By Shyam Patel Teacher Candidate, Global Cohort
In many countries, the notion of community is a form of empowerment – one that is central to building bonds and connections – despite the economic, political, and social barriers that are placed upon marginalized individuals and communities. I learned this as a teacher in India while I worked with Teach for India in the capital of Gujarat – the beautiful and bustling city of Ahmedabad. It is through this journey that I transformed my own understanding about a philosophy of learning and teaching propelled by love. Ultimately, it is the bundle of love that my students shared with me that helped me through the Ahmedabad monsoon and its staggering heat, and, in the end, each of them will always hold a special place in my heart.
In our classroom, while we often explored wondrous literature and projects, the culture focused on our emotional and social nurturance. I made a concerted effort, for example, to teach our students about consent, as a way to ensure that we respect each other and our individual/collective boundaries. Furthermore, many of our discussions focused on de-stigmatizing our views on our skin tones because India has struggled to appreciate and embrace “darker” skin tones as a post-colonial nation. As a way to have these conversations, we first started with a lesson on the Brown Paper Bag Test, where students cried. In a marvellous way, all comments about “darker” skin and the “ugliness” associated with it, stopped after that experience. Notably, I saw how well one of my students, a darker skinned Muslim girl, started to feel fully empowered in the classroom space. In fact, she went from reading below a Kindergarten level to reading at a Grade 1 level by the end of the year. For her and many other students, our classroom became a space to bring our livelihoods to the forefront of the curriculum and culture.
At Teach for India, one of the most beautiful ways we learn to engage with our students is through home visits. I still remember the first home visit that I made as a teacher. Here, I had a young boy, Rudra in my classroom who previously did not enjoy coming to school, but only through the home visit did I realize how much I meant to him as a teacher. His parents told me how he would wake up early in the morning to reach school before me, so he could wait for me as I arrived at 7:15am in the morning. He had also told his parents that he wanted to be a teacher one day because of how he saw me teach in our classroom. By visiting his home and the homes of all of the other students, I was able to create a forum of care in our classroom. My students made an effort to bring their best selves to our classroom because I was invested in their growth and learning.
Finally, what I learned most during my time with Teach for India is that our students have an innate ability to support each other – a facet of community building. I can still remember when students in the class shared their lunch with those without one. Or, for example, how students brought me food when I told them I was missing my family and friends in Canada. Lovingly, they would leave notes for me on my desk, and I learned to do the same for them. We created a classroom where we remind each other of our unique beauty and excellence, something that we all need to do more often.
As I enter the second semester of our program, I think back about the ways in which we can develop a community within the Teacher’s Education program. How can we fully embrace our differences and diversity while also building safer spaces? As I think about this question, I reflect on the experiences I had with Teach for India.