On Education

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to pick up my phone and call my high school Principal. My parents have been asking me to do this for years, but it felt appropriate on that day, given that I had closed off one part of my learning journey, and was taking my next steps. I’ve maintained a good relationship with most faculty who have taught me or interacted with me, so it didn’t feel awkward picking up the phone and calling her.

I’m so glad I did.

You see, about two years ago, my mother met my high school Principal on a flight to Dubai, and they spent a day together. Something I appreciate tremendously about my parents is that they’ve never forgotten that my teachers are human beings who have lives outside of teaching classes. My HKG teacher actually came home to visit the day I graduated from preschool and got me a cake and everything. While hearing these stories may seem out of place to others, for me, interacting with my teachers outside of school, while maintaining a respectful distance, has been the norm. I remember the day my parents spent with my Principal vividly. They called me up that evening and told me how fortunate I was to have been led and mentored by someone like Ma’am.

It was the first time in five years I was speaking to her, but the warmth in her voice felt like it had never left. Once I introduced myself, I could see Ma’am smiling, and was instantly taken back to meetings we had with her when I was on Student Council, where most feedback she had to give us was always encouraging and offered with a patient smile. At one point she said, “I didn’t think I made an impact on you kids because I never taught you”. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

At my school, as with most schools, the Principal represented a bridge between the administrative day-to-day and the teaching day-to-day. Ma’am made an impact on us because she chose to do so. This was true of most Management staff at our school – their doors were only closed when they were in meetings, and if you had something you really wanted to take up with them, you were free to do so. The first time my mother interacted with her was in Grade 8 when she requested I be allowed to take 9 subjects for the board examinations instead of the usual 8. Ma’am agreed, with the caveat that the extra subject would be difficult to timetable, so the school would provide support as best as they could, but I would have to self-study a fair amount. Ma’am was a part of the decision-making board that awarded me School Captaincy, reposing faith in my ability to lead. She was a part of this dressing-down we got given as a French class when we failed to study for a vocabulary test in Grade 9, but a part of this motivational brigade that allowed 3 of us to study the subject further in Grades 11 and 12.

Someone like that leaves an impression on you instantly. She told me how she continued to teach even today, and all of the outreach and support she offered to younger schools without access. As someone interested in engaging with academics, I always wondered whether it was a life-long journey, whether that passion would carry you through forever. Ma’am’s own admission says it does.

After catching her up on what now seems like the trivial details in my life, our conversation moved onto other pastures. I was able to ask her about her philosophy toward education. Her reply came instantly, backed with the most heartwarming story of somebody she taught who returned home to his village in Nepal as an ayurvedic doctor – that teaching, and education, has to be child-centric. Given that I plan to work with the Law, I’ve always wondered how this is possible at higher education. How is it that you can make a mark on somebody who comes to learn from you pre-moulded? Her advice is something I’ll keep with me for a long time: learn their stories.

I look back at my own University years now, fresh from completing them, and all good faculty learned our stories. Each of us developed a rapport with the faculty that sought out information about us – and tried to encourage our individual potentials. I aspire to do that one day.

Similarly, though, she reminded me of how crucial it was that I engage in improving access. I instantly thought of one of my batchmates who has practised this for the past five years. As part of Community Outreach programs at school, I taught English and Math at a Government School, but only when provided the opportunity from school. Ever so often, I’d see posts on social media from this batchmate of mine about his experience teaching at a school close to our campus, and how rewarding that was. It was only in our final year that I was able to ask him a little bit about it – and learn a little bit more about how he put it into practice so early on in his life. His reply is in my memory: education is a goal that’s bigger than ourselves.

My roommate has told me something consistently since our first year. All of this education stuff, all of these degrees, they’re all things we’re getting for ourselves, but in a way, society is entrusting us with this knowledge in the hope that we can improve society in some way.

For the past two days I’ve been stirring my own thoughts about education – led by memories of this batchmate, my roommate, and my high school Principal. That’s what led to this post – I thought it was a worthy place to come back to if I ever had doubts about teaching and lost sight of the idealism I possess today. I know I want to join the academy – I want to read, research and learn continuously. I’d like to teach courses that leave students as enthralled by my favourite subjects as I am. My outlook to education, and to learning, at this point, is that, humans are born learners. It’s why we smile, for example, when we learn how to walk as babies, or pick up new skills when we’re children. It brings us joy. Somewhere in our lives, something makes us forget that. As a teacher, I’d like to try reminding people of that joy.

Most of my teachers did that for me. They crafted this atmosphere in which I loved learning. So much of what I want to do is derivative of how I was taught things – at school, at University.

But I want to engage with school students as well, if I teach at the University level. I’d like to work on improving access to education – which isn’t something I can do in theory if I’m just at Universities, there’s such a high barrier to access. I think I want to volunteer in schools more, and help in whatever way I can. Right now, I’m teaching a module on Constitutional Law and Civics to high schoolers at my alma mater, but that’s just a trial run. I’d like to expand that and teach it in my regional language, Kannada, to as many schools possible.

I only hope people don’t sleep in my class because they’re bored. If they’re tired, perhaps.