Do schools care?

FEELINGS MATTER

Is the hurly burly of competition dehumanising our citadels of learning? Are teachers too stressed out with completing the syllabus to take the children’s feelings into account? Sonali Bhatia writes on why it’s important for schools to take care of a child’s emotional health, while catering to his academic development


“Teach him to have faith in his own ideas ... teach him to filter all he hears on a screen of truth ... treat him gently but do not cuddle him ...” – Abraham Lincoln.

CONGENIAL ATMOSPHERE Putting caring into  practice involves keeping communication lines open across hierarchies. PIC BY THE AUTHOR.In his letter to his son’s Headmaster, Abraham Lincoln makes no mention of subjects, marks, grades or performance. These, it would seem, fall into place when more important aspects like the child’s emotional and spiritual health are taken care of.

Are today’s schools losing this perspective? Is the hurly burly of competition dehumanising our citadels of learning? That is what panellists and participants at the Teacher Foundation’s symposium, ‘Do Schools Care?’, attempted to discuss.

Panellists began by defining ‘caring’. Hansa Vithani, Director, Vidya Niketan School, emphasised that every human being wants to be respected and trusted. “Even if a child has made a mistake, it helps to point it out gently,” she said. Geeta Viswanathan, Teacher, Sishu Griha, was quick to concur. “I am very careful to use polite language with my students — and I always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to them,” she stated. Radha Ramaswamy, Consultant, Educational Research and Training, added that ‘caring’ means different things to different children. “You would use a particular technique to show a five-year-old that you care — but you’d need a different technique for a 13 year old.”

So are schools equipped to make ‘caring’ part of the fabric of the system? Are teachers too stressed out with completing the syllabus and setting and correcting examination papers, to take the children’s feelings into account? “It has to be done,”  Radha Ramaswamy pronounced, unequivocally. “There’s already enough indication that emotions have reached a critical point in the educational system — ignoring them any more is dangerous.”

Maya Menon, Director, Teacher Foundation, was of the opinion that if caring was made compulsory, it would become second nature to school managements and teachers. She gave the example of traffic rules. “In India, you can get away without wearing your seat belt while driving. In Singapore, you can’t. An Indian visiting Singapore wears a seat belt because he has to. Similarly, if caring is mandatory, it will happen.”

Dr Shekhar Seshadri, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS, said that a Mental Health Approach involves having a multi-dimensional view of caring. To reduce the power-divide between teachers and students, for example, he advocated using the phrase ‘positive engagement’ instead of ‘discipline’ and advised viewing the classroom as a collective community. Dr Seshadri emphasised the area of bullying. When bullying takes place, care needs to be taken of the victim as well as the perpetrator, for there to be a conclusive change in the situation. Also, according to him, there can be external methods like surveillance, to check bullying — but an overall attitude of caring tends to reduce bullying internally — students don’t want to browbeat other students if they feel cared for and understand the concept of caring for others.

Fuelled by fear

The panellists agreed that several aspects in today’s schooling are fuelled by fear. Fear of performance and results, fear of non-conformity, fear of assessment and judgement. This puts undue pressure on both students and teachers. To reduce this fear, Hansa Vithani tells the teachers at Vidya Niketan to teach for joy, not for examinations. According to Dr Seshadri, examinations themselves should be a celebration of learning, not a chore.

“Why don’t we have examination melas, with stalls for exam papers in different subjects? Students are garlanded and sprinkled with rose water as they enter, the whole atmosphere is festive, and they go to each stall and experience the joy of showing what they have learnt during the year.”

In the current scenario, such stress-free examinations seem to be a distant dream. However, giving students the tools and techniques to cope with stress can help tremendously. “We conducted some meditation classes for our students. I realised the importance of this when a girl who was appearing for her Std X Board Exams came up to me and said she had a headache on the day of her Mathematics paper, and didn’t know whether she would be able to concentrate on her exam. She meditated for five minutes, the headache vanished, and she could give her best in the exam,” said Hansa Vithani. “At Vidya Niketan, we now believe that intellectual and physical development is a by-product of spiritual and emotional development and we try to gear our teaching accordingly.”

Radha Ramaswamy agreed that providing children with tools to control stress is important. She gave the example of a group of Std X students in a government school who scripted and performed a sensitive, thought-provoking play about the human soul.
She later found out that this was, in fact, a group of ‘habitual offenders’ in school. Drama had greatly helped them express their emotions resulting in an improvement in their behaviour.

It is participation in such activities that builds character, forges friendships and creates memories — and that is what Dr Seshadri wished that schools would focus on. “If schools thought more along the lines of: what sort of memories of this institution are the students going to carry with them through life? It would create a culture in the school that values caring. Schools should take a firm stand not to be driven by market forces, but to have a philosophy of caring that translates to intention and practice.”

Putting caring into practice involves keeping communication lines open across hierarchies. Management, staff and students need to view each other as human beings and treat each other with respect. “When a teacher at Vidya Niketan took leave because her husband had had a heart attack, the Principal and I went and visited him in the hospital,” said Hansa Vithani. “We actually advised the teacher to extend her leave and re-join school only after her husband went back to his work himself. It is by caring for teachers that we, in turn, encourage them to care for students.”

Several participants echoed the need to empower the teacher. Lata Kohli Gomes said, “Teachers are the most vulnerable species of India, in the context of today’s education system. They have been made powerless, low-esteemed, forced to fit in any kind of job without raising their voice. The government as well as society take them for granted without realising their problems and inconveniences.”

Invest in ‘software’, too

According to The Teacher Foundation, schools need to invest not only in ‘hardware’ like classrooms, laboratories and sports facilities but in ‘software’ as well. The four broad areas of software are: better teaching; better relationships; better curriculum and better leadership. Better leadership includes balancing tradition and modernity, curricular and extra-curricular activities, authority and sensitivity, and short and long term goals.

Panellists agreed that keeping the balance between various aspects is necessary. “The saddest situation I have come across is schools which cram in a series of activities for children to frantically participate in,” said Radha Ramaswamy. “It becomes more important to check the activities off on a list rather than to take the children through the process of discovery, growth and expression. In such a hectic scenario, nothing is really achieved. Heads of schools need to recognise and implement activities with true substance and not get carried away with the glitz of technology.”

Veni Sukumar, a participant, put it thus: “Schools, instead of functioning as factories churning out prodigies and achievers, should help children turn into humane human beings.”

Here, Radha Ramaswamy cautioned against rote learning. “To be human, students need to learn to think for themselves. In schools where rote learning is prevalent, students get conditioned and apply rote learning to social situations as well as academics. They thus spread the assumptions, intolerances and superstitions that are dominant in society without questioning the same.”

Giving students the scope to express their feelings has resulted in dramatic changes in some schools. A Std V student in a government school told of how she was teased about her dark skin. After a few sessions of circle time during which she shared her feelings with her classmates, they apologised to her and stopped teasing her. The Principal of the same school expressed her delight in the change in her staff and students after the implementation of the ‘sensitive school module.’ Teachers who once carried canes to class to keep discipline no longer need to do so. Students who once treated the school like a prison are now much more relaxed and enjoy the process of learning.

Panellists highlighted the role of the school in society. It is not simply a building but a part of the community, working with parents and caregivers in the interest of the child. At Vidya Niketan, for example, students with special needs are not asked to leave the school in the higher classes. Instead, there is a separate section comprising, say, ten students with ten different levels of ability. They are coached separately and then integrated back into the mainstream. So far, five batches of such students have successfully passed out of the school. Vidya Niketan has also implemented one lifestyle-change period a week for all students, during which they understand the importance of environment-friendly, healthy living.

To create a lasting change within the school and in the community at large, Dr Seshadri emphasised that parents and teachers should be role models for students. Children live what they experience — a slogan against fizzy drinks is not effective if the parents stock these in the fridge and serve them to guests.

Children are also innately honest. “A five-year-old won’t sit through a lesson that is boring or incomprehensible,” said Radha Ramaswamy. “But, under the guise of good behaviour, the school forces him to do so.” She actually suggested that schools nurture and take a cue from those children labelled ‘badly behaved’ — perhaps they are indicating that the teacher needs to be doing something differently!

That, finally, is what caring is all about — respecting each individual and learning from everyone in a warm, conducive atmosphere. Or, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, it is about inculcating in a child the faith, love and courage to embark on the adventure of life in the real world.

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