Vibha Chabra became a teacher after a successful 13-year career in the pharmaceutical and public health sector. Presently, she teaches at two schools: Saksham Balvikas Sanstha, Gurgaon, where she teaches language via reading literature, storytelling and dialogue with students 13-17 years of age, and mentors new teachers; and The Riverside School, Ahmedabad, where she works as a thought and documentation partner for the creation of an online platform on ‘best practices in pedagogy and school culture’. She is actively involved in the content-building process, research and prototyping of the platform.
I was on a sabbatical after an intense 13 years of professional life in the pharmaceutical and public health sectors – when, by chance, I came across Saksham, a school run by an NGO in Gurgaon for less-privileged children. It was one of those things that happened without me having planned for it or even seeking it consciously. The simplicity and joy that the children expressed with complete abandon to both strangers and the known, blew me over. I knew I had to come back to this place in some capacity.
And I sure did, not knowing at the time that it was just the beginning of my association with children and education. What started as workshops with adolescent kids on health/ hygiene, HIV and adolescent issues, has evolved into a full-time association with schools – as a teacher, mentor and writer focusing on school education. And this connection only deepened when I came across The Riverside School in Ahmedabad – once again by mere accident!
My work extends to two schools today – both women-led, but at different ends of the spectrum in terms of its student demography. One is a niche school in terms of its philosophy with all possible resources and privileges at its disposal; the other is niche in terms of the selfless change it has brought about in the community, with minimal resources at hand. Both schools have made a great impact over the last 15 years.
I have often wondered what makes the culture of a workplace vibrant, collaborative and joyous. The interesting thing about elevating cultures is that it has the power to impact all stakeholders, and thus, engender lasting change.
In my experience of being with these two schools, I gathered the following insights that go into creating such lively spaces:
1. A maverick founder/leader at the helm of affairs – who is fearless in their intent, clear in purpose, keenly aware, has a sense of humour, and is ready to adapt, mid-course (one woman begins with infectious passion and many come along!).
2. Leaders who have the stamina to work for the core vision day after day, and inspire others as well.
3. The learning space provides freedom to explore and innovate, for all. Creativity thrives in freedom.
4. Members of the school community understand that fear can never be a driver for teaching. The love of learning is far more vital.
5. The school must be a place where rules and regulations are in the service of compassion and creative intelligence – and not the other way round.
6. An environment where learning is not limited to books, but encompasses life in all its finer and vital forms – whether it is the arts, language, fitness, life skills, etiquette, relationships, kindness, working with your hands, etc. Education should be considered and treated as inseparable from life outside the school and mere academics.
7. A place where appreciation for each other’s uniqueness is woven into the school culture. This helps build camaraderie.
8. Affection and care is the core of all work that happens at the school. Never lose sight of the innocence and vulnerability of the central characters – our children!
9. A place where students are unafraid to speak up, and are encouraged to think for themselves. Enquiry and independent thinking are demanded and encouraged.
10. A place where the environment is light, and where loads of masti (fun) happens.
Sometimes, I am asked if I feel sad or depressed working with kids who do not have many privileges. I am a little surprised with that question. It has been the absolute opposite. I have known joy in an entirely new light. I realised all over again that innocence trumps sorrow and all forms of scarcity!
The question that I am left with often, though, is – how does one not lose simplicity and the confidence that comes with innocence? We talk about the confidence that comes with opportunity and talent – but we don’t worry enough about the confidence that gets lost when the bug of ambition and comparison starts to erode a child’s natural creativity. These schools are live examples of how it is possible to create school cultures that attempt to build competence, without the sting of fear and comparison.
Privileged or underprivileged, armed with compassion, freedom to innovate, a sense of humour and a clear vision – schools can become a sanctuary for change that matters!