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A Brief Report - Schools today at a cultural crossroads!

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  • Wednesday, March 18, 2015
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    “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” Mahatma Gandhi's words in 1936 may have been written in the wake a crisis faced by nations battling for superiority in the international stage but might well be applicable to schools in 21st century India.

    This crisis is multi-layered and complex thereby promising a lot of uncomfortable questions and certainly no easy answers. How do schools cope with their role in the new age economy as technology breaks down the hallowed walls of knowledge? Can schools be the architect of a “culture” that presumes a single set of beliefs and values and remain immune from flux all around them? Who takes responsibility when a young life is lost amidst trying to make sense of what are varied interpretations of acceptable behaviour?

    The recent School Leaders' Collective conducted by The Teacher Foundation was an attempt to surface these latent issues through the voices of various stakeholders in the system.

    Roshan Menezes, Secretary of Carmel High School, Bangalore placed the school leaders' challenge as one having the unenviable task of bridging the personal and the professional. The need to navigate through different cultural sensibilities inevitably means that the school sets the tone of what is appropriate in public spaces. Acknowledging that the standards of discipline have changed today, he stressed the importance of a code of conduct that was fair, uniform and invested with parental guidance. He also called upon parents to be a part of issues related to behaviour, stating that “they are a part and parcel of school decisions, there should be no blame game.”

    This raised the question of whether one should or should not discipline a child. Roshan's take on this was that the school had “to lay down the law and the outcome”. However, this did not mean that teenagers should be shut up, a common folly that adults commit. Rather in today's age of digital connectedness, the contours of risk taking behaviour should be drawn out clearly.

    Perhaps his most critical insight was on being empathetic to the trials of adolescence by having open channels of communication. “We need to let go of the misconceptions of the past; the world will be a better place for them and all of us”, were his well aimed parting words.

    In India's post colonial era, the school had been vested with the responsibility of graduating young people who could readily conform to the needs of a modernising society and economy. But as Devyani Bagchi, parent of a 13 year old, pointed out, the role of the school today encompasses more than just providing academic skills. “There can no Band Aid solutions, bad behaviour is an expression of something deeper. Schools should give guidance and solutions and get to the root cause.”

    Adding that the school, society and parents are not islands, Devyani spoke of their need to be in a “reasonable relationship”. However, she also cautioned parents that they “could not become friends with their children at 13” and had to make the effort to listen to them everyday, giving them “parental presence not presents”. There is nothing that cannot be “talked out”, she added, saying that “children will make mistakes, they need random acts of kindness and we need to accept them the way they are.”

    In the 1970's, the reigning Pink Floyd anthem exhorted adults to “Leave 'em kids alone!” Rahul Mansur, a young adult may have agreed with the rock stars. For a questioning teenager exploring the uncharted waters of adulthood, the “unpredictability of life” can “never be timetabled”. (You can read the transcript of Rahul's talk here) 

    In a searing account of his life at school, Rahul described the terror of having to be perfect, of “carrying an envelope containing a transfer certificate, hostility, fear, shame and rejection.” To the young school goer, respect had to earned, and this could be achieved by changing the way of communuication. “... 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.

    Phrases like “how are you feeling”, “it’s okay, tell me, I won’t judge you”, “don’t worry, we have your back”, “go have fun”, “we love you” were “small phrases; but can make a big difference.” Calling upon school leaders to be “superheroes”, Rahul asked them to reach out to children and “be among us, not above us”.

    So the answer may lie in moving out of the clearly defined lines that are drawn in school spaces. Dr. Neena David, Clinical Psychologist suggested that schools are actually very “complicated places” and more so for adolescents who are just embarking on “a fascinating era of growth and development”. Questioning if schools really believed that they were at the cultural crossroads, she pointed out the underlying fear of schools being threatened by things that shifted their “sense of order”. Dealing with this requires a dual understanding of ingrained teacher attitudes and adolescent behaviour.

    Teachers need to understand where they are in the development process and be acutely aware that this is a time when teenagers experiment, take risks and are therefore more vulnerable than other people. “Keep a sense of connectedness, teachers must listen without judgement.. this keeps (teens) safe” is Dr. David's expert opinion. Rather than fear becoming obsolete, schools themselves should foster critical inquiry, nurture reflective practice leading to high levels of collegiality and flexibility.

    In the end, one may seek solace in the words of the Buddha who said, “Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.” And so it is with schools at the cultural crossroads – to blow with the winds of change than get swept away by forces beyond its control. It just may be that the crossroads are an opportunity for introspection, a journey of change than Hobson's choice.
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