Observations from parent-teacher meeting


Last week at Poorna, we had parent-teacher meeting (PTM) spanning over two days. I was looking forward to this since the current academic year began. I wanted to see and get to know the parents of the kids I was spending time with in sociology classes. At Poorna these meetings have an unhurried and informal format void of any sort of tension that might ride over the kids. I have admired this quality in the school because when I was growing up, PTM in our school was an extremely tense affair. At least for me. However, I am also mindful of the distance between the format and regimentation heavy ways of Army  School which I attended, over a school like Poorna which completely breaks away from such an approach to education and raising children. Hell! The kids don’t even get the national anthem straight here, whereas, we would sing it like Hitler’s boys  – chin up, voices soaring etc.

The conversations with parents is in some ways deep sociological insights into the society, with us embedded in it. Three conversations have stayed with me from last week with parents who came in. I can understand the anxieties that they might be going through in raising their kids and the worries that take over as they think about the future in the world that is only getting more demanding. So, this is just meant to share with due recognition that these concerns are valid. However, they do tell us what we are probably putting our kids through.

One of the parents wanted to know if their child is at par with the children of other ‘conventional’ schools, as Poorna is an alternative school. This I felt was unusual because I assumed that parents are completely aware that they are in some ways choosing to drop out of the conventional education system and let their child learn in a different environment. The element of being competitive and the at par-ness doesn’t leave us Indians, I guess. The mother of the kid was concerned that the kid doesn’t know times tables in math and if that was okay. The teacher felt that it was great that the child could visualize numbers in her head and add up. However, the mother had a different view. She explains – ‘I see her working additions in her mind. Every time she does that she starts anew. This way she will make mistakes. If she knows tables, she will not make mistakes’ The focus as I see was on not making mistakes for the parent, whereas the teacher felt differently about it. There is no room to make mistakes, it appears. And our kids have to ensure that. Who knows… in the future we might have ISO ratings for kids – 1 mistake per million calculations or some such!

Another parent was so concerned that her son is always reading ‘these’ books which are so popular among kids and reading them he is always in an imaginary world. I am completely empathetic to that observation and do feel that a grounding with reality is as necessary. In fact, this was my concern (that kids do not know much of real world around them) when I taught A level sociology and the NIOS 12th standard course. However, I felt that in this case the parent was alarmed way too early and the move to keep the kid’s fiction books away will stifle his imagination instead of enhancing his grip of the real. The anxiety of the parent is sure very identifiable, but perhaps the answer is not to be concerned that the child is forever in an imaginary world. May be that is how he routes back to the real.

Last one is a telling commentary on how for families in India it is not enough to know the good. The paranoia of whats the bad side, the negative etc is ever so present. I do not know where do we get that baggage from. A parent sat through all that I had to say about his son’s performance and his classroom behaviour. The kid is highly engaged, articulate and observant. I had only positive remarks to make. There really wasn’t anything concerning to share. The parent said and I am paraphrasing – all this is fine, what are his negatives. I wasn’t expecting that and was stumped. Again, I think those are his concerns. But for a moment I felt if as a child wouldn’t I want a bit of recognition for the positives? I am not sure, but I began speaking to the kid directly and mentioned that I really do not have or see anything negative to speak of.

I had an exam to write (at the law school where I am doing a masters), later in the day. But some of these conversations remained in my head as I rode back. I felt that the parents are too distanced from their children. It just appears so, may be it is not true at all. And more so in urban settings. School was meant to be a secondary form of socialization, but in the current times it is mistaken as the primary. Look at how early kids are being sent to pre-schools, play schools and the likes. The order is reverse now – more time outside of home and with others who train, coach, mind, tend and shape kids, and less time with the parents themselves.

This must change.

Meanwhile, a million such stories will unfold on September 30, when Rajasthan government has arranged a statewide parent-teacher meeting in all the government schools.

What is alternative education?

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A performance during assembly time in Poorna

A few weeks back, a university professor in course of a conversation asked what “alternative education” means. She hazarded a guess – that it is about educating those who are differently-able.

I figured she was hard at work making sense of the word “alternative” beginning with the typical process of ascribing “mainstream” or perhaps “normal” (in this context) to people with accepted and proven ability to learn, process information and get good scores in exams. Then, moving outwards, assumed “alternative” as a word for provisioning and servicing needs of those who are outside of this normal. I wasn’t surprised. In over two years as a teacher in an alternative school, this was very familiar. That is a whole lot of myth which goes along with it.

The word “alternative” in alternative education stands for non-conventional approach to learning, teaching and education on the whole. This stands as opposed to the ways in which school as an institution in the society has developed and perfected a form of processing children through standardized processes. For instance, transacting the curriculum decided at the beginning of an academic year in a timed manner through the year. In this, the teaching part proceeds at its own speed irrespective of the ability of the learner to understand the ideas which are relayed by the teacher. Also, the learner may not be able to related to the contents of the curriculum and the thought-process that it brings along. Yet, the instruction stands applied to all the learners in the classroom.

There are wide-ranging views on what alternative education means and how does one approach it. At Poorna, I find that the alternative component is about the practice of education – how the school and its teachers approach the process of education and translate it into daily processes in school as well as daily actions that the teachers take in their classrooms. Take for instance, the practice of morning assembly which is common in schools across the country. It is a daily practice across thousands of schools where kids sing hymns, religious prayers or may be a couple of nationalistic songs and the national anthem at the end of it. All through, the kids are expected to stand in queues, follow a certain order and present themselves according to a set form of behaviour. This institutionalizes the behaviour of observing queues, knowing the national anthem and instill a certain regimentation. At Poorna, this is not practiced. Even the fact that meeting every morning is a must, is also done away with. Assembly time is a simple affair meant for all the children in the school to gather together. No queues. No order. Everyone takes whatever space they’d like to. No organization according to classes and separate queues for boys and girls. It is just free flowing gathering. The national anthem is not sung everyday. Neither is there a set of songs/hymns to be sung from a prayer book. The children are free to perform a play or a skit (in which their teachers help them) or play some music, do a  book review perhaps or observe a two minutes silence and disperse. I have seen this way of meeting work great in terms of children gathering by themselves, deciding what to discuss and then drive the entire meeting on their own with equal participation from teachers.

The other very necessary part of alternative education is non-coercive learning as a necessary aspect of school’s approach to education. This can be difficult to realize in full spirit and I have seen schools as well as teachers practice this in varying degrees. The idea is not to force a lesson on a student if he is not ready for it or is not inclined to learn it. Neither the school as a system nor the teacher in the classroom force the child to learn anything that he is not up for. This is a fuzzy space where the teacher and the school has to determine boundaries for themselves and operate within that. From my experience teaching economics and sociology to the senior secondary students I know that this is hard to practice. I face a fair deal of resistance from students while discussing concepts in economics. This is where, it matters that the teacher knows that non-coercion is a necessary condition but that he must now improvise or work around the challenge of getting the students interested in the topic by some other way where the students have the space to not feel forced or compelled to read that topic. It is a slow and hard process as I realized.

In the past year, I volunteered to teach several different age groups of children. Here is another alternative idea – children are grouped according to their age. There is no concept of classes or standards in an alternative setup. Working with different age groups I see that a learner-centered and learner-driven approach helps tremendously in building confidence in children. This works very well until the 14-15 age group, as I see. After that the students take up senior school board exams and then move towards senior school certificate exam. This is where keeping the spirit of learner-driven approach becomes difficult because now there is a rigid curriculum in place and that it needs to be transacted within the time period determined by the board of education. This is where the teaching process in the classroom moves beyond the control of the teacher and the school. The control is taken over by the board of education which applies a set of standardized methods and processes that the school program must follow.

This post was meant to highlight only a couple of ways in which alternative education operates. A longer post must be written about the effects of such an approach on the learners. There is very pressing need in the society for such experiments in education which break away from the standardized format of imparting education. This is because it is a fairly acknowledged fact by now in India that the mainstream form of education as practiced in schools is straight-jacketing the children where they are processed in a manner that they become the feed-stock for the industry to make use. Such a negative view was taken by Marx and further developed by Althusser, which I think does seem to be an appropriate critique of school learning in India.

Meanwhile, last week during school assembly (which happens at the end of the day not in the morning and thrice a week only) saw a splendid flute recital accompanied by tabla by two kids. It is one of the finest live performance I have witnessed. This is also an instance where alternative approach to education helps in bringing out and working with what the child possesses, not what he ought to have as skills or qualities!

The kid playing tabla has had rather serious learning disabilities. But I was struck by his skills in music. It was a sight… pure joy to watch him play those notes on tabla. I now believe that they children are capable of achieving any thing that they set themselves upon. It is adults who come in the way with their own apprehensions and doubts. The kid playing flute was stirring the afternoon breeze! His name is as lyrical as his music – Malhar.

It was one of those days at school when I have come back changed, in a very fundamental way! A part of me turns a die-hard believer in human potential and in the pursuit of alternative approaches to education.

A year as a high school teacher

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

Poorna, Image Courtesy: Vinay B R

This seems to be a month of anniversaries. This month I complete a year as a high school teacher at Poorna. Besides this, I figure that our little startup which took off from a small house in a small college town is now a fledgling company which is over 7 years old. The business has gathered momentum and the company now has two areas of work – consulting and scientific instruments sales. Momentum (a healthy work pipeline and a sufficient annual revenue), I guess is a natural consequence of sticking around long enough in business.

But back to teaching, I look back at the year in school and realize what a tremendous learning opportunity it has been. I take this as a moment to draw together the lessons.

“Teaching” would be a rather tall claim for me to make and after a year it sure would be a claim to say that I am teach. I realize that I am an agent, who goes into the classroom and shares his knowledge and understanding with the students. That is all. I have been a rookie at best.

Starting with A level and Indian senior secondary level students was a soft launch into teaching as the challenge to simplify ideas and  field questions from unconditioned, formative stage minds of children is lesser with students of senior secondary. Moreover, teaching economics and sociology to such a group can be intellectually stimulating as well as an opportunity to reflect and bring back to class the experiences of daily lives which connect the concepts that one reads in these subjects. In a way, it completes the loop from learning to experience and back to learning in the society.

I also realize that teaching helped me in focusing on what is meaningful in life. And this insight kicks in only when I take a telescopic view of a full academic year. In my pursuit to be a teacher who practices what he teaches, I had to ensure all along about this consistency between thought and action. I couldn’t have been more wrong in imagining this consistency as easy to achieve. There were several occasions when my own beliefs were questioned.

The other view that developed along the course of the past year is that teaching firmly keeps a person in touch with society’s growing and most dynamic section – the children. This has become the most enriching aspect of this experience. Besides, there is always a quick game of football that can be played, a poem that can be enjoyed and absolutely hilarious moments with children who are busy comprehending and making sense of things and people around them.

As long as I can, I am sure to be a part of a school for the rest of my life.