When students bring class to the room

As messages from my students wishing me for Teacher’s Day poured in today, it got me thinking about my own experiences in classrooms and on various academic panels. It’s been a journey enriched by wonderful young people and committed academicians. I decided to pen down two different streams of thought on teaching in a pair of blogs. This is the first of the two parts.

She spoke haltingly, perhaps unsure of her English. But her eyes were so sincere it hurt.

The twenty-something slip of a girl from Rajasthan before me and my co-panelist – we were conducting interviews for admission to a prestigious institution’s MBA course – touched her hair nervously, clasping and unclasping her fingers as she waited for the next question.

“Why do you want an MBA?” I asked. “You hail from a business family; you can simply learn on the job.”

Her mouth twitched and she raised a bent finger to her lips, composing herself. “Sir, my father has been a pillar of my life. I am what I am because of him…,” she trailed off.

I gave her a quizzical look. “Yes?”

“You see, sir…,” she said, swallowing, fighting to control the nerves. “He manufactures kitchen utensils – cooking vessels, pans, skillets, etc. He does this for other companies, who take his work, stick their own labels on it and sell it under their own brand names. I want to use my MBA to create a brand for him – one that will be known as his, one that he can be proud of.”

With this, the dam burst – the tears that had been threatening to flow over rolled down her cheeks. Hurriedly, she plucked a handkerchief out of her pocket to dry her eyes, asking worriedly: “Have I failed the interview? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get emotional, but I couldn’t help myself.”

This was just one of the many moving experiences I’ve had in my teaching career. I often say that if you want to truly understand the mind of Young India and its aspirations, be part of interview panels for admission to professional courses like MBA, engineering or medicine. Through this, and in classrooms, I have met and admired young people from across the country, hailing from two-horse towns, those with no family history of literacy, 20-year-olds dealing with the most heartbreaking hardships and social barriers…

I have been teaching for just over 13 years alongside my day jobs, first in the media and now in marketing communications. The stories I’ve heard and witnessed will stay with me forever.

Just days ago, I met an MBA student whose class we were preparing for placement interviews. As she outlined the kind of job she wanted, my co-panelist asked what her ultimate aim was. She flashed a smile as wide as the room and said: “I want to start a home for orphans and underprivileged children.” She must have been used to the sceptical look we gave her. “The thing is, sir, I too am an orphan. I lost both my parents very early in a car crash and was brought up by my uncle and aunt. They never distinguished between their own children and me; I had a wonderful childhood. The home would be my way of giving back to life what it gave me.”

Minutes later, a girl from Assam walked in. She described her village – a farming community no more than 500-strong. Not many there would have had a basic education, leave alone studied for an MBA. Her CV showed she had taken a year’s break in her education, and we asked her why. She said her grandmother had been ailing and she decided to take on the responsibility of caring for her. Her grandparents, she continued, were her role models. “They were social workers, and I want to use my education to follow in their footsteps,” she said.

We use terms like ‘demographic dividend’ and ‘youth energy’ like a punchline. The fact is that with a generation like this – far more driven than mine, with greater clarity of thought and far more conscious of its responsibilities – the punchline is actually a powerful reality. Is it any wonder that I’m usually confused about who’s teaching whom?

2 thoughts on “When students bring class to the room

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