Someone wise once said, “School is a building with four walls and a tomorrow inside”
This resonated with me as I walked down the corridors of one of our partner schools, Nirmala Vidyalaya (NV) with Vasundhara – our colleague at Mantra4Change, who works as School Transformational Lead at NV. The school was a perfect blend of colors, cheerfulness and an abundance of space. I did not pass a single man, woman or kid in the school without a smile on their faces. I was here to meet the Principal of the school for a 10 o’ clock appointment and I had a good half an hour before that. So I decided to tag along with Vasundhara to get a feel of the school and also to peek into her daily routine. After all, I had gone to the school to study the culture and the changes in the practices of the people in school.
To my surprise, we were called into the Principal’s office before the appointment. He was interviewing a potential candidate for a teacher vacancy and wanted Vasundhara’s opinion. He greeted me in the midst of the conversation and told me, “She is also a part of our family, you see. I have to take her opinion”. As I stood there watching Vasundhara and the Principal discuss and debate on the proficiency of the teacher, I realized that everything that captivated my attention here was a true reflection of the culture that the staff, the Principal and of course Vasundhara had forged i.e. one of collaborative spirit and willingness to share and learn.
After the discussion, Vasundhara rushed out to conduct a classroom observation that she had scheduled the day before. As I sat down with sir, it was evident that this man sitting opposite me was a man of humility, compassion and someone who holds respect for everyone whom he happens to meet in his life. He explained his ‘mantra’ in life, which was “You can learn a little something from everyone you meet”. He was as wise as he was humble. He explained earnestly that since the time he had joined the institution he had been busy setting the administrative processes and systems in the school and hence, he wasn’t able to dedicate time to the instructional practices. He then went on to say that Mantra4Change came at the right time. Vasundhara deftly handled the capacity building of teachers and followed it up in the classrooms. He unequivocally stated, “I am now more hopeful that we can take on any student and transform them into citizens, capable of being self-reliant, honest and successful.”, which clearly articulated the vision of the school.
As I walked past the corridor, I happened to notice a game of cricket going on. This is not a sight that I normally encounter in the schools that we work with. The focus of schooling in under-resourced schools is mostly academics and consequently, the kids lose out simple joys of life, such as running out in an open space and playing. Having been accustomed to the sight of kids always confined to the classrooms, this was a rather pleasant sight. Vasundhara then explained to me how the Physical education teacher and she collaborated to dust up the sports equipment and trained the boys and girls (who were quite reluctant at first) to play cricket and Kho-Kho. They were planning to introduce other sports soon.
Already impressed by the school, I accompanied Vasundhara to her next classroom observation. The teacher was ready with her lesson plan and confidently invited us to her classroom. There was a high level of engagement among students throughout the class. I was in awe as we moved out of the classroom. The teacher followed us outside as we left and insisted that Vasundhara schedules the observation feedback session on the classroom as soon as possible!
I followed Vasundhara as she went about asking all the teachers for their daily lesson plans and unit plans. A second request was not required; all the teachers were ready with their plans and were aware of their schedule for classroom observations and debrief sessions. It looked like Mantra’s work had blended perfectly well with the existing school system and it worked like a well-oiled machine. No chaos, no confusions.
Vasundhara made it a point that she greeted all the members of the staff and as she went about doing it, teachers would stop her along the way to enquire about a particular teaching technique (mentioned in the previous training) or to ask her help regarding implementation of a certain activity in classroom. The passion and dedication toward their profession was palpable. As I flitted between one staff room and another, I realized that the management has also tried to keep a positive and comfortable environment for its staff and students alike.
Finally, I got some time with Vasundhara. We sat down in the humungous computer lab, with steaming hot cups of chai. She told me how she set about establishing a good rapport with the teachers and how that helped her create change readiness among the teachers in the school. She stated plainly that geographically, the school was in the middle of nowhere, thereby stating the very thought that kept nagging at me since morning. The school was isolated from known human habitation (literally!!!). “Yet”, she says, “The teachers and students manage to come every single day and well prepared too, to take on the day. The culture of collaboration has deepened in the school. Teachers don’t just share ideas; they even help each other implement it”.
Language was another struggle that Vasundhara faced on a daily basis. She doesn’t know Kannada, which makes it extremely difficult for her to review Kannada lesson plans and to observe the Kannada classes. But the bright side of this struggle was that the teachers started volunteering to help her using English and broken Hindi. Something else that surfaces every time Vasundhara speaks is her pride at the active student participation in the school, especially displayed during all their cultural fests and school level celebrations.
My next visit was to the office of the Director of Education at ACTS group. Mrs. Anupa Gnanakan has a passionate and effervescent personality. Being an educationist herself, she supports and leads all the schools under ACTS group. As she bustled into her office, she gushed about the twentieth anniversary of the first institution of ACTS. As she started talking about Mantra4Change, she admitted that for her, any relationship begins with trust. She shared that she trusts people tremendously and that’s what she did – she trusted Mantra4Change and its team. As she started talking, I picked out what she felt strongly about NV now. ‘There has been a change of atmosphere and attitude’. She realizes that teaching can end up being a highly lonely and boring profession after a while. She now feels, that at NV, there has been a shift in teacher mindsets from disinterested to interested, from bored to passionate.
At the end of it all, I learnt that sometimes, all that is needed for change is a nudge and access to the right resources. And guess, that’s what Mantra4Change succeeded in achieving.