By Ananya Damodaran:
Warmly nestled in the remote, idyllic district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh is the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community (JGCC). It’s home to around 90 children, who are either orphaned, or have faced abuse, violence, and neglect. It also has classes from kindergarten to class 12.
It was started in 2006 by Lobsang Phuntsok, a Buddhist monk, who suffered a similar childhood. “He had one teacher who believed in him, and that is what changed him. He started the community so that these children would not have to go through the same hardships as he did,” says Nidhi Iyer, a 2013 Teach For India fellow who spent the last two years living and teaching at the JGCC. Ever since pursuing her education in political science and psychology, Nidhi has wanted to focus her attention on children and believes that ‘teaching is most fundamental form of understanding them’.
Jhamtse gatsal is a Tibetan word, which means ‘a garden of love and compassion’. “The outcome that we aim for is the empowerment of each child in whatever choices they make. And love and compassion underlie that outcome,” says Nidhi. “Being a kindergarten teacher, I noticed that some of these kids found it hard to articulate their trauma or tell me what they were feeling. I’ve had instances where a kid just cried for two hours on my shoulder,” she recalls. Because most of her students are trauma survivors, Nidhi applies these two values of love and compassion in all of her interactions – thereby prioritising emotional capacity-building in her students above all else.
“Teach For India instilled a need for personal growth in me. It taught me that in order to create happy children, you have to be a happy teacher,” she says. She stresses on the ‘importance of looking at the bright side’, seeking contentment in what you have, and sharing that with those around you.
Her primary focus was to ensure that her students knew how ‘to channelise their negative emotions in productive ways, resolve conflicts and be mindful of other people’s spaces’.
In her first year, she taught kindergarten students. During her second year, in addition to her kindergarten duties, she took on teaching political science (for class 11) and arts (in the middle school level). Occasionally, she also taught dance. Regarding her roles at the JGCC, Nidhi says, “Being teachers, drivers, kitchen staff or ama-las (house mothers) are all secondary. Our first responsibility is to be a community member.”
As an active recycler, Nidhi was fondly referred to as the resident kabaadiwaali (scrap dealer). “I had the tendency to pick stuff up and make things out of them. In my room as well, my shoe stand was made out of egg-crates. My kindergarteners used to bring random things to me (I had to teach them not to dig through garbage) and say ‘Madam, iska kuch bana sakte hai kya (Madam, can something be made out of this)?’ If not recycling, just the idea of thinking before trashing something is important. I think I contributed to that culture,” Nidhi says. For her first Christmas celebrations at the JGCC, Nidhi encouraged community members to use waste-paper from previous years’ notebooks to construct a six-foot tall tree!
The curriculum at the JGCC school focuses on free-play, project-based and enquiry-based experiential learning. As regards their methods of ‘unstructured’ education, Nidhi says: “I very strongly believe that children learn the most when they are left to their own devices. You give them all the resources you can, you model them, and you sit back and let them do it.”
In fact, one of her kindergarten students, Tsering, learned the entire alphabet without Nidhi ever formally teaching it to her! “When she was in pre-kindergarten, she observed me while I taught the older kids. I had mats and charts in the classroom with the alphabet on it. By the end of the year, she had learned it by herself. I then helped her with whatever mistakes she was making,” Nidhi says.
The need to adhere to the CBSE board makes it difficult to fully implement this mode of education in the higher classes (class 9 to class 12). In Nidhi’s opinion, the board limits them more than it educates them. “These kids are far greater and much more capable than the education system expects them to be, in terms of skills and emotional well-being. I was teaching things that could be Googled and learned. I would much rather spend time teaching them other skills that can be practically applied in political science,” she says. It is this academic limitation that Jhamtse works around by ensuring that the environment at the community continues to foster the core values of the students.
Their emphasis on daily community-based activities like praying, cleaning, gardening and construction ensures the emotional, social and spiritual growth of the students. One particular instance that remains etched in Nidhi’s mind is when a kindergartener stood up against her, because she thought her classmate was being treated unfairly by her (Nidhi).
“I know that my kids are going to be kind and compassionate human beings, no matter how well-versed they are in their academics. They may not be exhibiting these values all the time, but I think they do a remarkable job of translating them into actions, and I have learnt a lot from their sense of authenticity,” she says.
Having spent two years at the JGCC, Nidhi learned something of immense value: that there is ‘more learning in teaching and more receiving in giving’. It is people like her (who have realised this) that are changing our world for the better!
The author works for communications at Teach For India.
Applications for the 2018-2020 Teach For India Fellowship program are now open. Please visit apply.teachforindia.org to submit your application by September 3, 2017.
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