a good teacher! So a balanced approach is called for: if sustained change is to be wrought.

Many a teacher has felt richly rewarded by the appreciation of a former student: even after long years have passed! (“I can’t forget you Ma’am! Your classes were amazing!”) This sort of work may not fetch such tangible dividends, but the satisfaction of knowing that one has moved away from the secluded pocket of serving only the privileged, and is attempting (in any small way) to impact many more who are marginalized, is its own reward.

*Who has not been touched by classics like Delderfi eld’s TO SERVE THEM ALL MY DAYS or James Hilton’s GOODBYE MR CHIPS?

The author is an educational consultant, based in Bangalore, as well as a freelance writer. She currently consults with Azim Premji Foundation, Bangalore and HAND IN HAND, Kancheepuram. She can be reached at [email protected].

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