Friday, May 19, 2017

How I Became An Educator...



I had never in my wildest dreams seen myself as a teacher. A shy kid who dreaded public speaking, I performed on stage only as a dancer. My first memories of teaching was in 2000, when I had to earn a Social Involvement Program (SIP) credit for the co-curricular Honour's program (not to be confused by the Honour's degree) at St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Crissy, the coordinator for SIP, assigned me to St Stephen's Church at Breach Candy, where under the guidance of the very strict Mother Margaret, I would have to teach a group of domestic workers once a week. I was 17. Till that year, I never had an urge to do anything for anyone for free because I was too focused on my studies.

Most of my students were older than me. Many did not understand Hindi or English, the two languages I could converse in. I felt awkward to go there alone and would miss turns if my fellow-volunteers were not able to make it for some reason. Mother Margaret had given me a Grade 5 English textbook to teach from. Some of the students were irregular because they had to keep juggling the chores of the household they worked in with these 'English classes'. At the beginning of each session I would ask them the page number we left the previous class. They always said, “Page 19.” For six months, we started reading from that page. I did not enjoy the teaching experience and was happy that I got a 'C'.

With members of various editorial teams in Times Response, 2nd Floor, The Times of India Building, Mumbai, in 2006

It was during my stint as correspondent with Downtown Plus, the weekly South Mumbai supplement of The Times of India in Mumbai, did I learn how to mentor. A large part of it was by observing and interacting with my boss, Sridhar Ramakrishnan (the only person in my life I have called, “Boss”), and my senior colleagues Ashishwang Godha, Sanaya Pavri and Swati Soni. For all the things people say about the Times' brand of journalism, of what you can do and cannot do there, it has made me the person I am today and I shall be ever grateful to be given that chance to work with them. I got the confidence to write, edit, design, mentor interns and colleagues, recognise and recruit talent. I enjoyed my role as mentor.

My first batch of students at MS University of Baroda in 2009
Marriage brought me to Vadodara in Gujarat in 2008, a year when the global recession made thousands of jobs redundant. There were no positions for new copy editors in the city's two English dailies – The Times of India and Indian Express. I continued to freelance for the Mumbai papers but I really needed some local engagement. One of my husband's relatives, Dr Amit Dholakia, a political scientist, asked me if I would like to see the journalism faculty at The Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda. My husband, Rachit and I teamed with Dr Dholakia and entered the office of the dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at MSU. Dr SK Tiwari had served in that office for 14 years. He asked me if I would like to teach. I hesitated, remembering my previous experience of teaching at the church. “At least if you can share your knowledge, of what to expect when the students get out of here, that would be enough.” At that moment, Dr Niti Chopra, walked in. She asked me if I could teach Quark Xpress to the students. I agreed. I was hired to teach the students editing and coordinate the lab journal, Ittivritt (meaning chronicle).

The first batch of students I taught were an enterprising lot. I asked them if they would like to do Ittivritt in colour (till that point, the press printed only black and white) and they were ready to do it. I taught them Quark and they brought in ads so it could be printed outside. They did everything – logos, illustrations, stories, editing, pagemaking, photography, photo-processing – all with limited access to technology and computers. While I am still proud that they came up with the first all-colour issue of Ittivritt, I am prouder of the fact that they turned me into a teacher and encouraged me even when I shared my fears and hesitation with them. I have been teaching there for almost eight years now, and have learned a lot about people, cultures, education, problems, society and youth from the 180+ students I have encountered there.

Celebrating 25 years of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in February 2017


I got a closer look at what plagues the education system in the country while working as Documentation Consultant for Education with UNICEF Gujarat in 2012. Travelling to rural schools, meeting people who were not very different from the set I had tried to teach at St Stephen's Church in Mumbai, and learning their social norms made me realise that sometimes, even the best intentions of providing access to education may fail if we don't understand the communities we are working in. I had never tried to understand the predicament of my students at the church in Mumbai because they were domestic workers. They had failed to grasp Grade 5 English and I hadn't bothered to find out what I was doing wrong. Gujarat's villages taught me the need to put myself into their shoes: When survival becomes an issue, parents put kids to work in fields or beg for food instead of sending them to schools. When girls menstruate, they stop going to schools because it's a taboo and there are no toilets for their exclusive use. If you want a school built in a village of shepherds, you have to first share their lunch. Education became more about bridging the gaps in my understanding of people of different castes and classes.

Girls in a very remote village school in Bordha village, Vadodara district. I visited the place to document UNICEF's intervention in Education through photographs and success stories


In 2014, Rachit and I moved to Brisbane, Australia, to set up the sales and distribution arm of his mining equipment business there. While we worked together in the office, I took time out on Wednesdays and Thursdays to go to the Indooroopilly Uniting Church, where I would learn art and volunteer at the PlayCafe, a space where mothers and children would meet and socialise. At any given time, there were people from about 15 nationalities at the church. My art-teacher, Gabriella Veidt-Weidmer is one of the most skilled teachers and finest human beings I have met. She taught me (and others) art for one-and-a-half years for free in one of the most expensive countries in the world. She didn't care if you knew how to draw or paint, which country you were from or if you spoke English or not (she is Swiss). If you wanted to be part of the group, all you had to do is walk in and grab a chair. I loved the way she imparted her knowledge to us, without ever asking for anything in return.

With members of Art n' Soul at Indooroopilly Uniting Church. My teacher, Gabriella, is on the extreme left


It was through the art class, I met my dear friend Leyla Kesbi, who had fled Iran and come to Australia as a refugee with her husband and son. The Australian government had helped Leyla get into a TAFE course so she could work as a teacher-aide in school. Leyla was great at the practicals. What she hadn't realised was that she would have to write a lot of reports in English as well. One evening, she SMSed me for help. We met at the Indooroopilly library and she discussed her problem. She was about four days away from her deadline and she struggled to understand the workbooks she had to complete. For two days, we sat together, ate cake and worked our way through the questions. I helped her translate her experiences into English sentences. If she didn't understand a word I mentioned, she would look up the English-Farsi dictionary.

When I came back to India in 2015, I learned about Pax Populi Tutoring Program, from my former student, Nalanda Tambe's Facebook update, where she mentioned an interaction with a student in Afghanistan. Curious to learn more, I wrote to Robert McNulty, the founder of Applied Ethics, Inc, Pax Populi's parent NGO. After exchanging a series of emails and having a video-conversation, I was appointed as tutor to teach one Muhammad Qasem Jami in Herat, Afghanistan. An English teacher himself, Qasem's understanding of the language and fluency in English made me work harder to create assignments and find readings that would challenge him. We discussed peace, education, culture, countries, war, music, films, democracy, diplomacy, university applications, fellowships, conferences, etc. I taught him for seven months and we've become good friends. I then worked another student, Suraya Mehrzad, from Kabul, who introduced me to the difficulties of students who are not used to reading the Roman script and the various pronunciations of the five vowels to create different sounds. I learned how to improvise.

(From left to right):
Priya More, a student at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication (FJC) at MSU who conducted a study on Pax Populi for her Masters' dissertation,
Sayed Khalid Sadaat, an Afghan student at FJC (MSU), me and
Robert McNulty, founder, Pax Populi at the Lukshmi Vilas Palace, Vadodara


It was after I started posting my interactions with my Pax Populi students on Facebook, that I started being talked about as an educator. Till last year, I was known as a writer-journalist and people would ask me to critique the newspapers in Vadodara. Last year, I had little time to write in the media because I was too busy teaching. I taught the Bachelors of Journalism and Communication course at Navrachana University in Vadodara, two batches of the Masters' course in Journalism and Mass Communication at MSU, students at Pax Populi, guest-lectured students at Lincoln Learning Centre, Kandahar (Afghanistan) and Social Entrepreneurship Council at The University of the Pacific, California (USA) on Skype and collaborated with fellow-teachers for writing projects at University of Edinburgh (UK) and University of Iowa (USA). I engaged in dialogues and chats with students from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, USA, Germany, Australia, Iraq, Iran and UK, to understand the gaps in communication between educators and students. I even talked about my teaching experience for a Teachers' Day video produced by WideAngle Studio in Vadodara. I talked about safety and girls' education in a video for The Red Elephant Foundation. I haven't done videos about writing, yet.

It recently dawned on me that I have been teaching in a quasi-professional capacity for almost 17 years. That's longer than my writing career of 13 years! Wow! Now, who would have dreamt of that?

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