Friday, October 17, 2014

Excuse me teacher

Disclaimer : This is from my experience with the particular schools which my son has attended in India and Poland. I am not generalizing anything. It is just my opinion. Having written this a few months ago I felt the need to share it with more people as I see children & school related news (of course not in good notes) surfacing in Indian news channels again.

------------------------------------------------Written in June 2014----------------------------------------

I do not hold a doctorate in child psychology. But my study and thesis is underway as my son turned seven years old and as I learn to grow up as a seven year old in my thirties. We moved to Poland and my son started going to a Montessori school. He was in the 3 to 6 age group. For people not familiar with Montessori, classes here are not graded as class 1 or 2 but as groups based on age 3 to 6, 6 to 9 and so on. The logic being older children will exhibit leadership skills and care for the younger ones and the younger ones will have role models to look up to and the whole class would work as a close knit team. What followed was a wonderful surprise as my son got settled into the school and started enjoying himself.

Soon it was the end of the academic year and my son was graduating from the pre-school to go to the elementary school. On this special day just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a thank you note for the teachers. A few lines from that long note goes like this “Every teacher in his class is like an angel to me. All these children who graduated today and the ones who would graduate in future (from the school) may get into different careers in their life. But, their roots would be the same, nourished by the same key values of life. I have never seen one low moment in any of the teachers in all my visits to the school. Your smiles keep the children smiling. I admire the balance you have to let children do what they want and yet not do things which they are not supposed to. And the icing on the cake is all this happens without any shouting, screaming, punishments and crying.”

I had to open this discussion at some point about getting back to India after a couple of years. I thought it would be a happy occasion and slowly started the topic. ‘One day we may go to India after such a graduation to follow the next level there.’ I was not prepared what came after. The bright summer evening turned to a grim and gloomy long evening. Over the next hour my son told me the secrets about the Indian school he attended till 2013 September. A posh south Bangalore school which we had believed that had the best team of teachers who were kind and caring towards children. 

He said how his language teacher has scared him that he will not leave school and will be locked inside his classroom if he does not get to write a few letters the right way. How another teacher would scream and not let children visit the rest room. And how at the age of six he would escape from the class and roam in the corridor. When caught by Ayyas, he would say that he was out to visit the toilet and get into the toilet. He woud wait for the Maths and English periods and would get into the class only for those as those teachers were kind and smiling.

He is an amazing kid who loved to go to school. As a working mother, I had created a comfortable environment for him during his early years to meet people and explore. Things changed when he got into class 1. The school hours were longer. From getting back home at 12:30 pm it was 3:30 pm. Unfortunately due to an extended holiday, he missed the first week at school which was kind of a settling time for the new routine. We got back to school a week after the school reopened in June 2013. Every day he cried to go to school. Having worked in Education sector all my life, I thanked myself for being able to see the issue as a whole. We discussed. And we agreed that may be it is easier for him to start with the 12:30 timing and then slowly move into to longer schedule. I even consulted a counsellor alone to see if I was not being over sensitive. She said I am taking the right approach. But her only query was with all this understanding why did I put my child to a regular school instead of the handful of alternative schools available in Bangalore. Thankfully when I went to the Principal with this strange request, she was accommodative. I also put in a word how it can be helpful if teachers try to get children to a comfort zone before forcing them to complete tasks like task masters. My list obviously included niceties like smile, hug and positive affirmations.

It took us two weeks. I went to school every day along with my son. Stayed in the school and volunteered to fill in for absentee teachers, completed a project in their library. But after that he was okay to go to school. I got busy with planning the move from India to Poland. From July to September school went on with no crying in the morning. Nine months later, I hear my seven year old saying ‘I had to do something on my own because no one was understanding. I wanted to do it that way because they were rude. Their words hurt me.’ I asked him why he did not share this with me all this time. He said, ‘I know that you tried. You spoke to the Principal and the teachers. What more can you do if they do not understand?’ I could not trust my ears. I had to hold back my tears to hear his point of view this time around when he is open to speak to me.

I persuaded, ‘but why are you okay to tell it now?”. He said, ‘I can see the difference. And I do not want to go back to the same school again.’ I pondered ‘there may be other schools and we need not go to the same school again’. He looked straight into my eyes, held my hands as though he was in deep distress, ‘Amma, when I say this you should believe me.’ He rattled a dozen names of his Indian friends from the apartment complex and said, ‘all of us had problems. They went to different schools. But all of us were unhappy.’ As tears rolled down his cheeks, ‘we just had to go to school to read. Then only we will get to go to college and then only we can have good jobs.’ Oh my goodness. My heart was sobbing. I could feel my pulse raising.

What are we forcing our children to be? Is this the thought process that a six or seven year old had to go through? The next thing which came after the next couple of weeks was more shattering. All the heaviness in my heart evaporated in thin air when I read about the heinous crime against the 6 year old in a Bangalore school. My search of empathy towards children by teachers seemed to be a far cry. My son classifies raising voice as “rude” and unpleasant gestures in face as “impolite”. I will not accept if someone says he is too sensitive or I am protecting him from the true world. May be the sensitivity level of our kids are taken as advantage to impose unpleasant things on them with the belief that children may not voice them to parents and parents may not take them seriously.

It all begins at home, saying please, giving a smile, trying to empathise the problem with the child than to give him/her solutions from our parental world. Next time when your child hurts himself, do not justify why he had to be hurt for what he did and smear the ointment on his wound just to put a tick in your responsibility chart but sit next to him and calmly say that you can understand it hurts and maybe the ointment would help. I see my son as a young adult. I am curious about each thing he does, the way he observes and I bet when you care it comes back in abundance. We cannot call the teachers to participate in this if we do not begin this journey to empathise as a parent. I would like you to take a sneak-peak into what my son had to say.

This is one of those Friday evening conversations in the bed. He gets to sleep with us on Friday nights. He enquired how long I had to carry him in my tummy. I said about 9 months. He knows multiplication now. So, he quickly got into calculating the number of days. Then he said that he could recollect his photo as a just born and went on to say, “But even that small baby is too big to be inside someone’s tummy.” I acknowledged and said “Yes. Even I wonder how you managed to squeeze yourself and stay there.” He thought for a while and said, ‘I think it would have been more difficult for you than for me. I am not sure if I hurt you when I was inside your tummy. But sorry because I did so unknowingly.” We hugged each other in silence for the next few minutes. As a mother the reach of my empathy may just be to my own child. Teachers have a wonderful opportunity to influence hundreds of children. As a kid I used to believe that my teacher is always right. May be I did not have a reference point or benchmark. Today children know what is right, what is wrong and they can slot the teacher into categories based on these reference points. Many children know how much they pay to the school and the teachers get paid from the fees that students pay. The school Managements and teachers have a long way to go about treating their customers in the right way. Parents also need to understand the fact that sticking to the extremities of “my child is only right” or “the teacher is always right” may not help. They need to talk and understand and apply problem solving skills just like they do professionally at work.

Right environment at school is critical and basic for a child. And for God’s sake, it is just not the infrastructure of centrally air-conditioned schools. Values are taught by actions. Let us begin at home but demand it at schools. Else, it may not be long before students start finding their own solutions. My pains are not a bit lesser than each one of you there in India. Be there for your kid.

Read the story of a mother who stood by her child against all odds. 

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