What Does Freedom Mean To An Underprivileged Student?

Posted on July 8, 2011 in Education

By Sachin Jain:

We all know that education is the key to freedom in today’s world. However, what does freedom really mean to a child in an underprivileged school? It is the freedom both to be able to do things, as well as the freedom from a lot of ills that plague our world.

India’s freedom movement is understood as the struggle to overthrow foreign yoke and usher in an era of self-governance. Today, 64 years after those heady days of 1947, our country is ready for another freedom movement — the movement for educational equity.

Ours is a country of disparities. Walk into any classroom in a municipal school, and these disparities become glaringly apparent. From absent toilets to absent teachers, it all leaves much to be desired. The pupils move up from standard to standard, starting school in the monsoons in June every year, without really making adequate progress commensurate with their new grade level. As a result they find it harder and harder to cope with an increasingly difficult curriculum. The result of this is that at some point they crack under the strain and drop out of the school system. Even if they stay, on passing Standard X, they are so severely under-skilled that most are virtually unemployable in meaningful jobs.

What such pupils need is a second freedom movement — freedom from systemic apathy that is trapping them in poverty and a lifetime of difficulties. Such a movement requires leaders, specifically the youth of the country. Those of us who have had a privileged education, and see the fruits of that in our daily existence, be it the choices we make, the lifestyles we enjoy or the level of work that we find fulfilling, can now make someone else’s dreams come true. By being in the life of a classroom of underprivileged pupils for two years, as a teacher, friend, philosopher, guide, inspiration, motivator and coach, you can move the neediest sections of our society — on whom the fabric of our social structure of tomorrow depends — to better life outcomes.

The need of the hour is transformational teaching — teaching that transforms the life-outcomes of the pupils. The first step to that is academic achievement: being able to read and write and achieve proficiency in Math, English, Science and Social Studies. Unless these pupils are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to excel academically, the achievement gap between them and pupils from privileged schools will only widen. Secondly, we need teachers who inculcate long-term traits and mindsets in their students that foster success and engender growth. From regular study hours to a balanced lifestyle of study and recreation, to a sense of self-worth and confidence that comes from meeting goals regularly, the attitudes and beliefs that students hold about themselves and others are critical to determining how far they get in life.

But even a teacher who brings all these things to the classroom will not be able to make it come alive, if they are not aligned with the students’ interests and aspirations. Our pupils must dare to dream: in the challenging environments that they come from, dreaming seems either foolhardy, or a luxury. If we are able to connect the dots between the learning experience of today, and the realization of dreams tomorrow, both for the pupils and their parents, we can provide a road-map to meeting their aspirations. This is the third requirement.

The fourth is to provide pathways to opportunity for students to be able to channelize their talents and hone their skills to be achieve excellence as professionals. If all we seek for our pupils is to put them on the conveyor belt to a quotidian job, then are we really doing our work well? We must let each student flower to the maximum of his or her potential. This could mean inculcating a spirit of entrepreneurship along with the possibility of getting a job. This also means exposing pupils to the various emerging career options present in the 21st century: from being a translator in Mandarin to creating the technologies of tomorrow’s electronic devices — and getting them to meet role models who have taken the path less travelled and contributed value to the world.

But for me the biggest meaning of freedom is the freedom from the established norms and frame of reference of the world: a world which seeks to define “betterment” as the pursuit of mindless consumerism at the expense of inner peace. If our pupils lose their inherent innocence and sense of harmony with the world, and become mindless, unhappy stressed-out worker-drones, all our education will have done them a disservice. Rather, if we take the qualities that they already come with — resilience, grace under pressure, innovative thinking, problem-solving, optimism, and a never-say-die spirit, and combine them with a sense of the big picture and what makes our world wonderful: a concern for the environment, the willingness to serve and contribute, to produce goodness in the world and not merely consume from it — we will have truly set our students free.

Sachin Jain is Director, Fellowship Recruitment at Teach For India, a national movement of young leaders to end educational inequity in India. He taught for 2-years, full-time at Supari Tank Municipal School in Mumbai as a part of Teach For India’s first cohort of Fellows (2009-2011).