As the country celebrates Teacher’s Day, let’s have a look at the lives and teaching styles of two teachers determined to make a difference. While no two people could be more different regarding their background, what makes 48-year-old Dinesh Ankush and 37-year-old Harish Iyer similar is that they share a similar agenda. They both want to empower their students to make India more equal.
Ankush was born in a family belonging to a socially-backward caste and had experienced discrimination first-hand as a teenager. “The other savarna children in my school thought they were superior because they spoke fluent English and had fairer complexions – whereas I was a dark-skinned, long-haired boy from a backward caste. But when they saw that I was also good at my studies, their perception started changing,” he recalls.
That’s when he decided that he would educate himself as much as he could. After he completed his graduation in History, his sister filled out his B.Ed. admission form, thereby propelling him into a career in education. At first, he taught at a school where most of the children came from privileged backgrounds. But then, one day, the vice principal made him realise that children from socially- and economically-backward backgrounds could benefit more from his efforts. Ever since then, Ankush has been teaching at a number of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)-run Marathi medium schools. Presently, he teaches students from class 6 to class 8 at a BMC school in Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar. He also counsels older students and encourages them to get a college degree, at least.
“The students are at an age when they are just beginning to have their first experience of discrimination. I want to make sure that they focus on doing everything to improve their lives, instead of feeling hopeless and giving up,” he says. “It is easy to blame the parents or the child. But we need to understand that some of the older children do odd jobs to support their family’s income. If they lose interest in school, they will quit and take up casual labour and their standard of living will never improve,” he explains.
Ankush therefore works towards giving his students an academic experience close to that enjoyed by privileged children in fancier schools. Ankush discovered that many of these children come from families that have mobile phones. Additionally, some children also go to the neighbourhood cyber-cafe. “That’s when I started treating them to PowerPoint presentations along with the usual chalk-and-blackboard drill. I also encourage more group activities instead of singling out students – so that learning is less stressful or humiliating,” he says.
Ankush discovered that these teaching aids resulted in higher attendance rates. The children also started taking a greater interest in education. “Some of the older children have their own mobile phones – so I advise them about the apps they can download to learn new words in English and be more comfortable in the language,” he says. From time to time, he also keeps bringing successful members of the community to speak with children and encourage them to complete their education, so that they can have a chance at a better life.
Meanwhile, Harish Iyer uses his irreverent sense of humour to help students understand and respect people of all genders and sexualities. Iyer is a guest lecturer in copy-writing at a few colleges – and he uses this opportunity to break stereotypes.
“I once asked a group of boys to write a copy for an advertisement for female hygiene products . I was happy when they asked their female classmates what they were looking for in an ideal product,” he says. “I asked the girls to write a copy for an advertisement for undergarments for men. I was thrilled when their ads did not depend on an attractive woman to make the man appear more desirable, and instead focused on the real qualities of a good inner-wear such as eliminating the need to constantly adjust the crotch. This way both genders begin to develop empathy for each other,” he says.
Iyer is also a well-known equal rights activist and is often found studio-hopping and talking about matters related to the LGBT community on news channels. Iyer wants to normalise the LGBT community for the general population – and believes that it all begins in the classroom. “Activism cannot be limited to TV studios or candle light marches. It has to be a conscious, sustained effort and an integral part of our day-to-day lives,” he insists.
Incidentally, one of the colleges where Iyer teaches also happens to be a place where he was bullied as a teenager for his effeminate body language. Iyer had slit his wrists and would have died, had he not received medical attention in time.
“I have noticed that effeminate boys, whether straight or gay, face a lot of discrimination in a patriarchal society. To de-stigmatise femininity, I often switch pronouns based on gender. So I call girls ‘he’ and boys ‘she’ in class,” says Iyer. “This is an age when children have many questions and want to talk. I let them ask me all kinds of questions. Sometimes, I even broadcast my lectures live on Facebook and the students answer questions from viewers,” he says.
If you know about inspirational teachers who are working toward empowering marginalised communities, please leave a comment below.