Being a teacher isn’t an easy job when you’re averse to the idea of children. The noise, the tantrums, the mischief, the pranks and perhaps, even the inquisitive mind, can make children a difficult lot to handle if you’re low on patience. And yet, teachers stick on. They tolerate the naughtiness and the squeaky voices and sometimes, even miss it in the rather mundane, sophisticated company of organised, well-mannered adults. They stay not simply because they need to teach the ‘future generation’. It is the image of those innocent faces, curious eyes, oily ponytails and carefree smiles that makes them want to stay. It is in the little hurdles that they cross that a teacher experiences unmatched happiness. And the love received is multi-fold that you could never walk out of that classroom even on a bad day.
In our last segment in this series, we listen to what 23-year-old Vedika Agarwal has to say. A student of Economics, Vedika now teaches at a low-income government school in Chetpet, Chennai. Her students are a fearless, outspoken bunch of 25 third graders. Their witty and humourous responses to life’s ways leave you baffled. Vedika says that her teaching journey has also given her nearly a 100 siblings in the form of her students’ parents. Interacting with them has helped her understand their world and see things differently.
So go ahead and read the interview below. This one is a shorter read, making every second of your time worth it.
Spilling the beans
- Did you always want to become a teacher? If not, what made you take up teaching?
As a child, I would sit my brother down and pretend to be his teacher, ruining all the furniture at home by staining them with chalk. However, as I grew older (and impatient), the cries of children put me off and I was more comfortable “baby-talking” dogs than babies! I never thought I’d become a teacher. All this changed when I started volunteering in a community school in the slums of Cuffe Parade in Mumbai. I had the opportunity to teach this enthusiastic set of pre-teen girls, who were forced to work in the docks all day, and therefore, couldn’t attend school. Working with them changed my life, and that experience later led to me meeting my current batch of 25 beautiful kiddos.
- How was your first day at class?
“Where is Prabanjan?” is the first question I was asked in school. As I was moving my kids from their Tamil teacher’s classroom to their new second grade classroom, anxious and terrified, I had apparently already lost one of them! I looked around at my group of kids, unfamiliar of their faces, almost about to cry, when my co-Fellow nonchalantly mentioned that Prabanjan was standing right next to me. All this took place at just 9 a.m., so you can imagine what the rest of my day would have looked like with 20 not-so-potty-trained children.
- How difficult/easy is it to teach young children?
Children will learn ANYTHING you are willing to teach them. Anything. Studies have proven it. I have great lessons and days in my classroom where every child seems to be learning but then I also have days when I feel like a complete failure, wondering how I am able to live with myself after having jeopardized an eight-year-old’s future, because they seemingly wasted the entire day in school.
- Did you ever think about quitting? If yes, what made you stay?
Yes, I have had my moments when nothing seems to be working and I feel like I am wasting my kids’ and my time. I have had days when I’ve broken down in my classroom, unable to go back to my kids and feel connected to them. To be honest, I have thought about quitting more than fighting these last two years. But, as a teacher, I just can’t give up. Because it is not only about my kids anymore but also about all the akkas and annas, pattis and thathas, that I have found in their parents and grandparents. Quitting would be like leaving my home and family – I’m never going to be able to do that.
What makes it worth it
- What makes teaching a rewarding experience?
The smile on akka’s face when Sharmika gets a 100 in Math. The hand shake anna gives me on seeing Pramodh’s As. The tears in akka’s eyes when I tell her, her son who suffers from ADHD is actually doing amazingly well in class. And most importantly, the extra rasam akka packs for me in Swathy’s lunchbox.
- You always share anecdotes and incidents from your classes on your social media profile. How important is it to get these stories out there?
It is extremely important to share stories of my kids on social media simply because their talent has often been undermined by those closest to me. I believe my kids are as talented as any private school child and that it is only the lack of opportunities that holds them back. I share stories to make this loud and clear to all who look at our peach-on-maroon uniform and cringe.
- As a teacher, what have you learnt from your students?
In four words: patience and limitless love.
- Has this experience changed any of your past perspectives on life, communities, people or even the teaching profession? If yes, in what way?
Growing up in my own bubble, I was oblivious to what we call the “tough life”. Working in my community, has not only opened my eyes to this reality of 22% of Indians who live below the poverty line but has also opened my heart to sympathizing with them. I often do blame and fight with my akkas and annas (my kids’ parents) about their poor life choices, the burden of which is being carried by our children now. But every time I walk through my community, it dawns on me, that the vicious cycle of a lack of awareness and education, the lack of wanting to learn, the lack of accountability and adequate structures to explore your dreams, can only be broken by our kids currently at school, and that if you were to point fingers, you’d need a lot more than ten.
The fun moments
- What was the craziest thing one of your students told you?
“Keep quiet and sit down,” yelled Prasanth at me one day, bursting into laughter with his friends.
- Did you revisit your rhymes and read up fairy tales for class?
Oh my god, yes! My favorite one being ‘One, Two, buckle my shoe…’. But more than rhymes and fairy tales, I spend hours on the Internet understanding basic Math concepts and finding answers to questions like “why we carryover in addition”. (Bet you don’t know that one!)
- Do share a couple of anecdotes with your students that you will always remember? (As many as you’d like)
I know deep down in my heart that even when I’m 80 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, their smiles are going to bring me back to life, like they do even now. Little Mathesh is always going to give me the same twisted-brow, hand-on-hip, concerned look, when I fall sick. Chirpy, young Mercy is always going to come and scream “oo-lali-poopoo” in my face when I forget something and Kamalesh is going to scrunch up his nose to adjust his glasses, because he’s too lazy to use his hands, and also because he knows I’m going to get annoyed and sing in my hopeless voice, “Kamaaaaaaalesh, what are you doing, kanna?” while he giggles into his palm.
I know that I will forever remember my kids not as a part but as the purpose of my life.
- A touching, heartening moment when you saw one or more students put into practice what you taught in class? (Anecdotes will be great).
Every morning, when I have to spend too much time in the HM room, and come back to class only to find my kids having finished all their classroom chores, waiting in their places for their Meees to come in and start teaching, my heart melts. I get all teary-eyed like the proudest parent in the stadium and do a little dance in my head.
My heart skips a beat when Prasanth comes and tells me about how Gowtham had made “bad choices” by running on the road in the community the evening before, or how he made a “good choice” by being honest about why he was late to school that day.
I feel like I’m doing something right when Lathika, a Tamil-medium student who was moved to my class less than a month ago, speaks about her family in our sharing circle. And I know that everyone can harness all the courage in the world to question wrongs or chase our dreams, when I see Pramodh boldly look at the HM and ask her why she won’t let him go down to the kitchen to get his lunch simply because an officer is visiting.
- A conversation with your class or a particular student that made you see things differently?
We were having one of our worst days, which meant minimal learning and maximal shouting. In the middle of one of my lectures, my seven-year-old Mercy stood up, looked me in the eye and said (something along the lines of), “Miss, if you want us to start learning, start teaching instead of just yelling at us.” That shook me to my core and changed the mindset with which I work in class.
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?
At the start of my Fellowship/teaching career, I didn’t know a word of Tamil. I decided not to learn for the sake of my kids (so I could completely emerge them in the English language) and therefore, communicated using a lot of actions and picture charts. In Math, we often use concrete tools to understand concepts and then apply them in problems, rather than me just saying, “In 45 + 26, the answer is 71 because we carryover, as there are big numbers in Ones place.” Um. No. That would never fly with my kids!
2. What are the different tools you use to teach them? (Art, theatre, dance, music, etc.)
We watch a lot of videos in class, animatedly read-aloud funny books, and play many many games.
The message back home
1. Usually, what a child learns in school, he/she takes it back home. Are there any instances where parents have told you about changing practices/attitudes after ‘learning’ something from their children?
Every day, my akkas and annas come to class to rave about how their neighbors are envious of our child’s English speaking skills. Mathesh’s mum often tells me that she comes to school only to hold my hand and genuinely understand what it is that happens in class that has made Mathesh seem like the most disciplined boy on her street.
But like the dark cloud in every fairy tale, my kids often find themselves going down the very rabbit hole we promise to stay away from, once they leave school and it gets harder to be yourself and make the right choices when surrounded by everything that seems wrong.
How you see it
1. What’s your message to youngsters and peers of your age based on your teaching experience?
Be loving, patient and kind.
2. Would you like to continue in this profession?
Yes! I am never leaving my babies. Ever.