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Connecting People: On What Makes a Good Teacher

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By Madhumita Subramanian:

O Captain, my captain” yapped the boys of Welton Academy. Fighting back tears, they tower over their desks, in their last attempt at expressing their solidarity and gratitude for a man who had transformed them from playful boys to thinking, independent adults. Mr. Keating, effortlessly and convincingly played by Robin Williams, looks on with pride in his eyes, assured in his impact and comforted by the thought that these men will live life by their rules. He utters “Thank you” for truly what more could a teacher ask for, than a proof of the values he attempted to inculcate. This scene from Dead Poet’s Society remains etched in my memory as one of the most heart-rending and  most indicative of change. As a student I yearned for a teacher like Mr Keating and as a teacher I longed to be like Mr Keating.

What made Mr. Keating stand apart? What made the boys flock around, hanging to every word he said? What made them want to put to application his theories? It was Connect. He had the ability to reach out and strike a chord. It led to an intense bond. Respect automatically flowed thereafter. The Welton boys connected with Mr Keating for they felt he understood them, he knew what made them tick, he knew what they wanted. His words, actions, thoughts reflected this and therefore what came across was genuine care. It was this care that formed a strong bond. It was this care that made the boys trust him. It was this care that got the boys invested in him as a teacher and a mentor.  The role of a teacher is not just that of imparting knowledge but it’s of a developer, a builder of character and maximiser of human potential. In order to do so the teacher needs to first connect with his students, as a fellow human being. This is the crucial role of Connect, in being an effective teacher.

It begins with the teacher laying bare his true self. The more genuine one is, the greater the connect.  As a teacher I need to “share” the real me with my students. The need to know me inside out, they need to know me as a person. How do I bring myself into the class? By sharing what gets me most excited. When I share what I enjoy the most, I am my most true self.  Think back to classes you enjoyed the most and inevitably it would have been led by a teacher who had a passion for the subject. She would have exhibited a desire and a joy that twinkled in her eyes as she engaged with the concepts. The genuineness is infectious. It instantly gets you connected with the person and hence the content! For me it was my English Literature teacher at high school. I was mesmerized by the depth of emotion she displayed as she led. She was comfortable being vulnerable in our presence. She was ready to cry, to be moved, to laugh hysterically. She was human and I connected with her. My love for literature was born the day she revealed her true self. In the case of Mr Keating, it was poetry. Who would have thought an otherwise drab, overcomplicated subject as prose would get teenage boys “live deep and suck out all  the marrow of life?” Ah, but Mr Keating let his passion drip as he spoke, he brought the lines of verse to life, he made it real, he made it pertinent and the boys caught on and connected. As a teacher I brought music into my daily teaching wherever possible. Concepts were sung, rhymes were played, beats were drummed. That’s how we learnt and we learnt well. My children are proud 8-year old musicians in their own right and our bond has been strengthened by the music we play and chords we strike!

Good teachers connect by respecting individuality and personal space.  Effective mentors display immense faith in the potential of their students. They inherently believe every child is capable of greatness in his/her own right. They see their role as being one that unravels this potential. “What will your verse be? “ Keating asks, urging them to discover themselves, find their meaning and unique quality. These teachers value uniqueness, the fact that each child has a different view of the world, each child may process information differently, each child is an independent mind. They respect it and allow for it. They engage in discussions, they debate, they have dialogues and in doing so make every viewpoint heard and valued.  Imagine a space where you feel comfortable expressing your viewpoint without fear of judgment. How free you would feel, how comforted, how grateful to the individual who has created that environment and how connected to her you would be! A good mentor understands the needs of every child and creates systems to provide for it through related study material or choice of work or making clear the connection between what they are doing and what they want. They make it relevant. As a student receiving this attention, I immediately sense the care being imparted and I therefore begin to value the individual and his/her opinions. I connect.  Mr Keating, though un-enthused  by Hopkins’ arrogant and bullish attempt at poetry in the form of “cat sat on the mat”, doesn’t  demean the boy. Instead he appreciates the simplicity, finds a positive and pushes for the boy to think if he has lived up to his potential. What Keating therefore reflected was respect for Hopkins’ individuality and faith in his ability. It was this respect that urged Hopkins to be the handful of boys to show his gratitude at the end through the symbolic gesture of standing on his desk. He too had connected.

These are two simple actions but essentially the message they send across is – I am like you, a person. I understand you. The more we try to adopt a persona, try to play a role, the less likely the connect is going to happen. Our closest, strongest relationships are with people with whom the above message holds true. It’s the founding block of trust, faith and belief in the relationship. The teacher is a parent in the life of a student. The teacher is the hand that molds the clay. To be effectively crafted, the clay needs to allow the potter to guide. This requires immense faith and trust only possible through building connect.

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”  In essence a teacher taps the power of investment to help her students find their own voice, to break out. It all begins with a connection.

Madhumita Subramanian is a Program Manager at Teach For India, a national movement of young leaders to end educational inequity in India. She taught for two-years, full-time at Pant Nagar Municipal School in Mumbai as a part of Teach For India’s first cohort of Fellows (2009-2011).

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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