Category Archives: Education

Do you Speak of Difficult Things in Class



We went as a large family group to see the movie ‘3 Idiots’. The mood was happy, we were in the middle of a large wedding. Cousins and nephews and nieces, grand uncles and lonely aunts had all joined together. I was in charge of the children in the hall, sitting at one end of the row. And then came the ‘funny’ balatkar speech. The children of course turned to the one person who loved to answer anything and asked me: “What is Balatkar?”

I turned to look at the other parents at the end of the row. They had pretended not to hear the question. 

I looked at the children, looking at me restlessly. The hall was laughing uproariously and they wanted to join in the laughter. An awkward moment that lasts a lifetime. 

One, I believed that all questions must always be answered honestly, but with tact. So I had to respond. Two, I do believe that subjects like sex, violence and death are the domain of parental responsibility. These are things that trouble children if not handled well. And if there is a difference between what they hear in the house and what they hear outside, the dissonance stays with them. 

It is the same challenge that the parents of Prince Siddharth had – the very same who became Gautama Buddh. To shield the child from pain and suffering they chose to bind him in ignorance. When real life was seen, the dissonance was too much to bear. We, as parents and as teachers have the job of preparing them for real life with all the honesty we can bring to bear upon the subject.   

It is not easy to do something that we know is important, but not urgent and will clearly make us all uncomfortable. It is even more difficult to do this right thing when we know that it is likely to have a backlash. 

How many teachers actually do speak of difficult subjects at the right age?  

It is mandatory in many nations to have imparted sex education to children by the age of eleven. This is the age of curiosity when they need to understand their bodies and the changes that are beginning to affect their minds and their relationships. With knowledge comes control of the situation. A confused child does not have the tools to avoid being exploited or abused as much as an informed child does. 

Bullying, violence, sexual urges and the combinations of these make for very difficult sessions with teenagers in a classroom, especially a co-educational classroom. But just because it is difficult does not imply that it can be avoided. It is there, a part of the life of these children and is finding its way into their behaviours. If we were growing up animals, we could allow them to find their own way in these jungles. But education and civilization do mean that we are teaching them to first think and make choices about how they behave.  

If we do not teach our children to think before they act, then what is the purpose of their education? If we cannot show our children how they can use their intelligence to gather information, analyse it and then to chose a course of action that works for good – then all the rote learning and examination success is meaningless. This is a lesson that can only start at school, though parents and society have a very large role to play. 

Teachers often find themselves isolated in this even as they know what is the right thing for the future of their students. It is certainly not fair to expect teachers to have to do this on their own. Firstly, this has to be a decision on values teaching that is taken as part of school policy and implemented as a team. Secondly, the teachers must be supported in this with very clear guidelines on the ‘how should we say this’ so that there is a consistent approach across the school. Thirdly, the policy on these value based discussions must be designed keeping in mind the entire school community including the parents, while ensuring that the issues are not avoided.  

Should the teachers then be given a template to discuss difficult things in class? No, then the discussion would be lifeless and meaningless. Every teacher knows that each class needs things to be handled in a slightly different way, and there can be problems with fixed rules. Yet, is there a right way to discuss these? Yes, there are guiding principles that can help teachers with tactful and honest ways of having difficult discussions.Well designed resources always can help the teachers and students. 

Sometimes the opportunity presents itself to have these discussions. The recent tragedy of the girl raped and assaulted on a Delhi bus have shaken the nation and sparked national protests. No teenage student can be unaware of this, and is a natural opening to discuss the issues of assault, rape, violence and of course core values. A difficult discussion, but it must be done for the future of our students, their safety and to build a safer society. 

How many teachers have had the talk with their students? Will you do it now? 

Jan 8, 2013, Times of India Blogs

The Perfect Husband

The following is a true story. As seen from the eyes of a child.

My mother’s closest friend was getting married. To her best friend. I was .. maybe.. 7. Some details are fuzzy.
But I remember many evenings over tea and fresh pakoras lit by their laughter. The house they visited buzzed with their joy. (No, this is not a story about whether he was a good husband or not. Carry on)

The lady came from a Gandhian family. Her mother and father had both worked closely with the Mahatma. They were Gujaratis from Ahmedabad. They were academics and writers. Activists and thinkers. Khadi was a way of life for them, among other values – I am sure. Khadi is what she wore to the wedding. A little border to a plain sari.
The gentleman came from Uttar Pradesh. Well, not quite, for I remember his glorious tales of ravines and dacoits that held me spellbound. He came from a family of poets. Some famous. Others erudite. They came to Ahmedabad for the wedding.
Some were startled at the simplicity of the affair – simpler than most Gujarati weddings. (Another day I shall tell the story of how some Punjabis came back from a wedding, starving, having only been fed one tiny icecream. Those were simpler times). It was, as tradition would have known.
As with North Indian weddings, the boy’s side seemed to take the lead. As with Gujarati weddings, the girl’s side began to look – and look away. But they were a well matched family. The bride and groom walked the seven steps together. The bantering was fast and furious. The jokes irresistible, the repartee quick.

As the pandit wrapped up, the guests got into their stride. It was time for the baithak. The famous poet, who was the groom’s uncle, had composed a poem for the occasion. After the metaphorical candle had been passed around a few times, he took centre stage. The poem was on marriage. On the perfect marriage. He spoke of Ram and Sita. Of their marriage that began young. Of their devotion to each other. Of their commitment to their joint cause – the maryaada. Of the sacrifices and suffering in the cause of what was right and just. And their unshakeable loyalty to the glory of Ram.

(As I write this, I am reminded of a little ceremony that I saw in a Bengali household. The bride was made to watch over the boiling pot of milk – to ensure prosperity – that must not boil over, for that would mean waste. And then she was to hold the pot with her bare hands, indicating her willingness to endure for the sake of the household. I kept my mouth shut that day, for the husband had no such ceremony.)

Back to the wedding and the poem. As the poem gained momentum, the restlessness on the bride’s side increased. The bride and groom were colleagues at work, equals in every way. The girl’s pedigree was certainly very visible to her family. They were evenly matched, word for word.

A subtle huddle ensued, pen and mind were applied. The words flowed.

They composed a poem right there. And then recited it – it was the story of Shiva and Shakti.

Of how Shiva was the desired one, of how Shakti in her various forms sought her salvation. Her purpose and her path were through Shiva. And of how he was incomplete without her. Of their perfect understanding. Of empowerment. Of how stories strengthened their bond. Of how the only time things got messed up for them was when families intervened. Of how the perfect wife and perfect husband were a team. Regardless of appearances and extreme moments. Of investing in continuity.

As the poems were exchanged through the night, a seven year old stayed awake.

Teachers and prevention of CSA

As a teacher, if you stand me in front of a classroom and tell me to speak to the young ones about CSA, I would freeze. If you tell me first, and then send me to the class, I will try to avoid this task. It is the toughest issue to discuss in a group, one of the toughest to explain to young ones, some of whom may have been victims and others not. The challenge is not just in the grisliness of the subject matter, but also the knowledge that somewhere or the other, we are going to be leaving a mark on young minds.

And yet, tell them we must. It is our job to make them stronger with knowledge and tools. They must know how to protect themselves. We tell them not to talk to strangers or accept sweets from them for fear of drugs or kidnapping. We tell them about germs and viruses for fear of illnesses. This is no different – it is a disease that they must learn not to fall prey to by being strong, vocal and learning to take appropriate action.

One of the first questions the teacher must think through is parental involvement. This cannot be a unilateral imposition by a teacher or a school. Tricky one, already. Approaching the parents and convincing them that this is a necessary discussion is fraught with diffuculty and it is easy to see parents taking umbrage. Of course they will, for it is an attack on their ability to protect their children. Some of them may even be complicit in such behaviour and may be terrified of it being found out. Well, that is the point of the exercise – to be able to protect the children, or give them tools and strength to deal with horrible situations. In approaching parents, do have your statistics and stories ready – this month’s CSAAM blog will have plenty of resources that can be used. Think through the circumstances of your school and decide whether you want to call the parents in a group and speak to them, or whether you want to make it a part of your PTA.

I can see many teachers reading this giving up already. But here I remind you of your duty of care. In loco parentis – that means in the position of a parent. That is what you are to these children. One look around your classroom should convince you.

What you say to these parents depends on how the CSA School Program is structured – would you like to embed it in regular work or would you like to carve out half an hour once in a while and discuss the issues? It is such a tough discussion that every teacher should have the freedom to decide what would work best for the group.

While it is a tough discussion to have, the first thing a teacher would need to remember is that their job is make it simple. And easy. And not scary at all. Whatever they say, the objective is to empower the children, not scare them. A light touch to the conversation, a little laughter, a little discussion and a little bit of student engagement. Maybe a worksheet or two.

What one says also depends upon the age of the group one is coaching. If these are toddlers (and do not gasp, they need more protection than others), then maybe it should be embedded in simple lessons about body parts. When pointing out the head, eyes, nose, lips, hands, feet – we could also teach them about private parts and working parts of the body – to coin a classification. Simple songs about body parts such as Head, shoulders, knees and toes are a great way to start a discussion about good touch and bad touch. This  and other such videos with the student’s participating should get them all involved and laughing, which is a great start to sharing and talking. This video about body parts is certainly easy to embed in a regular lesson and the teacher may choose to talk about CSA flash points in this discussion. Similar opportunities can be found in various parts of the curriculum and should be planned into the lessons to ensure that the children absorb the right kind of information without it becoming a scary or taboo subject.

In planning a CSA lesson, a teacher is likely to find themselves under qualified. At this stage we certainly do not have adequate training for teachers and we must strive together to rectify it. If there are resources, we are happy to pitch in and create workshops at schools. In the meantime, can I suggest that teachers as a group take on this exercise before planning their CSA prevention teaching. Take a look at this lesson plan and discuss ways to make it more sensitive and appropriate to your group –

One of the most important things in preventing abuse for children is to get them to speak up about it. Some adages such as ‘ If you have to hide it, it is wrong’ are useful, but are of limited use where fear has already crept in – it will only enhance the guilt and the pressure on the abused child. These and similar should be used but with care.

Most national programs that seek to prevent sexual abuse and support teachers in lessons create a three or four letter easy to remember acronym to help children know what to do. Let this be my call to come together and create something of value that will help our children in crisis and will support our teachers in the classroom.

Finally, my favourite tool to deal with complex issues – the story. European fairy tales are full of tales of caution and redemption and can be used liberally in the classroom to discuss strategies to keep themselves safe and find their way out of trouble. The classic Little Red Riding Hood is a classic story about staying safe and can be an English or story telling session that becomes a lesson on getting out of trouble even if you have taken poor decisions earlier. Then, the story of the Big Bad Wolf and the three little Pigs can be a story about preparation and keeping your wits and spirits up while navigating a tough situation. Stories are the most wonderful tools, and often the story writing workshops we run bring out the deepest darkest fears the children are grappling with at the time. It is then a very rewarding task to start them on the process of discovering their own strength, possible solutions and the knowledge that they are not alone in either the problem or the solution.

Some resources:

  4. (and we need to develop programs like these)

To be a Teacher

To be a teacher is to be a seeker. A greedy grasping seeker for that spark that will ignite the world. In themselves and in their students. A need to give, to share and to see the eyes of their students light up in comprehension, as they see more of their path ahead.

Teaching is not just a vocation, nor is it pure science. Mere knowledge does not make a teacher, nor is it about empathy or reaching out. The former makes it clinical, the latter makes it a social gathering. A teacher is not just the conductor of an orchestra, nor just a facilitator, nor is teaching about increasing knowledge and getting marks. While all of these have been discussed ad nauseum, the mysterious core of what is a good teacher remains- like all good philosophical mysteries – available only to the initiated, to those who have experienced it.

And this much is true, that good teaching is an esoteric art, to be practiced with skill and precision. The art of teaching needs to be taught – it does not spring forth from a surfeit of knowledge, nor is it cultivated with an ability to analyse. Teaching does not require the ability to churn out books and papers. There are no guarantees that a teachers improve with involvement with ivory towers and specific branches of knowledge that earns them higher degrees.

Teachers are nurtured by teaching them the skills and supporting them through their journey of honing these very skills. The job of a teacher is to learn how to teach, to adapt to every need, to evolve over time along with the content and the audience. To learn is to grow, to teach is earn. Earning for a true teacher does include money, no doubt, and is much more.

And so, today, when I remember my teachers, who taught me both how to learn and how to teach, I cannot miss the one that was practically perfect in every way – Mary Poppins. Yes, of course she was a fictional character in a Disney movie, but everything she taught me holds true in every teaching I do – Teaching is about making magic happen. It is about laughter and rosy cheeks; about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down; about order and discipline (Spit Spot!) and equally about imagination running riot. It is classless, yet about good manners. Above all it is about adventures, breaking bounds and understanding other perspectives. And then, when the lessons have been learnt and the bridges built, it is about gracefully gliding away, often ignored and forgotten, yet fulfilled.


Urdu poetry has a tradition of banter, either across two teams or in a larger gathering, where each participant takes turns to present their two line response to the previous verse.. the person with the lamp placed in front of them is ‘it’ and must speak. If they cannot create something of their own, on the spot, then they can quote another’s poems. Many poets would prepare to seem to have create such verses impromptu.

The tradition is one of sawaal – jawaab, of question and answer, with the response, in turn becoming a question to the group

One such exchange, recently on twitter, with a friend:


Aaj Hai Apnii Bulandii Par Tujhe Kitna Naaz //

Isii Zameen Se Yaad Rakh, Hai Aasmaan Nikla”

Mera jawaab

Bulandi par naaz karein badal bhi, gubaar bhi

Do boond paani, aur yeh bulandi phaani


Dil se dhadkan, Khuun se azm-e-safar le jaayegaa //

waqt ik din chiin kar saare hunar le jaayegaa”

Mera jawaab

Waqt ka kya, kab aaya kabgaya;

Tareekh se chheen ke koi hamaara kal legaya


Meharbaan ho ke bulaa lo mujhe chaaho jis waqt,

main gayaa waqt nahiin huun ke phir aa bhii na sakuun” (Ghalib)

Mera jawaab

Bulate bulaate bol sookh jaayenge

Meherbaan vohi jo bin bulaaye aayenge;

Waqt na dekh na eedon ke chaand

Tamanna ko takalluf mein na baandh


ho chukaa aish kaa jalsaa to mujhe khat bhejaa //

aap kii tarah se mehmaan bulaaye koii”

Mera jawaab

Jalse ke mehmaan to ja chale kab ke

Voh Khat ke intezaar mein sulagte kab the…

And so it goes on..

But, as with all good Urdu poetry, multiple interpretations are possible. Since this friend is very knowledgeable in foreign policy, defence, internal security and bilateral relations – and I have a more than passing interest in geopolitics, it might be interesting to read the exchange again in the light of India’s foreign policy triumphs and debacles, and its ambitions over the past two decades and more…


Gullu knew that he MUST NOT talk to strangers. He had been told that ever since started school.

School was nice. It was bright and colourful and teacher aunty had a bright and smiley face. She sang such nice songs.

But still, the nicest part of school was going home.

Everybody was happy when it was time to go home. We sang the Bye-Bye song, and our teacher gave us our bags. Then we had to climb down the tricky stairs holding the rail with our right hand. The right hand is the one next to the rail..that one. One day, Gullu knew, he would slide down the rail..Zoooom! Just like in the park. And then, he would be the first to reach the bottom of the stairs.

It was really fun at the bottom. All the mummies and papas and the ayahs and drivers waited there. Finding my papa was like playing a game of hide and seek. Sometimes it was easy, he was right in front, but sometimes he was right at the back.

I did not like it when he hid at the back of the made me a bit scared. Sometimes he was late. And then, I had to remember that I was a big boy and not let my big fat tears spill out. Mummy said that they were pearls, and pearls are precious.

But now it is okay if Papa is late. Funny Uncle is always there at the school. He has a big smile. And he always has a toffee for me.

She expects I can…

Can I? Can I write a whole three pages in twenty minutes!” wailed Shashi.

“ Well, its your own fault that the homework is not done. Now, twenty minutes till the schoolbus arrives. Get down to it”

That was mum. She thinks I am clever and stupid at the same time. She expects me to make magic happen. I mean, sheesh. Homework, when I can read a book! And half done work is worse than no work at all. I bet the teacher wont even ask for it today. And if she does, well, I’ll have to manage that somehow.


Sigh, mum again.

“This is your last chance! C’mon, get on with it!”

Mum thought that hustling me was going to get it done. Well, it might. But by the time I get the book out, it will be time for that bus anyway. Then she will scold me for leaving things behind. And all my friends will see her running after me with that silly yellow pencil box.

“I don’t know why I bother with you, Shashi. Its your work, you have to take responsibility for it after all”

Aha! Mum has reached the next stage already. That was quick. It must be because the bus will come soon. That’s how she always scolds. I even know what she is going to say next. But maybe she wont say it today.. there isn’t enough time for a lecture.

“Shashi, this is about being responsible, about taking charge of things. I have to be able to rely on you to get things done. Or how will I do my own work? I don’t really care about the work, but it is the attitude that matters. You have to have the attitude of a winner, a doer. Things don’t come to you automatically you know?”

Phew! A short lecture today. I know it word for word. Well, not exactly, but I do know the main words. Sometimes I listen to it. But I am not sure if she has got it right, some things do come automatically, you know. Like maths. The answers are sort of there. You look at a question, and then play lego with the bits and the answer zooms right in.

“Shashi, now, what have you been up to! Nothing’s been done! Now there isn’t enough time. You’d better go now. Try to finish it in the class, before lessons start.”

As if I am going to reply to this. Before class is when I kick the door and stare moodily when the girls come in. Then, somebody comes and talks to me. Its that time when I have to be out there. Out is the new In – I read that somewhere in mum’s magazine, she thinks it means something.

“Ok, Shashi, bye! Be good at school, finish all your lunch. And remember, pay attention in class. Make sure you write everything down. Okay? Understood? Write everything. Bye!”

Mum. She expects me to make magic happen.  She doesn’t know how its done. But it is true. I can make magic happen. Swear. And that’s how this homework will get done. I know how to slow down time. So others think I was writing for only one minute.

Bet you want to know how…..

Of discipline in large groups of the very young

I am sure that maintaining discipline in the classroom is an issue across the world. I have moved from England where discipline in the school is at an all time low. Teachers often refuse to apply for jobs to teach those over the age of eleven, even if they are more than qualified to do so. There are others, with tougher skins and years of experience who manage to get through a school day, dealing with whatever the unruly and directly rude students deal out. And of course there are those, of the immortals, who actually manage to engage even the toughest of them in meaningful dialogue and take them forward in their education and career.

And then, I move to India, where the slightest bit of dissent is unacceptable. You as a student are powerless. The teacher has all the rights in the classroom and they can chose to say or do what they please. Just this week a poor young girl died after having been hit by her teacher in a government school and being made to stand in the sun for over two hours – an extra hour for having asked permission to drink water after standing in over forty degrees for an hour. At another school, one of the best this time, the students were made to stay without fans for 40 minutes (at 38 degrees celsius) because they forgot to switch off the fans when they left the classroom for their break.

Generalities in a country like India are meaninless. As they say – whatever you say of India, the reverse is equally true. With that caveat in place, I suggest this hypothesis – that, in India, ritual humiliation is used as a tool for creating conformity and obedience. This has nothing to do with creating discipline. This is a means of subduing those who are vulnerable. I wonder whether this could be called institutionalised bullying.

Maybe my lenses are coloured, maybe I am an outsider and see things differently. I am happy to have a discussion about this one, but I strongly feel that this is wrong.

Is it right for teachers to order children just because they are small. Should children be trained in kowtowing to those in power, just because they are in a position of power. Of course there are advantages to creating un questioned heirarchies, as everybody at the top knows.

But, is that the role of education?

Education Transition 1

Why should children be subject to graft in the name of education?

I must admit, I am daunted at the prospect of my angrez baccha joining the Indian education system. Granted – I was a part of the decision to do so, and it is precisely the graft that we were trained in that has made the Indian professional successful globally. Yet, this transition, like all change will require effort.

As an educationist, I find the evolutionary paths of English and Indian education systems very interesting to observe first hand. Both these systems evolved from the English public school model, that was intended for the sons of the aristocracy. Both systems, then, needed to create a professional or babu class who could deal with the vast adiministrative structures created by the colonisers. Later, both these systems had socialistic objectives – education of the masses, professionalise vocations and enhance literacy levels. There was much interaction at the policy level too. Then, the socio economic conditions of the two countries led them along different paths.

Education in India succumbed to the pressure of the population and the need to create a rapid growth trajectory. Sadly, though, this is why education in India is all about hard graft. There is no time for joy in work, there is no motivation other than stress. Life is a series of ‘have to’ and ‘should’ and decisions and behaviours are dictated by that value. Who is to say that this will be a more successful individual than the child who followed curiosity with rigour?

The fear of competition is far worse than the actual competition. It is the adults, especially parents who introduce fear and stress and systematically teach them to operate with it. Maybe, they should formalise the teaching of stress and introduce it as a separate subject.

And no stress-busters please, we are Indian. Physical activity meant a lesson in marching! What post colonial hangover – we are still partaking of it. A school I observed, the children did not march, they ran around a garden twice. In the heat. Why? Did they have fun doing it and how was it any different from a prison yard run? Get them to run, it will quieten them down.

I cannot blame the schools at all. They are merely responding to the needs and demands of their customers and consumers. Children here are much more unruly than those I have seen in colder countries  and therefore I completely understand the use of behaviourism as the primary pedagogical method. The volumes are also larger – managing 40-60 brats who have no intention of getting things done unless they are forced to is no mean task. From the kids’ point of view – why would you?

It is a bit of a vicious circle – as a teacher, I would always want to create a vibrant learning atmosphere in the classroom. I\’d love to do things differently, to enthuse the students to get to grips with this amazing verse or concept. And I am sure that teachers here are often unable to do so, for the syllabus is huge and the numbers in the class large. Add a couple of disruptive or dyslexic kids to the mixture and you have a creative class degenerating into chaos. Can a teacher really take that chance? Even the best of them?

The issue here could well be parenting. Indian parents are supposed to be among the best in the world when it comes to supporting their children\’s education. But, honestly, kids are taught no self control. And it is the job of parents to teach children how to self-regulate. Kids all over the world will be rowdy, noisy, playful, hurtful, loud, inconsiderate and so on. But there will be clear limits to when and how much they can exercise this freedom. While being playful, it is important not to be offensive. You have to know when to stop.

It is the difference between discipline and being disciplined.


There is very little that is more satisfying than teaching. Enthusing a group of people, motivating them to care about the things you discuss and then use their received knowledge and new found ability to proces and make a difference to their life and career.

Amazing, changing lives