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“Inside the classroom, there is love and acceptance like there is in few other places”

Teaching is one profession where it isn’t merely the student that’s learning something new. Children are often a mirror of those values that adults seem to lose in their quest for a better life or simply because they wear the mask of adulthood. Whether it’s an undying curiosity or the thirst for learning, young minds can teach us more than we can imagine.

In our second part of this series, we see what chirpy, intelligent and creative adolescents from the 6th to 10th grade learn from 23-year-old Yashasvini Rajeshwar. A Humanities graduate from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), Yashasvini teaches English as a second language at a private school on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. The school caters to children (largely first-generation learners) of the local tribes in and around the area. From learning adjectives and prepositions to having their pieces published in national dailies, the beaming faces of these children coupled with their undying spirit is what keeps her going. As she opens their eyes to the world of Marquez and Wordsworth, she learns a lot more about life and being grateful. 

Another long read, but this one comes with heartwarming tales from a cosy, rural village.

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Yashasvini Rajeshwar

Spilling the beans 

  1. Did you always want to become a teacher? If not, what made you take up teaching?

I never thought of myself as someone who was going to be a full time teacher. Or even part time. Putting my finger on the moment that set this ball rolling is an act of hindsight – at the time, I was just participating in an event for college culturals.

A friend of mine invited me to be a part of a team that would assess an underprivileged school for its library potential, and it sounded like a nice thing to do. I was a fresher, and didn’t really have any other competing plans. As luck/fate/what-have-you would have it, we successfully finished our week-long assessment and while we did not go on to win that competition, we got published in the press and a kind couple offered to help us carry that work forward. We spent the next year building that library and inaugurated it with 1000+ books. In the run up, we conducted sessions with the kids to make them associate the space of the library with positivity and it wasn’t long before those afternoons became the pick-me-ups that got me through the week.

Soon after, I figured that there must be a more effective way of doing this and every library can’t take that long. This led to an internship in Ladakh learning library management and teacher training. More schools, sessions and kids. Quickly, I realised I enjoyed the space of the classroom, the kids usually didn’t seem averse to me, and it gave me a sense of satisfaction that little else did. When I was about to graduate, a chance phone call ended with a job offer at a rural school, and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick-start my career. Long story short, the fuel that keeps me going is deeply selfish. I feel loved in the classroom. I feel like I am putting my education (a Masters in Development Studies) to some use in the classroom. I don’t feel judged there. Inside the classroom, there is love and acceptance like there is in few other places.

  1. How was your first day at class?

I don’t remember the specifics of my first classes per se, but here is what I wrote at the time. What I do remember was the first time I corrected notebooks, a couple of days later. To see my handwriting in red pen was a hugely overwhelming moment. I even remember the date, thanks to signing off ‘YR 5/6’ It is in that moment that I realised what was happening, that what I write with that pen will be taken more seriously than anything I have written before, that the kids on the other side actually take me seriously.

  1. How difficult/easy is it to teach young children?

Young children are a great bunch to teach as there is little baggage to sieve through before actual information gets transferred. They are perpetually thirsty for knowledge, eager to learn, and everything they say about young minds being like a sponge is true. I think this is also greatly aided by the fact that I teach in rural environments, where there is a certain seriousness associated with the pursuit of knowledge that doesn’t seem as strong in urban classrooms. The first time my kids voluntarily asked for ‘the harder question’ I was thrown off guard a little bit. All this aside, there are obviously the challenges of attention spans and noise levels that one has to contend with. I come out of class physically spent but hugely satisfied.

  1. Did you ever think about quitting? If yes, what made you stay? 

In passing, in moments of fatigue, I have come as far as cribbing. Yet even in those moments, I knew it was temporary, just reactions to a bad day, bad class, bad couple of hours. Having grown up in Chennai, living in a place like Anaikatti definitely takes some getting used to, what with its absence of anything remotely resembling what I now call my “other life”. What made me stay? The reminder that this is bigger than I am, and that quitting would just be too easy. Where is the challenge in quitting at the sight of newness?

What makes it worth it

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  1. What makes teaching a rewarding experience?

There are these moments that catch you off guard, completely unexpected, when you know that something you said someday actually has struck a chord somewhere. Just a couple of hours ago, I corrected an answer paper where a child had written about how she wants to take up journalism because it has caught her fancy after her first article came out in print. Am I sure that it will happen? No. But odds are the memory will last, and the knowledge that I was able to play a small role in building that dream is hugely fulfilling. Every time a child comes to me to ask if I am happy with his/her paper, every time I correct a page and it has less markings than yesterday/last week/last term, every time someone comes and asks for another essay because “this is fun, Akka,” or every time I walk into school after a day off to be greeted with “where did you go, Akka, it has been such a long time,” I am thankful.

  1. You always share anecdotes and incidents from your classes on your social media profile. How important is it to get these stories out there?

So my tryst with blogging about my experiences started off as a diary. I figured if I put it up on the internet, the externality of the act would motivate me to actually write. The kind of attention the blog has received has been humbling. Ever so often, an unexpected conversation begins with how the person has enjoyed my blog. To think that the everyday details of my job are being read and appreciated by people miles away from different spheres of life is overwhelming. I think putting these stories out there helps break a bunch of stereotypes or misconceptions. Rural is no longer synonymous with unconnected, and as anyone who has read my blog would know, often I am doing the learning in the classroom.

  1. As a teacher, what have you learnt from your students?

That there is no such thing as ‘I know enough’. That saying ‘I don’t know’ is not a sign of weakness. That treating them with a sense of equality makes the classroom a much more equitable space for learning. That everything I ever heard through my schooling, of how doing homework was our only job, of how “you don’t need to cook and clean and help in the house, so what is your excuse” speaks volumes of my position of privilege. That we truly don’t know anyone else’s circumstance in life, and hence sensitivity is the best norm. That I cannot truly teach them that prepositions will be the make-or-break in their lives, so my goals are best redefined to providing exposure. That challenging yourself really is the ultimate goal, whether as a teacher or as the student who promises me that she will stretch from 35/100 to 40/100 the next time around.

  1. Has this experience changed any of your past perspectives on life, communities, people or even the teaching profession? If yes, in what way?

These last six months have been a never-ended barrage of reminders of just how much privilege characterises my life. I have been asked a flood of questions. Have you been outside Tamil Nadu, Akka? Do you need a passport to go to Chennai? Do you not feel scared to take a night train alone? Have you really been to America? Is it really night there when it is morning here? Will you buy us white forest cake for your birthday? And I have heard a flood of stories. I didn’t study for the exam because “veetle prachanai” (there were problems at home). I am sleepy in class because I was taking care of my siblings till 3 AM. We couldn’t finish shopping that day because we didn’t have enough money. Every single day is an incessant reminder of just how privileged I have been and continue to be.

The fun moments 

  1. What was the craziest thing one of your students told you?

There have been some pretty crazy moments, though I tend to forget them periodically. I remember the first time I was completely caught off guard though. I was explaining homophones in passing to a class and was using ‘pear/pair’ as an example. Pear is a fruit, I explained, and a pair is two of something, like a pair of socks. One kid on my right put up his hand and piped up. No Akka, he said. That second ‘pair’ is Bluetooth pairing. I told him he was right and just reconciled to feeling old in my classroom.

  1. Did you revisit your rhymes and read up fairy tales for class?

I have used nursery rhymes for an exercise in tenses and my kids wouldn’t believe I actually knew them all. I ended up spending a good few minutes convincing them that I really did, and that they could too. Never thought I’d see myself flaunting knowledge of Betty’s butter and Pat-a-cake!

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  1. Do share a couple of anecdotes with your students that you will always remember? (As many as you’d like)

Recently, three of my students wrote pieces that got published in the Coimbatore edition of The Hindu. The look on their faces when they first saw their names in print definitely will stay with me for many years because I vividly remember my own reaction to that same moment many years ago. I know how much it made an impact and what it did to shape my decisions. The possibility of that moment excites me. Similarly, when I joined, I was notorious for running through red pens like they were filled with water. Today, they last me a couple of weeks each. Every time I give back a notebook to a student with an almost-clean page, I witness a moment of astonishment. Really, Akka? Is that really mine? And in that moment, I see one step taken towards a more robust sense of self; towards ‘I can do it too.’ And I can never ever grow numb to that.

Another set of special moments are those that allow person-person interactions, as opposed to between students and teachers. Recently, the school hosted an astronomy session where senior kids stayed the night at school to star-gaze and such. Through the night, we sang, laughed and mimed, and eventually crashed, all lined up back-to-back in a classroom. We spoke of each other’s families, drew warmth from each other’s shawls, and just broke hierarchy. I think it is moments like these that build relationships.

Despite it all though, one moment worth spelling out is my first moment of gratitude. The week that I joined, I had been warned repeatedly by my colleagues about a particular class. They are raucous, I was told. Prepare yourself, set the record straight and just begin tough with them. By the time I actually walked into that class, I was a nervous mess. I no longer remember what I actually taught in that class, but at the end of it, a few kids stayed back till the others left to say one thing. We barely noticed time pass in your class, Akka, they said. That hour and a half gave me the confidence that I was not out of place in the classroom.

  1. A touching, heartening moment when you saw one or more students put into practice what you taught in class? (Anecdotes will be great).

Recently a colleague came up to me and said she saw a visible change in one set of kids. They were correcting each other’s English, she said. They were making an effort. The fact that they were making an effort in my absence, completely unforced and voluntarily, definitely made my day.

  1. A conversation with your class or a particular student that made you see things differently?

I will never forget my first tryst in the classroom, way back when I was a freshman volunteer. I was the first girl in our group of five, and my teammates would make fun of how I’d have a bunch of kids always hanging on to my dupatta while I was at school. As the week progressed, we heard feedback of how kids would borrow books from the library and pool their savings of a few rupees to get photocopies of the stories we were telling them so they could read it at home. Just when I was celebrating that success, we told them it was our last day, and we wouldn’t be coming back. Before I knew it, a bunch of kids got into a huddle and refused to tell me what was going on. A few minutes later, the spokesperson amongst them approached and said, “Akka, neenge kelambareenge nnu engalukku theriyaadhe pochu. Ippo idha vide perisa enge kitte onnume ille, aana idhe vechikkonge.” (Akka, we didn’t know you were going to leave. Right now, we don’t have anything bigger than this, but please keep this.) In her hand was a plastic ring, one of those with a plastic “gem” in it, easily the most prized possession of its owner. Needless to say, no amount of cajoling would convince them to take it back. Today, that ring has travelled with me here, and reminds me of why I do what I do, and how unconditionally I am loved.

What’s the magic?

  1. Young minds are said to be very impressionable. Do share a couple of examples on how you broke down complex subjects to get across the message to the little ones?

My youngest batch are in 6th standard. More often than not, I just ignore the grammatical names. It does not matter whether you call it an adjectival phrase or an independent clause as long as you know why you need a comma there. I barely know what those terms mean, to be completely honest. Instead, we just ran through scores of example sentences, seeing how they sound/feel/seem different with and without a comma. Soon enough, you recognise a pattern and with enough practice, it gets internalised.

Similarly, when we were doing a short story by Marquez in class, I made sure to source examples from as close to them as possible to make sure they did not feel distant from the literature. The man was covered in a crust of mud and scales. What else has a crust? The Earth. What else? Bread. What is common to both those crusts? That they are on the outside. So if this man was crusted, can we assume it means covered? There we go.

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  1. What are the different tools you use to teach them? (Art, theatre, dance, music, etc.)

I am not much of a dancer myself, so I usually stay clear of that. My top favourites are music and art. We did Old McDonald for animal sounds, and senior classes regularly do independent English music as listening exercises. We converted the Marquez short story into a comic strip and may jump the fence to craft for the next story. I am also a huge fan of flashcards. Just anything that involves getting up, moving, and using their hands has been a big hit in the classroom. I find that it definitely helps in reinforcing concepts and just making the kids feel more involved. Also mixes things up a little for us as well. Oh, and another hot favourite of mine is a simple sponge ball. I usually take an empty dustbin and use the chance to shoot hoops as an incentive to answer questions. Either that, or the chance to choose your target and pass the ball around for a rapid fire question. You won’t believe how effective it is!

How you see it

  1. What’s your message to youngsters and peers of your age based on your teaching experience?

Be cognizant of privilege. Be aware. Every one of us is the product of our circumstance and we ought to be deeply conscious of it. Don’t hold it against yourself but please be aware. Sometimes at the school I wonder how much I can truly tell my kids that the world is their oyster. Is it, really? And is it really my place to say so? I don’t have the answers, but what I do know is that my job is to ask the questions. And challenge myself. And be reflexive. I am here not just to teach. I am here to grow. And I am convinced that is true of all of us in any profession. If I were to “give a message,” it would be this – ask yourself what you bring to the table, bags, baggage, et al.

  1. Would you like to continue in this profession? 

I don’t intend to as of now, but I also don’t know what I do intend. I stumbled into the classroom serendipitously and haven’t ever actually left in the last almost-six years, so who knows? As of right now, I don’t think I would be a full-time teacher, but I will always have one foot in the classroom and a couple of well-placed words on the whiteboard.

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