Leave Education to the Schools

July 30, 2010

It’s all very well when you don’t have kids and you think: “Oh, when I have kids, I’ll teach them this and I’ll show them that, and I’ll share the other with them, and I’ll always do this and (especially) I’ll never do that,” and so on.

When the kids are there growing up in front of your eyes, you really have to pin down and put in words practically your entire belief system – and that’s not so easy.

One thing I’ve realized I do believe – if for no other reason than out of sheer laziness – is that it’s best to leave teaching to the schools. I’m a lousy teacher anyway. They, hopefully, know what they’re doing.

My mother was probably a good teacher. At least, I hope she was, because she taught tiny tots in school for a while. She likes to talk about her unconventional – for that time – approach to teaching. I remember her sitting with me while I painstakingly learnt to read. As one of the most impatient people I have ever known, the thing that stands out most is her patience while I struggled to piece the words together. (According to her, I was mildly dyslexic.) The other thing that stands out now, in retrospect, is that she didn’t try to teach me to read; she just sat there and let me learn it on my own.

Once I’d mastered reading, I don’t remember my mother ever working with me on any school-related task – from homework through projects, and, later on, even to issues with teachers or other students. She never glanced at my homework to see whether I had done it or even to know what it was that I had to do. She never tutored me for tests and exams and she never questioned me on the outcome. She never even told me to go study. But somehow I knew that I must do the work I was given to do, in the time I was given to do it, and I must do it myself, without help from parents, sister, or classmates. I knew that if I had questions, I should ask the teachers and no-one else (and from that I eventually learned that most teachers didn’t like to be questioned and often, especially in higher classes, didn’t actually have the answers.) I learned to be disciplined and conscientious and independent, qualities I now – strangely enough – value highly.

But how did this approach help me? Did it help me excel in school, or in life? Not really.

In school, I was a good student. I was not great; I was never top of the class; I was not even good enough to get a seat in an engineering college – or at least, the only engineering college I did get into was the one my parents didn’t want to send me to (Thapar, in Patiala); and I wound up doing English Honours (which was probably really the best choice for me anyway)… So I was not a great student, but whatever I did, I did well enough.

But is “well enough” good enough? Is, for instance, English Honours good enough?

Now the question is, of course, what do you want for your children. For some people, it might be a difficult question to answer. They might be torn between “doctor” “engineer” and (hopefully) “artist” (either creative or performing). For me, the answer is none of those. I don’t care whether they become doctors or engineers; writers or violinists; Wimbledon finalists or movie stars. I don’t care whether they ever achieve greatness in any field or not. I don’t care whether they have a job and a career or they are destined to penury as struggling artists or activists. I don’t even, really, care whether they make themselves rich or not. What I want for them is something more difficult to define. I want them to be balanced, determined, confident, secure, and independent people. I want them to have the foundations for strength, peace, and contentment. I want them to have integrity, at every level. I want them to be able to take on the world without blinking.

I want them to be people I can look up to in respect, even in awe – not for what they might achieve, but simply for who they are.

How am I going to help make them that way? I have no idea – but certainly not by helping them to learn whatever their school wants them to learn. Not by holding their hands to teach them to write. Not by pinning them to a study table while they struggle with numbers and letters. Not by pushing them to learn faster or better than others in their class or school or neighborhood. But maybe, just maybe, by letting them be whatever they want to be.

When they went on stage a few weeks ago, I was so proud of both of them. Mrini, for obvious reasons – she was unfazed by the lights, the sound, the audience, the strangeness of everything, and she stood in her place and did her part and enjoyed it. She can hardly wait to get back on stage. (I probably should get her into a music and/or dance class soon – she so loves to sing!) She had courage and elan. But Tara – Tara was bewildered by the set-up. The too-loud music troubled her. So she covered both her ears with her hands and just stood there, looking bemused. She didn’t cry. She didn’t run away. She didn’t even look scared; just puzzled. She stood her ground and did what felt right to her and she was not in the least bit embarrassed or upset by her performance.  That takes a kind of courage and confidence too.

Academic performance, good or bad, is not going to turn them into the people I want them to be. Excellence at academics will of course give them confidence, but that is a confidence limited to only that sphere, and based on only that success. I want them to have the confidence to go against the flow, to not excel if they choose not to. To take their own time and do their own thing.

And that’s why I’m so happy with the Montessori system and with their school in particular. They let children learn at their own pace, and they have confidence in kids’ ability to learn (as much as in their own ability to teach). At the end of last year, their teacher said, “Well, they should know the number symbols from zero to nine by now, but they haven’t completely got it yet. You can work with them on it over the summer holidays if you want to. Otherwise don’t worry, we’ll do it when school resumes in June.”

That, exactly, is what I want to hear. I want to know where they stand, what they need to work on, and I want to know that there is absolutely no need for me to “work” on it with them. I did talk and play with numbers a bit with them during the holidays, but I didn’t “work” on it. And they seem to have got it now anyway. Ok, they are a couple of months late. Should I be worried? I don’t think so.

I have little enough time with my girls as it is. What time I do have, I want to spend enjoying them. I want to watch them play, and talk to them and engage them in all the things they don’t learn in school – making cake, listening to music (as opposed to nursery rhymes), watching (and playing) tennis, telling stories… And in all of this, if I can somehow impart to them some bits of my desired philosophy, my preferred outlook on life, so much the better.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s all very well to say this now, when they are not yet four years old and they don’t have tests and exams to pass. Can I stand by this when they are 8, 10, 14 years old and studies become more challenging and the rat race becomes more competitive? I don’t know – but I intend to try. And if their school means to continue along the path it has started out on, I imagine I might have some chance of success.

So here’s my plan: as school continues and they learn to read and write and then go on to arithemtic, geography, history and all that other stuff, I’m not going to be studying with them. I won’t “go over” what they’ve learnt in school each day or each week. I won’t be checking that they’ve done their homework or studied for a test. And I’m not going to stop them if they want to spend their time playing games instead of working. I spent the day before my Xth Standard English Board exam reading Tolkein (which was, sadly, not part of the curriculum) and my parents weren’t in the least bit perturbed by that. They trusted that I’d done my work for the exam – and I want to pass on that trust to my daughters, starting, oh say, a year or so ago. If they don’t do well academically, that’s ok – in the long run, they will learn that they are responsible for their own lives and that is a lesson well worth learning.

Some day, in their own way, they will take on the world. And I’ll watch from the audience and say with pride, “that’s my girl!”

For me, that’s good enough.

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