Why should schools be good neighbours?

Seetha Anand Vaidyam

“More and more clearly, every day out of biology, anthropology, sociology, history, economic analysis, psychological insight, plain human decency and common sense, the necessary mandate of survival that we shall love all our neighbours as we do ourselves, is confirmed and being reaffirmed.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Imagine the following visual wherein a school bus with students crosses a slum twice every day. Huts in the slum are in a pathetic condition, children are loitering around without appropriate clothes or footwear, streets are unclean, the stench from the garbage is offensive….

Children involved in edible gardening project initiated by Ananda Foundation

Inside the bus, students are happily chatting, discussing movies, or the latest games on their gadgets, and some studious ones may even be discussing subjects and homework. Analyze this. Is this acceptable? But this is what happens around us, isn’t it? Have we normalized the inhumane?

The above is just one example. If not a slum, it could be a garbage dumpyard or an abandoned lake with overgrowth or inflow of toxins. It could just be chaotic traffic, causing hardships to pedestrians, or a disorganized street market making the surroundings messy. The scenes may vary but students witness them every day, with apathy, and in the long run become numb to these challenging situations. Situations that are opportunities to intervene and offer solutions.

This is an example of how apathy gradually sets in and the sense of empathy is lost. This is a personal loss for students, (who later in life have difficulties in interpersonal skills, who become cynical and skeptical without much hope about good life around them) as well as a loss to the society – loss of caring individuals. Should schools teach them to interact with their surroundings? Should students be nudged to act proactively when they see a problem? Should students respond to a challenge by finding a solution and not turning a blind eye and a deaf ear?

Emotional intelligence is considered a key factor contributing to the success of a person. How do we help students acquire EQ? Isn’t being sensitive to the needs of those around us a major step towards emotional intelligence? A neighbourhood is an opportunity to showcase the learning that students acquire from the school to provide solutions. Will such students of the school not become its brand ambassadors bringing it laurels?

But then is not the curriculum time-consuming and isn’t faring well in exams most important? If yes, how can students and teachers find time to indulge in socially relevant actions? Well, learning need not be only from textbooks and workbooks. Experiences are significant teachers. Especially, opportunities of working together as a team to solve a problem or to make a place or situation better would provide lifelong lessons and enrich the mental and emotional states and the will power of the students, something no amount of textual or rote learning can hope to achieve.

Applied education
Schools impart education. An oft forgotten point is that education goes beyond mere academics. If the true objectives of education are to be met, it needs to be relevant. Otherwise, it just remains a theory that has no practical value. Relevance helps students see the value of what is being taught in their classrooms.

Relevant education equips students to apply what they have learnt to real life situations. What logic does it follow to learn about countries and lands far away, about the galaxy and outer space while staying in unhealthily, polluted surroundings? Being a good neighbour is actually in the interest of the students who get to implement what they have learnt already and to further their learning through the challenges that may arise out of the implementation process.

Be the change you want to see
There is an old Chinese proverb which says, ‘Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle’. Whose duty is it to light the candle? Everyone’s responsibility eventually becomes no one’s duty! Isn’t it the work of the government? Isn’t it the job of the affluent to contribute to the betterment of the not so privileged? Is adulthood the time to work for social causes? Passing the buck and expecting someone else to do the work, to bring in the change is, in a way, escapism. Waiting for the right time and opportunity is akin to procrastination. Ownership, taking an action out of concern, working towards betterment, daring to begin work with the resources at hand and working hard to improve – are all qualities of a leader, of changemakers and positive people. Like Regina Brett, the American author, inspirational speaker and columnist says – “We want someone else to act. But miracles aren’t what other people do. They’re what each of us does. They’re what happens when ordinary people take extraordinary action. To be a miracle doesn’t mean you have to tackle problems across the globe. It means making a difference in your own living room, cubicle, neighborhood, community.”

Students of SLN school in BJR Nagar Basti involved in a project initiated by Ananda Foundation on Lake cleaning and Awareness creation for environmental protection.

Community building
A school has students from various backgrounds. Parents may follow different professions. As individuals it may not be easy to work towards a cause but sensitized students can get their parents to bring in the expertise of their relevant fields. This way a caring and conscious community can be created. Schools can thus be catalysts to change at least a section of society from being apathetic to empathetic.

Life lessons
Change is never easy. Sometimes solutions will not work. A plan B or C or many options need to be tried. Challenges may be physical such as finding a viable alternative to diverting toxic inflows into the ground or lake. They could also be psychological, such as resistance by a section in the neighbourhood to change. However, through these discussions and deliberations between students and teachers’ lessons of not giving up, of standing up to challenges are learnt. Such learning is only possible when practical projects are carried out. Presence of mind, perseverance, patience, public relations, communication skills and a host of other skills and healthy qualities can be acquired when a school involves its students in projects in the neighbourhood.

Co-curricular not extra-curricular
By being involved in good neighbourly projects students learn so much that these projects need to be counted as co-curricular work and not extra-curricular or something that is done only as a hobby. Subject learning can be interwoven with these projects.

The author is the founder trustee of Ananda Foundation for Holistic & Healthy Learning and Living, Educational Consultant, Remedial Therapy, and the author of Amazon Best Seller ‘Parenting Manual – a handbook for teachers and parents of children from 0 to 7 years’ and ‘”Good” Food – a guide to healthy cooking and eating’. She can be reached at anandseetha@gmail.com.

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