The Teacher Foundation organized a School Leaders' Collective on 19 February 2015, to discuss "Schools Today at a Cultural Crossroads." We had a parent, a school principal, a psychologist and a former student, along with school leaders from Bangalore and Mumbai, voice their thoughts on what schools can do to deal with the culture shift. We asked Rahul Mansur, a young budding entrepreneur, to give his voice to the millions of students across India! Rahul is the founder of HolidayChai, a holiday startup. Here is his speech to an audience of school principals and heads at Chancery Hotel, Bangalore. You can read Rahul's original post here.
“I’m here you to show you the mirror;
I’m here to make you cringe in your chair;
I’m here to offend you;
To tell you exactly what I feel”
I must confess.
I did not write this speech.
This was written by a 15 year old boy.
A boy who lived through his entire school life in fear.
Always on guard, protecting himself from being caught on the wrong foot.
A boy, who felt humiliated by his school.
A boy, who felt discarded by his school.
A boy, who never returned to his school,
This 15 year old boy’s name is Rahul Mansur.
He is an introvert. Public speaking petrified him. Still does.
He prefers speaking to the mountains, rather than a group of human beings.
Because he came from a school that told him: If you did a speech, it’s got to be perfect.
He was told that looking into a paper while speaking at a public forum was a sign of failure. And he was not given permission to fail.
Today I will read out Rahul’s speech.
Today, I will read from this paper.
Today, I will be the imperfect speaker.
Let me take you into his school: a world where he was supposed to be taken care of, appreciated, encouraged and given the confidence to take on the outside world.
But all he carried with him after graduating: was an envelope containing a transfer certificate, hostility, fear, shame and rejection.
This is his speech.
Respected madam principal,
This is how every speech in my school began.
I often smirked at the respected part.
I would ask myself: Did I respect her?
And why the respect?
Because she is the leader of the school, they said.
I would ask myself again: But how is she a leader?
Is it because the school prospectus call her one?
Is it because some staff member referred to her as one?
Or is it because she is the guiding light that takes children to the shores of success.
Doesn't that last line sound brilliant on marketing brochures?
Now try selling that to a 15 year old who’s listening to Saadda Haq on his iPod.
And he’s just learnt that it’s very cool to disobey authority.
But how can you sell, if the only time you talk to the kid, is either at annual public functions or while you are suspending her?
How can you sell, if you just don’t intend to communicate?
Now when I say communicate, I don’t mean the literal definition.
I am talking about reaching out, creating an environment with your words and influencing a budding life.
I know a lot has changed in the communication department since I left my classroom.
Schools have now become better with their PR and the communication has become more human, more moderate. But I feel it is superficial at best.
Here’s an example: I found this passage on my school’s website.
Now this is a message from the head of the school to the parents of future students including four year old kids.
Now after the hi and hello, there’s a passage about a theory on holistic development and how that is applied in the classrooms. And I quote:
“After a learning episode, the student would have acquired new knowledge, attitudes and skills. In order to achieve this, we have closely linked education in our schools with multiple intelligences, problem solving skills, creative and critical thinking, and technology integration.”
Now as far as I remember, none of this really happened with me.
I mean after a bell rang, I never felt an acquisition of skill and knowledge.
It was usually panic and pandemonium related to the next class.
A common conversation after the bell would be:
“Hey did you do that homework?
“Oh shit man, we’re screwed.”
“I hope the teacher is sick and doesn’t show up”
Not exactly on the lines of holistic development, right?
What’s interesting to note here is the language and the choice of words used in this piece of communication.
It reminds me of my days as a copywriter.
So if we had to sell a 20 Rupee Rice and Dal for 200 rupees, we would package it as
“Steamed white rice, handpicked from the quaint green hills of the Vindhyas, with golden lentils, simmered to delicious perfection."
Just in case you didn’t follow, it is still Dal and Rice.
Now this is what we do as copywriters.
We screw with your minds.
We make you read these fancy words that you really don’t want to understand, and your mind thinks – hey I don’t know what this is about - but it sure sounds good.
And then we trick you into buying it.
Now this letter to the parents, it is probably the work of an over-smart, sleep-deprived copywriter. But someone in the school management said yes – these words represent us – and signed it off.
So what that communicates, to me at least, if I was the parent of a child, and mind you I’m no expert in understanding teaching techniques and the current jargon–
It makes me say “Whoa! These are fancy techniques that this school is using.”
It raises the bar so high, it feels like I’m sending my kid to this structured and controlled environment where she is definitely going to succeed.
But is that what today’s schools want to communicate?
I’d be damned if they did.
Because the funny truth is, life as I know it, in itself is not structured.
It’s not timetabled.
It is unpredictable and very dynamic.
And most importantly: it’s very emotional.
So I search the rest of the letter that was addressed to the parents by the school, and I don’t see a single mention of emotional care.
I mean care and love are one of the most important aspects that groom a child, right?
So why is there no mention of that?
And instead, why such complex language?
Have you ever wondered how your complex thoughts influence the children?
Now imagine if I printed these words of that letter onto a piece of paper and gave it to a four year old and told her – Hey this is what your new school says.
Now a normal kid will probably make a paper plane out of that.
And in the cockpit, she’ll place her dreams.
But the words on that paper are so heavy – that her flight of dreams will never take off.
Is this the weight, the school wants to place on the children’s shoulders, even before they begin to carry their own school bags?
Instead if the schools just wrote –
Hey! Send your kids to us. We’ll take great care of them, we’ll love them, we’ll protect them and groom them into confident and independent human beings.
And then you explain how you will do that with your teaching techniques.
You don’t even need a copywriter for that.
All you need is some honesty and some intention to communicate better.
Communication: I cannot stop stressing on the importance of it in our schools.
The way you communicate, it can change the way you look at things; what you believe in; it can make you less hungry;
And it can find you the confidence you never thought you had inside you.
“How are you feeling”,
“It’s okay, tell me”,
“We won’t judge you”,
“Don’t worry, we have your back”,
“Go have fun”,
“We love you”,
Small phrases; but can make a big difference.
The same difference that exists between a yellow school bus and a white mortuary van.
The same difference that exists between a confident 15 year old speaker and a petrified one.
Speaking of petrified, my mother’s here in the audience.
Last time she was around a principal, she seemed pretty petrified.
I hope you are doing fine now, Ma.
All of them seem like nice people.
So all of us, we ask our kids what they want to be.
Not my mother. She asked me who I want to be.
So as a four year old, I looked around, thought of my favourite person and I said train engine driver.
Why? Because I loved trains. I loved travelling.
Today I sit in Mcleodganj in Himachal Pradesh. I run Holidaychai: a travel startup that promotes offbeat road trips and treks in the Himalayas.
So today, some part of me has succeeded in living my engine driver dream.
How many such kids do you know who’ve been successful in living their dreams?
Schools often measure success by the placements their kids get.
You know they brag on annual day functions when they receive heavy pay packages from huge corporate companies.
But why don’t these schools talk about how hectic those people’s lives are;
How they wake up every morning to a paltry breakfast;
How they spend four hours on the road every day;
How they don’t know what their kids are doing at school;
How they don’t find time to spend that money they earn;
How most of them are really not happy
And how most of them don’t even talk about it.
Because they are so used to bottling up their emotions and chasing their goals.
Because that’s what they learnt at school.
That’s what you taught them.
So going back to who you want to be and what you want to do.
The answer to: what you want to do in life, will give you a profession.
Who you want to be will give you an identity; a persona, or a choice of lifestyle.
And a profession is just a small part of this identity.
Professions often change: sometimes radically.
An identity doesn’t change. It evolves.
So why are schools stuck up on concentrating on professional achievements?
When they could help the kid with the bigger picture?
And make something great out of herself?
So respected madam principal, as my leader, who’s supposed to guide me to the shores of success, you’ve been putting me on the wrong damn ship all this while!
Adults need leaders.
Kids don’t. You know what kids need?
They need superheroes.
Superheroes – They are ordinary people just like you and me but they do extraordinary things.
They fly, they jump buildings, kill the bad guys and they save the world.
They inspire children to dream.
They inspire them to do great things.
Great things that make the world a better place to live.
And shouldn’t that be the school’s aim in the first place?
So you, heads of the school, I think you need to be your student’s superhero if you want to inspire her.
Doesn’t mean you have to wear a cape to school every day.
You’d be awesome if you would.
But that would probably offend the Spiderman fans.
So not a good idea.
But no. Why would you change a successful formula?
At least something that is commercially successful.
If you ask me, our schools are factories – Where little kids are put in boxes and placed on an assembly line for 14 years where they are drilled systematically, then packaged uniformly and shipped to the next factory.
So, respected leader, can I take my head out of the box and ask you:
What have you been doing with me?
I know a principal’s role goes beyond the school campus.
He or she is responsible for a lot of things that I am not aware of.
I don’t know about the burdens on your shoulder and the worries on your brow.
But what about being my leader?
And still give me a reason why I should respect you.
Let me tell you a story.
I was ten years old.
It was 12:30 in the afternoon. It was our lunch break.
I was walking on the ground, speaking to a couple of my friends.
We shared a joke about how fat a teacher was and how many babies he had inside his paunch. We laughed loudly.
Or if I have to exaggerate, in my school’s words, we were thinking and acting inappropriately that did not display exemplary behaviour and wasn’t on the lines that upheld the reputation of our highly esteemed school.
So that laugh didn’t last for longer than a second.
We simply bottled it.
Because in the balcony of the higher floors of the school building, stood respected-madam-principal. Looking down like a vulture, with eyes that shot fear.
As if she was waiting for her prey.
As if she was waiting for her lunch.
We bottled our laughs.
Because we were simply shit scared of her.
Yes, we were scared of laughing
We were scared of openly being happy.
It sounds like I’ve had a horrid school life.
Truth is, I’ve also had some fantastic times too.
My school made me a stronger person.
And without a bit of sarcasm, I honestly owe whatever little success I’ve had to my school.
But these feelings, they overshadow every pleasant moment I’ve had.
And they form the package of every memory I carry from those grounds.
Now my words may not be theoretically or politically correct.
But I’m not here for correct.
I’m not here to make a point or inspire you.
I’m here to tell you things you already know.
But you choose not to hear.
Because of which, you choose not to change.
I’m here you to show you the mirror;
I’m here to make you cringe in your chairs;
I’m here to offend you;
To tell you exactly what I feel;
What we really feel.
So to answer that question of whether I respected the ‘head of my school’ as a 15 year old: If you want honesty, the answer is no.
Because a leader in my words is an example. Not a title.
And you will not get my respect if you are just a title that demands respect.
Respect needs to be earned.
But all my school and its respected leader earned, was my fear.
So as a principal, or as human being, is that how you people want to be remembered?
Someone who incites fear?
Because one pretty famous guy did that really well. They called him Hitler.
The next time someone addresses you as respected-principal, I hope you feel uncomfortable in your skin.
Ask yourself if that speaker really, honestly, meant it.
And the answer to that question may be uncomfortable.
But you need to open your windows and let the storm come in.
You need to stop staying in a closed room where the truth is tweaked to your comforts.
Accept the reality. And deal with it.
Deal with this real world where teenagers today use the F-word like a punctuation mark, smoke, drink, take drugs, watch porn or indulge in unprotected sex.
Don’t ignore it.
Or don’t think that that this happens in other schools.
Or the kids from your school are morally and culturally more upright and they would never indulge in such “unsavoury behaviour” because the rule book considers it inappropriate and does not allow it.
Right now as we speak.
Somewhere, a 14 year old kid is desperately texting his girlfriend about how much he loves her and cannot live without her;
One of his friends is probably smoking a joint for the first time;
One of them just discovered beer.
This is happening.
So how do we deal with this?
A girl hugs a boy in school. Suspended.
A student uses the word “prostitute” in class. Suspended.
A student is caught smoking off campus. Suspended.
Does the school state rules and tell kids how cigarettes are bad because they damage their lungs? And just suspend to punish them.
And what makes the school think that the students will not smoke during that suspension period?
Where is the teaching in this?
Where is the so called lesson for life in this?
So my suggestion? Reason with them.
Don’t just reprimand them because they didn’t follow the rules.
“To hell with your rules” / “rules are meant to be broken”
That’s the thought process these days.
So how does the school fix this?
Now I would not stop at just telling them that smoking is injurious to health.
They know that and cigarette packs explicitly state that.
So how about taking a road trip.
Right here in the outskirts of Bangalore, there is an organisation called ‘Karunashraya’. It is home to last stage cancer patients who prefer spending their final moments in peace instead of desperate and painful medication.
What your suspended student will learn over an hour’s game of chess with a cancer patient about the ills of smoking: Now that’s something the school will never achieve with even a year’s suspension.
As a head of the school, deal with these issues head on.
Don’t wait for an incident to happen to start talking.
Don’t give us long speeches like I am now. They are boring.
Tell us stories, have discussions.
Invite ex-students for a fun chat with the juniors.
And they don’t have to be a Mark Zuckerberg to qualify for an invite.
Just average, naughty ex-students, who might have just scored 75% in their exams or less.
Invite them to share their version of school;
Let them talk to the kids about how they faced the same problems that today’s children are facing – and how they got over it.
As a head of the school, talk more and talk human.
Children are white canvasses.
Teachers are not just guides. They are artists.
Give deserving teachers the freedom to change, to shake things around.
And give them the room to make Monalisas.
Go to random classes, have random chats.
Ask the kids whether they’re playing enough or not;
Express that you truly care for them
Write open letters to children in a relationship.
Tell them it’s alright, it’s natural,
But explain to them, in their language, why they need to keep it on the backburner.
Be a leader, but not above us.
Don’t just stand in a balcony and play vulture.
Be amongst us,
Be a friend,
Be an inspiration;
Be our superhero.
But does it hurt your ego and title if you are nice to us?
Or do you prefer the mafia style of create fear and rule because it’s efficient and easy.
When I hear schools speak, I feel it’s like you people live in a make-believe world where you actually think you are going to lead the kids into some kind of righteousness that further leads to perfect life excellence.
So for example as a teenager, if you don’t want me to indulge in unsavoury behaviour like, god forgive me, get attracted to a girl, or talk inappropriate stuff like sex and porn, I won’t.
But when exactly am I expected to indulge in such unsuitable behaviour?
Can you imagine what will happen if every kid actually fit into this mould that schools are trying to fit them into?
We’d be machine products that can only churn perfection and excellence; and not know anything about trivial things like human relationships and making kids.
Can you imagine how horrible that would be for you?
No making kids!
How will your schools run without kids?
Who will buy those overpriced uniforms?
Have you thought of that?
But you know that will not happen.
We’re India. We love making kids.
And you will continue to take us for granted, won’t you?
Which makes me wonder, does it make sense to be a parent these days?
Because don’t you think it’s better not to have a child, than to put her in your hands so that she can be judged at every stage of her life; ridiculed in the name of discipline, and go through all that shit.
Simply because you don’t want to adapt and change to the requirements of the real world outside?
I am the 15 year old boy you disappointed.
My name is Rahul Mansur.
And I wish I had had a better school life.
- Rahul Mansur