My mother often teases me about how, when I was a kid, I would quietly place stones in the balcony, give them each a name and teach them all evening (all while my parents took their afternoon nap)! Silly as it sounds, I really, really enjoyed this little role play and understood why only many years later. The journey to this realisation was long but in retrospect, totally worth it.
In school, I was an above average student. By virtue of this, I studied science and eventually opted for Biotechnology. A Master’s in Human Genetics followed. During my dissertation on tuberculosis (TB) patients of the Sahariya tribe in Madhya Pradesh, I discovered that despite advanced research on TB, awareness about the disease was really low. I realised that disseminating already available information and creating awareness at the grassroots level was critical.
So, instead of opting for a lab-based, research-oriented Ph.D. programme or working for a private firm, I pursued ‘Development Communication’ at Jamia Millia Islamia. Here, I learned the ropes of effective grassroots communication. I followed this up with a Gandhi Fellowship that really gave me the space to analyse how loopholes at the grassroots are the actual cause of failures – be it in health or education.
During my posting in Nawalgarh, Rajasthan, I worked closely with five headmasters of rural government schools, in the area of leadership skills. I also got a chance to teach the school children. The headmasters were rigid about traditional methods of learning, so, it took me a few months to convince them to try innovative methods of teaching and managing the school.
The experience led me to two conclusions – that ‘collaborative education and learning’ are the roots of development, and that I really enjoyed teaching, which explains why I enjoyed my childhood role play so much!
Around this time, I also heard about a pedagogy known as ‘peer learning’, practised by the Avanti Learning Centre to teach Science and Mathematics to school students. This fascinated me to the core. I felt that, maybe, here I would finally get a platform to encourage intellectual and conceptual brainstorming sessions among adolescents, not only on science practices but ethical ones, too. This is because I genuinely believe that when you give a chance to kids to brainstorm, they come up with unbiased and sustainable solutions.
When Avanti offered me a full-time opportunity to teach at Amatir Kanya Gurukul, a residential school for girls in Bachgawan Gamdi, Kurukshetra, Haryana, I was excited to teach young girls from semi-urban areas. I relocated to Kurukshetra, around 160 km from Delhi.
When I first entered the school premises, I was terrified to see the kids chanting every morning at 5 a.m.; I have always been nocturnal and a late riser! I could sense that I would also need to follow the strict schedule of waking up, eating, working and sleeping at a fixed time. But trust me, my kids were so enthusiastic that even with a hectic schedule I never felt like cancelling classes and would often deliver marathon classes of four hours at a stretch. Initially, students stumbled around their science concepts but with the engaging pedagogy of our classroom, they started asking impeccable questions on the ‘Whys’ of things. They started brainstorming, and their confidence slowly built up.
I was teaching Biology to Class 9, 10 and 11 students, and when I started on the chapter ‘How do we reproduce?’, I realised that talking about menstruation and sex education was considered taboo. So, one day I asked everyone to say out aloud: “I am proud of menstruating, I am proud of being a woman!” They repeated very hesitantly. But after one week of repeating this exercise every day, they started clarifying their doubts on the subject! I gave them handouts that dispelled myths. We discussed how menstrual and maternal health is ignored in our country and a lot more. We even talked about certain government programmes and how they could be easily implemented within one’s locality.
Interestingly, I also taught at DPS, Kurukshetra, a co-ed where I aimed to sensitise the boys about menstruation. As boys, they should also know what changes occur in a girl’s body so that their curiosity doesn’t lead them to have false perceptions. I feel that my sessions with them made them more empathetic to women’s health issues.
They also helped students develop a sense of trust in me and they would not hesitate to discuss both academic and personal queries.
I noticed that a girl with heavy cycles would just sit in her room after class. One day, when I went to her room to assure her that she could have medicines if she was in pain, she told me that it was not the pain, which troubled her but that she felt ashamed of staining her salwar. I pacified her and convinced her that no one would mock her. She should sit boldly in the study hall! After that, she never ever felt ashamed again. In fact, her friends used to tease her saying, “Arre yaar sabko to hota hai ye. Lag gya to kya hua? Kam se kam ye to pata lag gaya tu pregnant nahin hai!” (This happens to everyone. So what if there’s a stain? At least we get to know you are not pregnant!)
As time went by, the girls started questioning certain practices which they had been following blindly. They started reflecting on the reasons for these practices, other than the fact that their family and society considered it important. For me, that was a success – that there was improvement not just academically, but also personally and emotionally. I genuinely believe that when you teach, you aren’t only working on young minds but hearts; this is what helps a young person grow holistically. For this reason, I consider the transformation in my students to be the best thing that has ever happened to me.