JANUARY 2009 – Be the change you want to see…

It’s the end of the year 2008, another year passes by, seems just yesterday the year began. It’s that time of the year when I love to sit down and look back in time at the year that just flew away.

The year 2008 has in all aspects been a very memorable year for us at Mentor. We have established ourselves firmly as a quality publication for school leaders in India. We have been very successful in bringing educators from across the world together on a common platform with a focused goal to bring about a positive change in educational space. We have searched the length and breath of this country to recognise educators, educational initiatives, innovative ideas, creative and meaningful practices.

The love and appreciation we got from all of you is truly encouraging and has kept us going through tough times. This puts a lot of responsibility on us to perform better in the coming year and it reinforces our commitment to brining about a change.

I am sure most of you have great plans for the new-year. Let me read your mind, most of your energy next year will be invested in achieving organisational goals. Of the remaining energy your family needs a fair share to ensure your personal life is in order. Social commitments will take away whatever is remaining as part of your energies for the coming year. Overall you would like to believe that this is a great plan for your new year. Look closely you have missed out Yourself in your plan. I believe that topping your agenda for the coming year should be your health and learning.

“Be the change you want to see” – Mahatma Gandhi

As leaders you have to set an example for your teachers and students to follow, not just in the way you work but in the way you live life.

A regular exercise/sport regime should be a part of your life. Personally, the time I spend in exercise not only helps me keep fit and get rid of stress, it gives me time to talk to myself, plan my day and my actions. It charges me up for the day.

The other agenda you need to set for yourself is a good holiday and relaxing breaks. I have often heard principals saying very proudly that they are the ones who do not take a holiday. I find that very pitiful, not because you have too much work load, but because you have not planned to take a break. With the kind of pressures that your work give yourself a break for atleast 2 weeks, once or twice a year. Go visit that friend who has been calling you from ages, go see that place you always wanted, go take a break you need it and deserve it.

I take this opportunity to present to you our new-year gift a unique year planner. Have a close look at it and you will notice that we have integrated some very meaningful milestones as part of your year.

Mentor wishes you a healthy & stressful year 2009!

DECEMBER 2008 – Lets bring up children with better understanding of diversity

A little girl walked up to me one day while I was hosting an event in Mumbai and said “Your name is Sultan…?” I said “Yes” to which she replied “You are a muslim…” I was taken aback by that question, it took a while to say “Yes” she gave me a strange questioning look and exclaimed “But… you are very nice”. This incident got me thinking about what goes on in the minds of children and the biases they carry. Very often while speaking to children they have told me that they had a very different image about a Muslim, not a very health one I must add. Suggestions from families, media and society have a big impact the on the minds of children.

I grew up in a typical middle class Muslim family of Bangalore, non vegetarian food was very much a part of our daily diet. As a kid I was told that there were some people who were very poor and they could not afford to eat meat, they had to survive only on “dhal-chawal”. In school during my lunch break I noticed that there were children who brought only “dhal-chawal” for lunch almost every day. I used to feel bad for them and I remember telling my mother that a few of my friends are very poor. It was much later that I realized that my friends were vegetarians and that was their staple diet, it had nothing to do with their financial status. Innocent as it may seem, but that was a bias that existed in my mind and its genesis was very unintentional.

As teachers and educationists we carry our own biases; often while dealing with children we tend to pass on our biasis and prejudices to them unintentionally. Religious and regional divide is a real issues in our world. It also means that it is a real issue for our children and they are all encountering it at their own levels in their own worlds. Exposure to various media and family interactions prompts children to come up with very pertinent questions to get more clarity on these divides; unfortunately what we see around is that often questions either go unanswered or they get an answer filled bias and prejudices.

The 3rd Sunday of January is celebrated across the world as World Religion Day to foster the establishment of interfaith understanding and harmony by emphasizing the common denominators underlying all religions. The message of World Religion Day is that, mankind, which has stemmed from one origin, must now strive towards the reconciliation of that which has been split up. Visit www.worldreligionday.org to get information about various faiths and their common threads.

The world we live in is filled with negativity and prejudices, if there is one ray of hope it is the children. It is very important that the educationists and educational institutions step in. Lets do our bit to make this world a peaceful place, lets bring up children who are more sensible and understanding towards the diversity existing in our world. At schools we celebrate several days, it would be great if all schools celebrated World Religion Day and took up religious understanding as an integral part of learning.

NOVEMBER 2008 – Students Voice

Years ago,  history and especially civics lessons of school, drilled into my head the fact that India is a democratic nation and was endorsed by its definition being ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’.  This definition stays indelible in my memory to this day. It was only much later that I realized the true meaning of democracy and understood the fact that true democracy is strengthened only when there is an active participation from its citizens.

“Giving a voice to students by creating a ‘Students Voice’ in your school can be a great gift for them this year”

The rule of democracy applies to all aspects of our society and educational institutions are no exception. A strong democracy needs strong thinkers and strong decision makers and if schools are made ‘for the students’ then schools should function with the philosophy ‘by the students’ in as many aspects of school administration as possible. This is perhaps the need of the hour and Schools have to groom children to be leaders and visionaries for the future to be.

I strongly believe that schools can empower students to participate in as many school based activities as possible by introducing a simple system called ‘Student Voice’ that allows the students to have a say in the functioning of the school. It is a great way for schools to work democratically as its prime beneficiaries- the students get involved in the
decision making process thereby adding value to the overall system of governance of the School.

Offhand I can think of several areas where student participation and suggestions can be a great asset. A task force of students can play a positive role in addressing disciplinary issues or evaluating teacher’s performance or framing school timetables. Students can be assigned the tasks of leading classroom sessions or evaluating the performance of their peers. Simple decisions like choosing the new colour of their uniform, canteen menu, choice of classroom infrastructure, colour scheme for classroom walls can be taken by students. It no doubt requires foresight and there should be handholding and supervision from teachers to ensure that the concerns of too much freedom are addressed.

Every school boasts of special talents and intelligence among their students.  Mere showcasing and honouring their achievements is not sufficient. Special talents need to be effectively channelised and utilized for the larger benefit of the school. Having worked with innumerable students over the past decade I am convinced that students have the necessary creativity and drive to be a part of the decision making process of a school. Unfortunately they do not get enough opportunities to express their responsibility.

Several schools already have a system that involves students in the decision making process.  Expanding the scope of this system to involve more students in varied issues can do wonders. All of us agree that students today are far more aware, have a lot more enthusiasm and are constantly restless to do something. I would like to believe that by
giving responsibility to the youth we can channelise their latent potential to positive goals.

Our nation celebrates Childrens Day this month. Giving a voice to students by creating a ‘Students Voice’ in your school can be a great gift for them this year. Let your school evolve into being a space where the students get a first hand understanding of democracy.

OCTOBER 2008 – Play & Struggle

Language test, IQ test, GK test, social skills test; these are not tests for getting into a premier management college they are tests little toddlers need to clear to get admissions into a pre-school. If that is not enough the parents educational background and economic status are thoroughly scrutinized. You wonder what happens to the so called below average children of less educated or low income parents.

When its time to put your 3 year old into a pre-school the decision on which one is right is a very difficult one. In India we have no standards to evaluate a pre-school, there is no central board that formally lays down guidelines to be followed. So now it comes down to which school advertises more and which one promises to make little adults out of your little angels quickly.

The past decade has seen several pre-school chains that have mushroomed all across the country adding to the existing good old crèche’s. Do these schools follow any systems and standards at all? Well to be fair to them most of them have evolved their own systems and are trying their best to ahere to it. The irony is that there is no national standard in this context, but internationally preschools are considered an important aspect of education, there is a lot of research that goes on to ensure that the right systems and methodology is adopted. A lot of pre-schools claim that they are following international standards, rarely if ever you will come across any pre-school in India that adheres to the stringent laws and standards followed internationally.

Pre-schools are known by their founders who are normally renowned educationists and have a lot of learning in pedagogy and child development. But the important factor that determines the quality of the pre-school is not the founder but the staff and systems. The staff have to be well-trained, well-groomed and passionate. The school has to be hygienic, well lit, well ventilated and the furniture is child friendly using materials that do not cause any harm. Schools should maintain a good student teacher ratio.

It is said that play and struggle are two major factors that determine the learning of pre-school children. The curriculum should be devised in a manner that it allows for a lot of active learning play by children with a lot of touch and feel equipment. There should be an element of struggle for a child to stretch their imagination, creativity and physical self to discover learning. Social skills and communication skills need to be given more importance than academically oriented subjects. Most importantly the pre-schools should aim at making individualistic little children out of their students and not factory made little adults as the society or media would want them to be.

SEPTEMBER 2008 – Nurture Teachers

It’s good to see a lot of advertisements of schools these days trying to convey the fact their philosophy of education is not just about focusing on academics but also providing overall development of children. Its very common to find schools boasting about their swimming pools, horse riding classes, foreign trips, air conditioned classrooms, etc. trying to outdo the other and attract modern educated and affluent parents with amenities that new age schools believe leads to a complete education.

I for one have always been very vocal about the fact that schools should focus on beyond curriculum activities keeping in mind the changing environment and societal demands on children. But I also believe that by only providing facilities and more amenities the schools will not be able to achieve their goals, they need motivated teachers to ensure that this goal is met.

I have seen several schools that are doing a remarkable job of nurturing well rounded students, their secret lies not just in their amenities it lies in their teachers. To create all rounders among students you need teachers who are not just good at their subjects but are good at extra curricular activities. If we expect our students to excel in studies, do well in sports and participate in extra curricular activities then it is upto our teachers to set the right example. It must be made mandatory for teachers to have their own clubs and competitions within schools. If a school wants to create good speakers, it needs to have teachers who speak well. If you want to have good quizzers, writers, dancers, singers, painters, it must have teachers and principals who are leading by example. I am not talking about the activity teachers who are appointed to teach singing or dancing or painting, what I meant is that the general subject teachers can be a great inspiration if they can rub off their hobbies or talents on their children.

Imagine a history teacher who inspires art among his students by using the Ajanta and ellora or taj mahal as inspiration. A math’s teacher encouraging dancing by highlighting the importance of positioning, form and symmetry while dancing. Quizzes and debates can be a part of every academic period.

Schools should come up with an organised plan to ensure that all their teachers are given opportunities to hone their talents and encourage hobbies. The debate clubs of schools should have teachers enrolled as members. Teachers interested in dance should learn along with their children, a teacher with a passion for painting should be encouraged to paint in the staff room during their free time.

Mentor appreciates the efforts of all the hobby or extra curricular teachers who are doing a remarkable job of nurturing young talent. Tough in many institutions they are not given the same importance as the subject teachers, they continue to toil and encourage talent among our students. As heads of institutions the onus lies on you to you ensure that they get their due importance and encouragement in school.

On teachers day this year I would love to see schools adopting a policy of nurturing overall abilities among teachers in an organised manner. This I believe is the best way to ensure overall development of children.

JULY 2008 – Schools as breeding grounds for Leaders

One of biggest problems ailing our country today is the quality of people voted into power. If we look closely at some of the members in parliament or state assemblies or municipal councils we wonder how our country is surviving and managing to progress. I spent a lot of time discussing this issue with several prominent politicians, thinkers and academicians for quite sometime now. Several theories emerged, most of them were the obvious ones illiteracy, lack of interest in the populace and so one. One very intriguing reason for the state of affairs of Indian politics that came to light was the importance given by schools today to nurturing leaders at school level. There is a lot of weight in that argument; if we look back in history or even the present some of the most reputed and respected leaders in our country have all been leaders right from their student days.

Most schools in our country have a tradition of electing student leaders and captains in the beginning of the academic year to lead the institution. This is an amazing opportunity that schools have to put across an important learning to children very early in life. By holding the student elections transparently and democratically a very strong message can be sent across to the students about making choices and democracy. Before standing for elections the credentials and past records of the students must be taken in consideration to ensure that the right candidates are in the fray. All students should be encouraged to vote, the earlier they start the better it is. The most basic school election model is the 2 tier model – every class chooses a representative, class representatives choose the school captains. This would ensure that students don’t just study democracy but they experience it.

Once the school has elected the leaders the school principal must spend time with the elected representatives to motivate them and make them feel an integral part of the team that runs the school. Leaders need to have three important qualities – capability to influence, to take action and act responsibly; these values need to be instilled into the young minds by the principal. They must be given sufficient freedom and support to utilize their position to add value to the school and the students.

Leaders are not born, situations make leaders. As educationists we have an obligation to our nation to nurture and encourage leadership among young students. We need to create an environment that encourages leadership. If we can instill the right values at a young age, we can hope of having sensible and practical leaders leading our country into progress. We all need to strive to make schools not just learning centers, but breeding grounds for future leaders.

JUNE 2008 – Create Learning Centers

The beginning of the new academic cycle brings along the feeling of ecstasy and hope and I am all geared to meet the excitement and challenges of yet another year. Vacations gave me an opportunity to share my thoughts with many of my friends who head schools and also delve deep into some of the concerns they anticipated ahead……

There were several concerns and issues that surfaced from the dialogues that I have had with friends who double as educators. Mulling over them deeply enabled me to realize that most of the concerns tapered down to just a few trivia that needed to be addressed. I told myself that I would impersonate a Principal in this situation and react to these concerns, which I have tried to pen down in this piece. So here goes my Top 5 list of what I can do as principal to make a difference in the coming year.

My topmost priority area would be my teachers and their motivation levels. On the first day that they come to school I would take them out for a surprise lunch/party to a very good place. Express my gratitude to them for their support in making my job enjoyable and fruitful. I would share with them the fact that I want them all to look forward to a great year ahead and put their hearts into their profession. This would unabashedly go as a sincere request from my end. I will try my best to be supportive yet firm in dealing with my teachers throughout the year.

I love happy children with loads of energy, who are interested in learning. Achieving this is a collective goal for me and my teachers. In the coming year I would make the best use of every opportunity I get to speak or interact with my children. I would never go unprepared to any class or occasion and constantly ask myself this question – For what purpose am I speaking to my children today? What are they learning through me? These questions will be my guides to ensure that my interactions with my children are meaningful.

I realize that I spend a lot of time doing things that could very easily be done by my staff. I would review my work and prioritize things by asking a simple question – ‘Am I the only one who can do this task?’ If I get the answer as NO then I would find a suitable person from my team who can support me with that task. I would focus my energy on tasks and issues that only ‘I Can’ and ‘I Need’ to do. This simple self evaluation process should create valuable time to do things for my schools improvement.

Software and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) are not just new age industries, they are a different perspective of looking at work. There are several functions in the school which can be outsourced. I would relook at areas of services provided by my school like – canteen, transportation, house keeping, gardening, computer maintenance and find suitable outsource partners. Several systems of the school like scheduling, time tabling, marks cards, fee etc. can be done more effectively by the use of relevant software. Upgrading my school in that direction should be my aim. These simple steps would enable me to focus on my core competency – creating a learning environment.

Now that is an interesting list of things for me to do if I were a principal….

Mentor is now a year old and the new school year promises a lot of excitement and challenges for my team. June 2008 onwards Mentor will reach 7500 schools across India. We will have educationists from different parts of the world contributing to add to the rich content that we boast of. We will continue to strive to build bridges between educationists with a common goal – Create Better Learning Centers.

MARCH 2008 – Change is a fact of life

Change is a fact of life, in the past decade almost all aspects of our lives have undergone a humungous change, the educational scenario is no different. As head of an institution the Principal today has to confront several changes that are taking place in the school system. Students adapt very well to change, this behaviour makes it so much more challenging for the educationists to understand change and keep pace with it.

I was leading a workshop ‘Understanding the Changing Era of Education’ for group of ICSE Principals from Andhra Pradesh in the early part of February. During the course of the workshop we were discussing several issues that are increasingly having a big influence on the private schooling system in India. Economic prosperity of the nation driven by the middle class boom and the influence of media on society. The attitude of the educated parent towards education has changed tremendously with every action of the school comes in for close scrutiny. It is very common for schools to hear parent commenting “We are paying you money, why is my child not doing well in class” or “From the past ten years we have not touched our child, who gave you the authority to punish my child”. This materialistic attitude of parents has resulted in several behavioral changes in children; giving very little respect to the teachers is one of them which has in-turn affected the overall morale of the teaching community.

The changing scenario of India media has resulted in a flood of channels that highlight a lot of issues having a tremendous impact on the psycho-social development of children. Portraying sensitive issues openly creates a lot of confusion in the minds of children who have loads of questions and queries perpetually. Teachers and educationists are increasing being confronted by students with very awkward questions. Most often they are ill-equipped to handle such questions thereby adding to the confusion of the children. One of the important areas of change in the coming academic year for Principals should be to include parents in the educational process and sensitise the teachers on important issues of child development.

The failure of government run schools in India has led to the prosperity of the private schooling system, this was another issue which we discussed in detail. If tomorrow the government wakes up to give top priority to schooling and the schools start functioning effectively; How will the private schools cope with this change? Railways, Telecom, Power and many other public sector organisations have turned around completely from being redundant loss making to profit making organisations world class organisations. It is an important issue for private schools to think about.

The idea of Mentor is a year old this month. Last year around this time it was almost a dream for us at The Activity to come up with a magazine that would bring about a positive change in the educational scenario of India. The concept of Mentor has been accepted very well by educationists across the country and we are getting a lot of encouragement for our efforts. It has been an amazing journey so far, bringing out Mentor every month has been both challenging and satisfying. The constant inputs and feedback that we have received from the schools has gone a long way in shaping the content and the context of the magazine. We take a break for a couple of months now and we will be back with our June issue. I would like to see Mentor move to the next level by building stronger bridges between educationists across the country, another step towards making a better educational system.

FEBRUARY 2008 – Exams ka Bhooth Bhagao

January is a very exciting period for us at The Activity. It is around this time of the year that we get down to doing a very challenging job of trying to help children cope with exam stress and fears. This year we have termed this interesting challenge ‘Exams Ka Bhooth Bhagao’ campaign that is spread over 32 cities and aims at helping children deal with exam fears. In past we had conducted workshops for several thousand students but this year we decided to focus on conducting Train the Trainer workshops for teachers who could in-turn help their students handle exam stress better.

I had the opportunity to lead a few of these workshops. Very experienced teachers were deputed to represent their schools to pick up the learning from the workshop and then in-turn conduct similar workshops for their teachers and students back in their schools. At any given workshop the cumulative teaching experience of the participants was about 600-700 years, now that is a lot of experience in one room, debating, discussing, analyzing, understanding and looking for simple ways of supporting children handle exam related stress better.

During the course of these very interesting interactions it appeared to me that there are three main factors leading to high level of stress among our children.

Parents and societal pressure emerged as the biggest culprit in this case. It was a unanimous teachers voice that sounded so helpless against the every demanding parents who could settle for nothing but the best achievements for their children. Infact I have personally come across several parents who are so worried about their childrens exams that they cancel all their programs to ensure they are sitting with their children while they study. Children hate this behaviour of their parents and find it very claustrophobic to study while their parents keep a tight vigil on them.

Failure of the teachers and the school system to identify the learning disabilities and weaknesses of children combined with very rigid and boring teaching methodologies was sighted as another important area causing stress. Too many tests and exams packed in the academic calendar make it very difficult for the child to enjoy schooling as it seems like beyond exams there is not much in school.

I believe it is time that the schools took the role of parents in education seriously and addressed the issue. The role of the PTA meetings and parents interactions should be more to sensitise the parents about the critical role they play in supporting children and nurturing. The expectations of parents seems to be at an all time high and nothing but the best is what they expect from their children. Counseling the parents is definitely the need of the hour and schools must find ways of enabling this to happen effectively.

The advent of media and technology in our lives has brought down the concentration levels of children dramatically, research has shown that the average attention span of a school student in India is approximately 7 min as compared to about 28 min a couple of decades ago. This make the task of teachers and educationists all the more difficult and challenging. Newer interactive and practical methodologies need to be brought in the class room that will make lessons interesting and concepts clearer for the students, this will make them enjoy their lessons and reduce stress.

Most schools have counselors who are used more as a boogeyman to address issues of troublesome children than as an asset to the organisation. Schools should make it a compulsory habit to introduce learning disability tests for all children, understanding their strengths and weaknesses makes the job of teachers more effective. A basic bachelors degree in psychology equips an individual with the basics to conduct these tests, your present school counselor is more than capable of enabling these tests in your schools.

Principals can play a great role in bringing flexibility in the tests and exams of their schools. Having self assessment tests, classmate assessed tests, open book tests, presentation of concepts to the class, teaching the class as revision, group exams where a group of children sit together to answer the questions all these make the testing system more interesting for the students and also increases their interest in the subject.

We all agree that children are changing by the day, we need to keep pace to work with them effectively. Let us relook the way we are placing our expectations on them and bring changes in our teaching and examining methods. This would go a long way in reducing stress among children and hopefully we will start seeing bright happy faces entering the school gates eager to get on with the learning for the day.

I was in London between the 9th to 12th Jan to attend BETT 2008 the world’s largest educational technology event. It was amazing to see the educational products and services from the world’s best, that will shape the schools of the future and how they function. One thing comes out very strongly from this experience, technology will have an immense impact on education in the days to come and all aspects of schooling – systems, administration, teaching, learning, interaction, sports, extra curricular activities, parental interactions all of them will undergo a remarkable change with technology.

JANUARY 2008 – Understand the minds of students

The biggest question that seems to be on the minds of the educationalists these days is ‘How to understand the minds of the students today’

The incomprehensible changes that are taking place in our society, media, economy etc are all having a great impact on the children. This is making the task of the principals and teachers extremely difficult as “Children are changing by the day”. What should teachers and principals do to keep themselves abreast with the changing times?

I am reminded of my college days while I studied at Dayananda Sagar College of Engineering. I was very famous for all the wrong reasons – student politics, boycotting classes, disrespecting lecturers, defying authority & rules; punishments and warnings came naturally to me. In my 1st & 2nd year of college I was almost an outcast with lecturers dreading my very presence in class. Academically I was doing very badly, infact I lost a year after my 2nd year as I had not cleared many subjects. People who know me now will just not believe that a phase like this existed in my life.

It was in my 3rd year of college that I met Dr. Ananthram one of the senior most professors at my college. He was different for me, instead of treading the path of other teachers who ridiculed me at any given opportunity, he treated me well. He found out that I was a good debater and never missed an opportunity to encourage me or look for opportunities for me to express myself. My liking for him turned to respect as he was one of the few people who encouraged me to take up speaking seriously, at times at the cost of my academics. I grew very close to him, I opened up to him to share a lot of my life – we discussed girls, smoking, bikes, academics, public speaking, nature, traveling and many such topics all with the same intensity. I got a lot of confidence from speaking well and I won almost all competitions in the country that time, I was during this phase of my life that I started The Activity which has now grown to becoming one of the largest organisations working in the educational space in India.

Now when I look back at Dr. Ananthram and the influence he had on me, I realize that he made a conscious and genuine effort to understand and know me as a person. Once he had understood me it was quite for him to influence my life. I was not a rare case in Dr. Ananthram’s career he has been instrumental in influencing several lives.

I have over the last 10 years I have worked with several thousand students across India, I have never come across any situation where I have been disrespected or disliked by students. I was once asked by a principal in Kolkata what is my secret that makes students like me, I could not answer her immediately but that got me thinking. I guess I have learned a lot from Dr. Ananthram, I make a very conscious effort to understand students by spending a lot of time with them. I believe it is a part of my job to have friends who are still studying in school, to go out for coffee with them, chat with them, shop with them, hang out with them, talk to them, know their likes, dislikes, influencers, heroes and as much more that I can know of them. It is only when I know them that I can influence their lives.

Most principals live in glass houses and believe that they can see the world from it, they are not aware of the muck that our children are living in. I believe that all principals must add one important task to their job profiles – Make friends with atleast 5 school student. This will give them a first hand understanding of students and I see this as one sure shot way to avoid situations like the recent shooting incident in Gurgaon or the suicide case of Mumbai.

Here’s wishing all of you a stress free year filled with loads of learning and understanding of children. Happy New Year!