My Dream......

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Teachers matter to me. My work at The Teacher Foundation, makes every day for me,  a teachers' day.  But today, the 5th of October - World Teachers' Day, I have a  special message for teachers of India. 

 I borrow from the pastor and civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years have gone by since Dr. Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a Dream Speech' given in Washington in August 1963. I paraphrase that speech today....

I have a dream....
that one day India will rise up and live out the true meaning of its intent: "...that every child has a right to ... education of an equitable quality and relevance, in schools that satisfy all essential norms and standards."

I have a dream that one day, in our schools, children, regardless of social status,or economic status, or caste, or creed, will be able to learn and play together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and affection.

I have a dream that one day every Indian school, burdened today by bureaucratic neglect and guilty of inequity, inequality and lack of opportunity, will be transformed into safe, sensitive spaces for learning with freedom and fairness.
I have a dream that our grandchildren will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the circumstances of their birth but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in every school and classroom, teachers will uphold with honour, their amazing power to do the right thing for every child, every day, and to see that no child, however disadvantaged, misses the education that is her right.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day the best young men and women in our country, will seek to be teachers, not just for the status the profession offers, but for the satisfaction of nurturing India's human potential.

I have a dream that teachers and principals in schools across our country will set high standards of professional competence and seek to continuously hone their knowledge and skills....

Teachers grab the greatness that's in your reach !

Maya Menon 

Going Global, Losing the Local? a look at the growing phenomenon of international schools in India

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Going Global, Losing the Local?
a look at the growing phenomenon of  international schools in India

My mother and her much-older siblings walked long distances every day in the hot sun or pouring rain to go to school — Malayalam-medium schools in the Kerala of the 1930s and 40s. They, however, grew up proficient in English and eventually left the boundaries of their native state and set up homes in other states in a newly-independent India, bringing up children or pursuing respectable careers in the government. My father and his siblings on the other hand bicycled to school – an English-medium convent school in Vizag. They grew up leading a middle class genteel lifestyle, with my grandfather achieving considerable professional success as a doctor in pre-independent India, outside his native state. While the schooling that my maternal and paternal sides received was different, their cultural sensibilities and the professional opportunities they got were very similar. The latter did hinge significantly on their ease and comfort with the English language.

Moving on to my generation.... Four decades ago when I was in school, the 'convent schools' by then at their peak, were seen as the epitome of a well-rounded western (read, good) education in India. They even had a certain snob value since the most well-off people sent their children to these schools. But there were also many children from salaried class families, like myself, who shifted schools every few years. There were still others from less privileged backgrounds who also went to these schools, receiving tuition waivers or subsidies unobtrusively. And we all learnt and grew up together, vaguely aware of our different parentage, but without it unduly hampering our interactions. Apart from fostering a very sound foundation and easy fluency with the English language, the missionary schools I went to nurtured in me a love of music, a strong work ethic, a sense of aesthetics and an eye for detail – all of which stand me in good stead to this day.

That was the 60s and 70s! In the 1980s, by which time I had become a teacher, there was an imperceptible shift of favour from the convent schools to the 'public schools'. These schools were not the public schools modelled on the lines of the British public schools. These schools were products of an Indianized elite who wanted to send their children to schools that offered a well-rounded English-medium education with equal emphasis on academics, arts, sports, and service. The convent schools, while still in popular demand, had begun to be seen as symbolic of a colonial past.

In the 1990s after the much feted liberalization of the economy, many new schools were set up that called themselves international schools. They boasted of international curricula, a certain proportion of expatriate teachers, an eclectic mix of Indian and non-Indian students, world-class infrastructure and facilities including air conditioned classrooms and buses. Before this phenomenon, the only international schools in the country were the schools associated with the different embassies in New Delhi and a token school in each of the metros and one or two hill-stations, primarily serving the children of diplomats and other international passport holders. They formed a tiny community catering to an exclusive clientele who went back to their home countries for higher education. Such schools had little interaction with their Indian counterparts – they were self contained and self sufficient.

The 2000s have seen a further mushrooming of these schools, now varyingly called world and global schools too. Many of these however don't really satisfy the norms of international schools that were mentioned earlier. Some of these are wannabe schools who are attempting to grab the attention of an increasingly aspirational middle class who wish to ensure that their children get the best possible school education and a certain social status that will stand in good stead for a global career and lifestyle.

The reason for this extended preamble is to set the context for examining the reason and relevance of international schools and the accompanying education fairs that do the rounds in all the Indian metros as well as neighbouring countries. The school market is not an entirely transparent one, partly because of the unfriendly government regulations but also because of the many vested business interests in schools today. Schools are seen as the sunrise industry of the 21st century.  People setting up schools today, especially international schools are businessmen, builders, corporate houses, and politicians. Their purpose, while never overtly stated, is to make profits, not necessarily to educate the millions of young children below 15 years, who desperately need the life opportunities that a good school can provide. Schooling in India is increasingly stratified and divisive and the essential social and ethical purpose of schools is somewhere getting fuzzy!

Government schools lie at the bottom of the pile and serve only the poorest of the poor. Even poor and illiterate parents are opting out of government schools for their abysmal accountability and admitting children to low cost English-medium private schools paying fees. A friend remarked ironically, “If the poor are rejecting something that they could get for free and are paying for the same service elsewhere – that truly is an indication of the failure of the government school system.”

Above the government schools, come the affordable (low-cost) private schools, next middle level private schools catering to the lower-middle and middle class socio-economic strata. Next come the upper-end private schools that cater to children from the well educated middle and upper middle class families who are mainly salaried professionals. Right on top, in a rarified zone, are the international, world, global schools. These cater to the affluent business communities and the expatriate populations in India and neighbouring countries like Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia. In much the same way as the poor are opting out of government schools, India's privileged classes are also in a rejection mode – they are rejecting a 'desi' way of education. They are willing to pay exorbitant fees varying from Rs.3 lakhs per year to 8 lakhs per year, perhaps even more, in order to insulate their children from the 'conventionality' and 'mediocrity' of an 'Indian mindset', and an 'Indian way' of working and living. There seems to be a growing disaffection amongst the privileged classes in India towards the 'Indian school'.

Undoubtedly language, i.e., English language as the de facto lingua franca of the world, has been a reason for the rise of international schools in India. In his book Learning from Conflict, Prof. Krishna Kumar states, “Competence in the use of English is the single most important marker of a young person's eligibility for negotiating the opportunity structure that the modern economy has made available. Those who lack competence in English have remarkably limited scope for moving into higher income and higher status roles in society.” This is reinforced in international schools through the exposure of students to western stereotypes, culture, and lifestyle. The textbooks, the furniture, teaching aids, food all promote an affluent metropolitan culture. In fact the 'schooling industry' has spawned a parallel industry of products, services, and supplies to these 'global' schools, with purely business motives. The clientele of these schools use them as an easy springboard for getting admission in universities abroad. In an environment of stiff competition and reservations, securing admissions in good Indian universities or professional colleges for courses of one's own choice is an increasingly bleak prospective for the average student. Therefore, those who can afford it prefer to study abroad, especially since, in India there is a cache attached to a 'foreign' degree. So, international schools do seemingly serve a vital purpose.

However, the flip side of this is that children in most international schools live in a certain twilight zone, getting the semblance of an authentic global schooling, but removed from the realities and contradictions of their neighbourhood, community, city, and country. Concerns about fairness, equity, and equality are rarely raised or discussed. And the international curricula are not really to blame for this, since they do allow for regional contextualization especially with regard to social sciences and languages. This happens because in the absence of adequate numbers of thoughtful and competent teachers with a contemporary world view, many international schools go only through the motions of offering an excellent education. However what one often sees in these schools, barring some prominent exceptions of course, is quite average, even mediocre teaching. The teachers in international schools, apart from the few expatriate teachers who are employed at much higher salaries paid in dollars, come from the same pool as that which serves the convent and public schools in India. They haven't been previously exposed to or trained in contemporary teaching practices that are expected for delivering international curricula. Despite the crash course training these schools do provide after recruitment, the teachers are not adequately supported or mentored to enable them to shed conditioned ways of teaching and adopting more learner and learning centred approaches. To exacerbate the situation, many of the teachers come from fairly modest backgrounds with rather conservative mindsets. This results in a socio-economic disconnect between the teachers and their students who have been exposed to a different value system. Parents, especially the NRI and expatriate parents are rather critical of the 'Indian' teachers and look down upon them. In fact, an invisible caste system has been created amongst teachers in international schools. The elite class are the expatriate teachers with foreign passports and international qualifications, next are the Indian origin teachers with international qualifications. Following them are the Indian teachers with Indian qualifications. Last come the Indian staff without a teaching qualification who also get to work as teaching assistants. Such an organizational structure doesn't help establish an ethos of collaboration, mutual respect within the schools. Notwithstanding the fact that these schools cater to only a tiny segment of our school-going population, the subtle discrimination these schools breed, is a matter of concern especially when the promoters and owners of the schools are themselves Indian.

In the final analysis it's pertinent to ask whether international schools play a vital role in India. I believe they have the same relevance as they did in the 70s and 80s – for a small minority of young people – diplomats' and expatriates' children who need to be globally mobile. For the majority of our schools – government and private, what we really need are high standards in line with the best in the world – especially in terms of curriculum, teaching, and assessment. The rest can be achieved with the internet and cloud-based technologies. Our children can learn alongside students anywhere in the world, with our schools partnering with schools from other parts of the world. That would be truly going global, while living local.

I can be reached at :
This article has appeared as a cover story in the Teacher Plus edition of April 2013

It isn't about Subjects; it's about Speaking.... the Unspoken & the Unspeakable

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2012 ended on a grievous and brutal note with the Delhi gang rape and 2013 is upon us with the possibilities and potential a new year always promises. The public outrage we have witnessed country-wide, the several thoughtful analyses of it by various writers are indicative of a nation at a societal cross-roads. A collective conscience has been sparked by one gruesome incident that sharply silhouettes the deep-seated misogyny in the average Indian male who continues clinging to archaic, biased attitudes towards women. It makes us wonder about how majority of men have grown up with such a humanity deficit and how we have condoned it so far ! Of course women themselves are guilty too of perpetrating it. For instance very few educated women actually challenge the status quo and society's diktats regarding what women should do and shouldn't do.

While legal proceedings have begun against the rapists, apart from the obvious questions regarding the nature of penalty – death or life and the speed with which justice will be meted, for those of us who are in school education – a larger question confronts us – Are we spawning a generation of young people who are lacking in feelings of sensitivity, empathy, respect for all fellow-beings, especially women?

Growing social trends, suggest that our young reflect contemporary Indian society – where community is a religious rather than a human entity; progress is acquisition – of power or products; where money is valued over morals, where equity and ahimsa are just useful public rhetoric – they don't need to lived in their true spirit. We are very comfortable with the disconnect between what we preach and what we practice! This hypocritical, even schizophrenic quality to how we Indians go about our daily lives, managing multiple conflicting realities with the ease of donning and shedding clothes, has dangerous repercussions. One immediate fall out is that a child's consciousness is irreparably influenced by the contradictory messages that adults around him give. Parents, teachers, relatives will advise children on the importance of certain values, but their behaviour could belie the same values completely. Personal integrity is rarely a priority. So children, both at school and at home, live their lives lacking in authentic experiences and expression. To give one small example, if a child doesn't wish to go to school, there will be an adult – parent or teacher who will insist that she must go to school if she wishes to learn, but they will rarely stop to listen to why the child is really feeling negative about school. In numerous ways, small and big, we routinely discredit a child's point of view. We rarely dignify and validate a young person's opinions and feelings, especially when they are in dissonance with ours. Another ramification of our national propensity for low personal integrity, is that we as a nation tend to look for simplistic solutions for deep-seated systemic or sociological problems.

Even educationists and text-book writers, who should know better, mistakenly think that if there's a social evil that needs to be addressed by schools, the solution is a simple matter of including additional chapters on human rights and gender-sensitisation in their social studies textbooks. The Union Minister for Human Resources and the Central Board of Secondary Education have recently made such an announcement. In short, if something is found wanting in young people, just add it to the existing syllabus! The real purpose is defeated and serious social concerns are reduced to a few mandatory topics that need to be learnt by Indian school goers. This filling-the-empty-vessel syndrome afflicts our entire education system. Teachers see it as a further curricular overload and the teaching is mechanical and exam-based, despite the essentially experiential nature of the subjects. The young learner's head and heart are in the process left untouched.

So if young people are wanting in qualities that make for a humane society we adults are to blame. The solution is for us to set right the humanity deficit that exists in society – by changing our own mind sets. We need to learn to care, listen and empathise with what children and young people experience as they grow up. If we cared enough and listened, we would know the right questions to ask and if we asked thoughtful questions, children would feel safe enough to open up. When children open up, they will speak out. And speaking out is key to any change – personal or societal. When young people speak out they are able to 'break their silence', give voice to their thoughts, express their feelings of joy and sorrow, of being hurt or misunderstood. Speaking out would help test, question, clarify and evolve their values and belief systems about customs, traditions, biases and even gender relations.

But here's the catch - authentic speaking will happen in schools only when teachers are able to suspend judgement and ask questions, when they are able to listen genuinely and empathetically, when they have a caring and contemporary world view. And majority of our teachers today are just not equipped to help a child speak out. So, adding a subject called Gender Studies is no magic wand that will swiftly change social stereotypes. We need to begin with the attitudes of the teachers, we need to support and strengthen their abilities to live and be role models for social change. Because when teachers are the change we wish to see, our young will follow suit, regardless of having a subject or two less.