The stages new teachers move through during their first year  – Anticipation, the short period that usually begins during training, comes first. The beginning teacher looks forward to the new career with a mix of excitement and anxiety. Survival follows close on its heals, soon after school starts. The overwhelmed teacher struggles to stay afloat. This period normally lasts six to eight weeks but can go on indefinitely. Then there is Disillusionment, a phase of profound disenchantment when new teachers question both their commitment and their competence. Rejuvenation, eventually follows. For the lucky ones, it begins after winter break and continues well into spring. For the not-so-lucky, it can take weeks, if not months to kick in. Finally, as the school year winds down, there is Reflection, the final phase of the cycle, in which the teacher begins to envision what the second year in the classroom will look like.

– From Relentless Pursuit, Donna Foote

I have always wondered why people take on impossible tasks and keep at them, even when things look hopeless. What motivates them? Especially when tangibles like money, ambition, fame, recognition etc. are not involved?

Perhaps this was one of the reasons for signing up for the TFI fellowship. To figure things out.  But I am far from it. In fact, things are more baffling now, than before. After a 5 week boot camp training and 8 weeks into the classroom, I am confronted by questions every second of the day and I have no answers. Is this a mere masochistic experiment? Why do I do what I do? And more importantly,why should I keep at it?

Two weeks back, during a group debrief, my Program Manager* talked of the 2-month low. Having been a Teach First Fellow herself a few years back, she knew what she was talking about. Two months into the classroom is usually the time around which the fellow hits the lowest point. (This is not to mean that the lowest low cannot hit one at other times.) She recalled her own experience saying that during her stint, schools in UK started in September and the 2-month low hit around November, coinciding with bitter dreary dark winters, which certainly did not help her cause.

I can understand this two month thing. The novelty (beginner’s enthusiasm) of teaching in a low income school slowly wears off only leave one with a certain hopelessness. One balks at the enormity of the task ahead. Move the class ahead by 1.5 years? A 7th grader that cannot write his name in English? Oh my God, but he does not know his alphabets!  Add to the mix – violence, arrogance, rebellion, malnutrition, dire poverty, dysfunctional families and self destructive attitude, adolescent confusions (if teaching a higher grade). You have one depressive cocktail. Gulp. And it is bound to hit one hard.

At the two month point, one begins to take stock differently. These things existed before, but earlier there were excuses.  One could always tell oneself, ‘But I am new, I don’t know my class, I haven’t established rapport with the parents etc.’ But what if, after two months, things are still quite bad? There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nothing to do except to confront one’s demons.

There are some hard questions to face. Let me keep aside the Whys for just an instant. Things are tough, as they are. Am I doing everything (and I mean, absolutely everything) I can, to push my class ahead? Can I keep doing this in the face of absolutely no progress? Then of course, the most baffling (to me) of them all – Why am I doing this? Why can’t I just quit and leave?

The truth is I sit in my classroom today confronting a low point. I sit where Priyanka usually sits –  near the  window and I can feel the drizzle on my back.

I am not ready to talk about specifics. Yet. What happened? What triggered it?Details don’t matter. While not a great proponent (personally) of sharing feelings, somehow I am more comfortable sharing it here, on the blog. It is like a message in a bottle thrown into the sea, hoping someone would read it.

I sobbed like one of the children in my class, felt instantly better and looked around my classroom. Enclosed by plastered walls, and a barely-there roof and window shutters that don’t close, this classroom is where I do my daily Dandi March, 5 hours a day – round and round. Without the children, it is quiet and non nondescript. Benches strewn around, light streaming in through crevices. A sea change from the air conditioned conference rooms and cubicles. Sometimes I feel a strange ownership towards it – something that I haven’t felt towards any of the houses I have lived in.

Down and out. On a day like today.

And then, there is always a to-do list. It seems to miraculously grow longer, even after a 12 hour work day. I flip through it and my first thought is – Wait, I cannot sit here and ruminate. I have to visit two families of my class today! So, here I am, a limited being, trying to work my way down a never ending to-do list. Perhaps I should add to the list – “Take time to think why you are doing this.” Is this how life is?

It is not time management that bothers me. Its the lack of progress. Not the progress of the students – but the progress of me, as their teacher. I am beginning to think that the achievement of my class is limited most of all by my inadequacies. Sometimes, just barely, I notice that the more structured my life is (which it seldom is), the more structured my class is. But it is hard to achieve a structured life when most questions are unanswered.

The only thing I am aware of is a strange instinct to keep at this even though its difficult, and put my students ahead of everything else. It is not because of some weird brainwashing or auto suggestion. It is not conscious at all but I realise its presence on hindsight.  Especially in situations where choices have to be made. I don’t understand the cause or the nature of this instinct. Perhaps that is all that is required.

But the truth is, I need a sign. From the heavens. Like now.

(Great! All I can hear is the rain on the leaking roof.)

Ah well, this post is all over the place, just like me. One thing is for sure – I’ll be back tomorrow even though I don’t know why. Praise the lord and pass the ammunition. That sort of thing.

* for the uninitiated, Program Manager aka PM manages a group of Fellows, mentoring them during the fellowship.


On teaching values to 7 year olds:

If you have read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, you would know that he chose 13 virtues that he wanted to perfect and kept a little black book with columns for each day of the week, in which he marked with black spots his offenses against each virtue. Quick analysis of this data revealed interesting patterns. For example, he noticed that  Order was the hardest for him to keep. He took necessary steps towards perfecting that virtue.

I love the fact that objective data tracking can help even in the most abstract of pursuits. I can’t help it – I love love data and what it can reveal.

And btw, if you have not read Franklin’s autobiography I strongly recommend it. You will seriously be astounded by what one man can accomplish given discipline and perseverance.

But, I digress.

I thought to myself, why not a similar framework in the classroom, too? Will it work? Well, there was only way to find out.

The Bodhi Tree

The Bodhi Tree was thus born, to teach the class how to be good. It sits serenely in one corner of the classroom. It has one “Value” to-do per week for the class. The children need to be mindful of that one thing the whole week. For example, it could be “Say Thank You.” Another could be “Hands are for helping, not for hitting.”

Monday morning, first thing, we discuss the Value To-do of the week and why we need to follow it. When the children enter the classroom every morning after assembly, they make a 10 second stop near the tree to remind themselves of the week’s value to-do. At the end of each day, we discuss our success and failure in practising the Bodhi Tree’s Value To-do – sort of a 5 minute end-of-day meeting. There are also home work assignments like “Say thank you to your mother after dinner today.”

Total time allocated everyday to Value reinforcement: 7-10 minutes, sometimes lesser.

Another reason to love the Bodhi Tree: It also introduces the class to BIG words of the week, related to the request. Example: Gratitude, grateful, thankful etc.

I don’t know if this is the best way to teach values to 7 year olds. At least it gives me a framework to introduce and discuss values and also gives them time to practise the same. It is my hope that over time, they would imbibe these values and the Bodhi tree would become redundant.

Another plan is to actively involve the Bodhi Tree in teaching english (through speaking & listening, writing projects and vocabulary related to Value theme of the week). Lets see how it goes.

But, here is an example of why I truly love the five hours I spend in the classroom everyday:

While narrating the story of the Bodhi Tree & Prince Siddartha who after sitting under the Bodhi tree and “listening” to it, became Buddha or a great man, I tell them that Prince Siddartha saw  an old man and asked to himself “Why do people grow old?”

Shaizan raises his hand and answers (in a curious mixture of hindi and english that I just cannot reproduce here), “Miss, people grow tall, get married, become old, then they go to the sky.”

And to the next question of Siddartha, “Why do people fall sick?”

Sanjana says (in hindi, this time), “People don’t wash their hands before eating. They don’t wear masks. So they get swine flu and fall sick.”

At the end of the story, Pushkar declares (after raising his hand!), “I am going to become Buddha by listening to the Bodhi Tree everyday.”

Lao Tze (& Buddha!) would have loved my class, I tell you. They seem to instinctively know the secret to happiness. Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired, that sort of thing.

The school I teach in is under resourced. Roofs leak. There are no bulletin boards to pin up charts, just some rudimentary nails.  Walls are not plastered. Tape does not stick.

So what do we do? We use Blu Tac. Tons of it. Bang with the sides of our hands until we lose all feeling in our hands. Ok, fine, I am exaggerating. But only mildly. But seriously, can the Blue Tak guys give us free Blu Tac, please?

Every bit of wall space is vital to reinforcing learning. Here is how Sanaya does it (& amazingly well, I must add).

Sanaya Bharucha is a second year fellow of Teach for India. She teaches 4th grade in the same school that I teach in. She took up for the fellowship right after her graduation.

During a free period, I walked into the 4th grade classroom the other day, just to watch. It took me a good 15 minutes to just digest the content of learning aids in the classroom.

Here are some poor quality pictures to give you a glimpse of what Sanaya in particular and Teach for India fellows in general do to make their classrooms a great place for learning.

Welcome to Sanaya’s 4th Grade Classroom!

Rules of the Class

Usually, a mnemonic like “LEARN” is used to reinforce the rules of the class. When the teacher says “LEARN” the class knows exactly what it stands for.

Sight Words Wall

Sight word wall – Children learn to recognise & read frequently used words in english by observing their pattern repeatedly. This improves their reading fluency. Transparent sheet is cut and pasted on the wall using tons of Blue Tak. Individual words are cut out to maintain the pattern and pasted on the sheet.

Mistakes Poem

I love this poem! I read it on my first day as a teacher and I repeat this to myself every time my class bombs :)  But seriously, what a lovely way to reinforce the culture of trying out new things without the fear of failure!

The clock reinforces urgency, as it should

Even the small space under the clock has been used for reinforcing facts along with the lovely Super Fast => Super Smart, reinforcing that one should not waste any learning time in class.

A cute poem on How to read a clock

Mnemonics to remember seemingly simple yet sometimes confusing concepts.

The Window Facts

This tops the cake when it comes to resourcefulness! The window  is used to reinforce learning. Facts about days of the year are neatly written on the cast iron shutters. I love this! Even if the inattentive child looks out the window, he will find facts assaulting him. You cannot escape learning in this class, Guys. *Evil Laughter*

You may notice that none of these learning aids cost the earth and moon. Materials used are chart paper & Blu Tac. Very affordable & mostly re-usable. Nothing imported, nothing that is shipped from far off lands, nothing out of the world. Content is a result of focussed thinking and creativity – which the Teach for India Fellow brings into the classroom in abundance. All Fellows work within a shoe-string budget.

Thanks to Sanaya for letting me feature her classroom on the blog.

Dear Manish,

This morning when I entered our classroom, I saw the Base 10 chart torn into pieces and neatly stacked piece by piece on the the chair, with a stone as paper weight. The deliberate neatness of the remnants of this destruction shocked me more. I found out later that the cleaning lady had done this neat stacking (not the tearing), just to tell me that some child had done this. She told me that she felt bad since it seemed like a chart that had taken time to make. “You really need to find out who did this and beat the daylights out of him. They cannot take you lightly, ” she said in broken hindi.

I asked around and found out that you and Saahil (a 3rd std boy) had stayed back after school on Friday and had deliberately gone about destructing the chart. I am not sure who is the initiator. I don’t think I even want to know.

You were absent from school today. When you come to school tomorrow, the Base 10 chart will no longer be hanging at its regular place and we will not be making numbers using units and tens blocks. I don’t know how you will feel about that.

The truth is, Manish, I was livid. Not so much at you, but with myself. As with everything else in life, I blamed myself.

Base 10 Chart - Before

I sat one morning from 4 to 6:30 am, cutting 100 units blocks (measuring 2cm by 2cm each) and pasting them one by one using Blue Tac. I had to keep the fan switched off to avoid the tiny blocks from  flying. The image of myself,  hunched on the floor at an unearthly hour, with beads of sweat on my face and back, flashed through my mind. That morning, I wanted to do anything for you to understand the true meaning of a number. I am reading  four books on teaching primary maths to figure out the best method to teach every concept. Now, the joke is on me.

Base 10 Chart - After

But, wait a minute! This is not about me at all. This is about you, Manish, even though did not know my intentions and the effort that went into this. You loved this game! You would jump every time I would ask if you were ready to make numbers. You were so good at it. What made you do it then? Why did you tear it to pieces? Didn’t you pause for a minute to think of how you would play it again? Was your enthusiasm merely an act to appease me? Somehow, I refuse to believe that.

I talked to your sister during recess and she said that you take special pleasure at destroying things. That’s who you are. She asked me to hit you mercilessly. She even said your mother recommends that.

It is at moments like this, I feel completely inadequate. I cannot google a solution. There is no book to turn to. I don’t understand at all. You see, I have never been with children before. I would run away at the mere sight of them. Now I am trapped with 30 of them in a tiny classroom, with no escape. I feel helpless. Why did you do this? If I ask you this tomorrow, I am sure you will cower, expecting punishment, since you know what you did was wrong and all you want to do is avoid the consequences. Perhaps I should not even mention this to you. I really am stumped. How do I understand why you destroyed something you loved?

What pains me even more is that you cannot read this. Its not because you probably don’t have internet access, but because you are struggling to read English. Alphabets are all you can recognise and that too, barely. Its another skill that I need to teach you, using other charts & learning aids. Would you tear those down too? Does this mean you don’t want to learn? I refuse to believe that. I refuse to believe that you will not be ecstatic when you can read stories in English and show off to your friends that you, indeed, can speak in English.

I am glad you were not in school today. It gave me time to think, to vent, to use this invisible blog as a punching bag. I don’t understand this inherent optimism in me, Manish,  this stubborn belief  that you can and you will learn and if you don’t, its probably due to my inadequacy.

So this evening after all this, I have decided that I am going to start from scratch. And you are going to work with me this time. Every day, at recess, we will sit together and reconstruct this chart, unit block by unit block. If you make this chart with your own two hands, perhaps you will not destroy it.

I really don’t know if this is the right thing to do. I only hope that working with you is the first step towards understanding you.


Meera Didi.

Meet Mr. Deepak Danane, the Heath Ledger of my class. Come on! Don’t you see the resemblance? :) Deepak came in the bad boy of the class, with his mop of delightful tightly wound curls, and brooding personality. The only things missing were the motorcycle and leather jacket. The first day found him tightly slapping the kids sitting next to him and having an innocent (almost scared) expression when cornered about it. His first std. teacher recommended that I hit him to make him fall in line. I politely disagreed with her.

Then a miracle called Behaviour Tracker (Superstar Board) happened. Now, all Deepak wants to be is the “Superstar of the day” (The kid with the most no of stars earned through continuous ‘good’ behaviour throughout the day), wear the super star crown and receive class approval through a round of applause. He keeps counting the “stars” under his name during recess, in between classes and reminding himself to sit in quiet position to earn more stars.

Deepak will do anything to get a high-five from me. Initially, completely disinterested in writing, he would stare around and disturb children around him (grabbing pencils, hiding rubbers, tickling etc) when there was writing work. But ever since he figured out that writing completely & neatly will earn a high five and ‘Good Job’ from me, he has astounded me with his diligence and concentration.

Deepak’s class name is “Mr. Gentleman” because of his transformation. Everytime I refer to him by that name, he beams with pride. Deepak is a shining example of how far ‘right’ motivation/incentives can go, in as little as 2 weeks. Deepak, you have cemented my faith in positive reinforcements. Next time, when it is a choice between the positive and the negative, I will choose right because of you!

Deepak Danane

Sanjana Pawar

Meet Ms. Sanjana Pawar, the tiny bot of the class. There are two girls by the same first name in my class. One is Sanjana Pawar, our little miss of the day and the other is Sanjana Parmar, who never turned up to class. All of Week 1, when I called out Sanjana’s name, she would politely ask “Didi, Pawar or Parmar?” Sanjana has eyes that are perfect circles like those cartoon girls. She is so small, I instinctively want to scoop her up to my eye level while talking to her. Instead, I kneel down to make eye contact.

Sanjana is so industrious that sometimes it seems as if an earthquake could not pry that notebook she is writing in. She sits in the first row with Kasish and Shaijan. She does not like to sit in between two kids but “Didi is Teacher. I listen to teacher.” She follows all the class rules and everytime I ask a question, diligently raises her hands and waits patiently for me to call her. She intuitively understands what works with me and what does not. So I hardly use verbal cues with her.

She was one of the first students to understand that I do not respond to requests in Hindi, simply because I don’t understand the language well. On Thursday, after trying to complain about Shaijan a couple of times in hindi and seeing no response from me, finally cried out “Didi! Pls! He is Maar-ing me! He is Maar-ing me!” Since then, she has made an attempt to speak to me in English, which makes my day, every single day.

Shaijan Khan

Meet Mr. Shaijan Khan. He is the new kid on the block, literally. He wears over sized t shirts (possibly from his elder brother?) and puffs his chest out when asked to sit in “quiet position”, so much so, that sometimes I fear his spine would become permanently bent!
Shaijan’s class name is Mr. Rat because he makes squeaky noises especially in the phonics class. During the Friday Morning Meeting this week, Shaijan received the most “Thank You” shout outs from his class mates. Reason: He shares his lunch with kids that don’t bring any. Many kids did not know his name (since he is new) but wanted to say “Thank You”.

Shaijan always has an explanation for any behaviour of his. “But Didi, No Buffalo, aeroplane zoom zoom” he says pointing to his ear, when I ask him why he is looking at Buffaloes outside the class window when I am teaching. I do agree with him that sometimes aeroplanes can be infinitely more interesting than Place value of numbers :)

Last Wednesday, when Shaijan talked while standing in the line (& there is a strict “No talking in the line” policy in my class) I asked him to stay back for 5 mins. He burst into tears at the injustice of it all saying “Miss, he beat, he beat” showing the slapping gesture. I consoled him, quite inadequately, feeling bad for pulling him out. The whole evening I berated myself for not giving him a chance to explain himself and for being impatient. The next morning he walks up to me with a big smile on his face. “I no talk in line, Didi” he says haltingly and gives me a 1000 watt smile.

Thank you Shaijan for having the big heart to give this awkward new teacher a second chance, even as she struggles to be gentle with herself!