Two teacher friends and a visionary principal

Sheela Ramakrishnan

Friends with benefits – we all have heard this, most often used with disdain! We have also heard about how professionals can never be friends. That may be the case in the cutthroat corporate world, but we educators are a different species.

In my opinion, the school ecosystem is such that the cause for which we all work is larger than ourselves. When colleagues are friends in school, the vibes of that relationship envelop you and along with it those around you.

I say this with personal conviction. There have been several cases when Teacher Plus has asked me to write and the topic has piqued me to say ‘yes’ instantly and then think later about how I would deliver! But this was different – the topic touched a chord directly as it spanned my entire professional and personal life. The yes was instant!

As those who know me well will vouch, the turning point in my life as an educator was my stint at St. James School, Kolkata. It was here that I learnt what impact simple decisions taken with conviction can make – and of course the power of bonding with your colleagues.

Moneesha Sharma joined the school around the same time as I … and there was an instant connection between us. We were both teaching the same grade, though different sections. We started doing our lunches together. Our families met. We clicked. Our thoughts on how and what children should learn matched. We would spend our free periods discussing this and new ways to make our classes more interesting and interactive. This led to experiments with pedagogies that were hugely successful and were a breath of fresh air to the children, parents, and our supervisor, not to mention, the principal, John Mason.

The overall feel-good vibes spread around the primary school community. We deeply believed that children learn best by interrelating subjects (we didn’t have the multidisciplinary jargon then) and so we set up an entire project based on themes that culminated in a grand display of children’s work to parents and students from other schools as well as a mixed subject paper for assessment. We did themes like Explorers, Food, Water and they were witness to some outstanding learning for all of us and an outlet to present some amazingly creative work by the children. Who would have imagined an entire classroom becoming an undersea location with a giant whale to boot and fish swimming and underwater marine life – all in 3D!! (suspended from the ceiling and so close to reality when you walked into the room). Children in grades 3 and 4 learnt how to think laterally and make connections to all their subjects through the central theme. Being an educator became a pleasure than a job.

Along with our friendship, our confidence in what we were doing began to grow. We mustered the confidence to let our supervisor and principal know that we thought that the social studies book that we were using went against our grain. Our principal heard us out patiently and then said, “If you ladies know exactly what you want, why don’t you put together your own material?” We took it as a challenge and an encouragement and over that summer we put together material for our geography syllabus. Imagine our delight when it was photocopied and used as an in-house textbook for three years in one of the leading schools in Kolkata! But the best was yet to come!

It was the same year of 1992 that life took all three of us – John Mason, Moneesha and myself – to different locations. But not before he gave us our parting advice – send this book for publication. It is good and will get taken. He connected us to the most revered of publishing houses, the Oxford University Press, and imagine our utter joy when we got accepted – not for the one book we had – but for a series of three books (Starting Geography for grade 3, 4 and 5)!! What a milestone it was! It was pre-email days and so manuscripts written by us would be posted to each other, and then re-sent to the editor in Delhi. The postmen between three cities were very busy indeed for the next three years! We vacationed in each other’s homes to brainstorm before writing.

The series was published in 1997 and the editor said it would run for five years! But the book had a life of its own. We revised it three times over the course of the past 25 years and several reprints! The books have been used by students all over the country and even in Indian schools outside India. It was a book way ahead of its time and it was heart-warming to see not only our students enjoy the books, but our students’ children use them as well!!

We were grateful that the universe fuelled this professional friendship into something as beautiful and impactful as this – a legacy that we could leave behind. It was all because of two teacher friends and a visionary principal! It impacted not just our school, but lakhs of students and teachers across geographies.

But that my friends, is not all! I have seen, not just the power of my friendship but even that of a friendship bequeathed to me by my mother. She started working rather late in life as the head of a pre-primary school and there developed gradually a friendship between her and the founder, Jhansi Premanand. They were the same age with similar thought processes and a professional cum personal relationship blossomed. Families met and everybody clicked.

By that time I had moved to Hyderabad from Kolkata and already started teaching in one of the leading schools here. I had gone to visit Jhansi Premanand’s daughter, Rajika Dhiren who had just had a baby. We had known each other as our mothers were friends and colleagues – but the threads linked! In that meeting, we just got chatting and the seeds of designing and manufacturing learning materials for inclusive education (Edcraft) were sown then! We began in a garage, got associated with a national Institute under the GOI, championed the cause of learning materials to be included in the government welfare schemes, and finally experienced a momentous and proud moment when Dr Kalam dedicated our materials to the nation and now almost three decades later can say that we were hugely instrumental in spreading awareness on inclusive education in the classroom. Our journey was filled with struggles and frustrations but the soul satisfaction from having impacted millions of children with intellectual challenges is one that makes each of those days seem totally pale in comparison. Once the awareness building was complete many more players joined the fray, but the movement was pioneered by just two educators who believed in what they were doing in a space that was way ahead of its time. All they had to tie them together was the bond of friendship and similar convictions.

Moneesha and Rajika are very much part of my life even today and the bonds are deeply entrenched. The struggles that we shared together only served to strengthen our friendship.

Professionals as friends may not always look like these two huge impacts that the universe was graceful to bestow – they may also look like this
• Chats over chai over a new method to try out in the class.
• Knowledge share material that could benefit all.
• Being role models in collaboration rather than competition between sections.
• Sharing ideas that worked and creating a bank for everyone to dip into.
• Refusing to backbite or take unfair credit for ideas.
• Generously sharing credit with collaborators.
• Make the warmth in the relationship apparent.
• Empathize with each other as a community. Everyone has a story behind them.
• Drop judgment among colleagues.

These actions are bound to be noticed by students and the good vibes and results will spread round the whole school.

So educators, don’t hesitate to become friends. There is great power in these connections and synergies. No man can work alone, but the flinting together can produce magic! And who knows – there may be a new idea just waiting to be born. All it requires is friendship and conviction.

The author is an Advisor to schools in school transformation, curriculum development and classroom methodology. She is the co-author of four series of textbooks published by the OUP, a certified ISO 21001 auditor, a counsellor and trained e-coach for students with anxiety from the Stanford School of Medicine and trained in Creative Thinking in the UK and Activity Based methods of teaching in Malaysia and Thailand. She can be reached at

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