Learn from your mistakes is a good philosophy to live by. The only thing that’s better is to learn from someone else’s — mine, for instance. Fellow to Potential Fellow, let me tell you — it’s not going to be easy, but I’m sure you’re smart enough to know that already. Here are some tips for you to not just get through your Fellowship, but sail through it.
#1 Always close the loop
When you are in school, you are required to do ten different things at the same time, and you are expected to do them well. So naturally, sometimes, certain conversations have to be put aside for later. You have to prioritise and that’s totally okay. But when you’ve got some time, when you’re finally home and not sweating/crying/breathing heavily, think about the loose ends. Did you run off to another classroom when you heard a loud thump and leave a kid halfway through a story about her summer? Did you tell your Principal that you will show him how to book flights online and forget about it? It’s human to forget, but to acknowledge that you forgot and go back to close the loop (trying to make this a thing here) — that is how you build trust and form a genuine bond.
#2 Make sure you have three meals a day
(Disclaimer: This is a hypocritical statement)
Those who know me personally, know that this is a tip I definitely do not practice, and therefore, fully intend to preach. This is especially relevant for those who will have to relocate toanother city. (Those of you who will be living with your family, please get off your computer right now and kiss your mother/father/cook. Because for the next two years, they will be god and food will be your saviour). For the rest of you, please ensure you are eating properly! It is a simple piece of advice, but it will make a world of difference. You know what they say, healthy, wealthy and wise! You’re saying goodbye to the wealthy bit, may as well stay healthy! I’m a great motivator, I know. You can thank me later.
#3 Make your Long Term Plan and Unit Plan at Institute
If this means buying your Program Manager five Cappuccinos at Cafe Coffee Day or creepily stalking previous Fellows on Facebook to get them to help you, DO IT. Learn what a Unit Plan is and have your first one ready before you step foot in your school (Spoiler alert: this will be the most beautiful moment in the history of time). It’s pretty simple to do once you get the hang of it, and starting off with a solid unit plan means you are more likely to have a solid year of teaching ahead.
#4 Find a platform to Fundraise and set it up.
Through the Fellowship, you will meet tons of people — at coffee shops when you’ve got the Teach For India bag on, at airports when you’re travelling like a zombie and donning your Teach For India T-shirt, at bars when you are captivating audiences with funny stories from class (Hey, it could happen) — and all of these people will say “That sounds cool! Let me know if you need any help”. If you have a fundraising page, all you have to do is give them a card with the link on it and say “Here’s how you can help” like a boss and walk away..
and obviously go back to continue the conversation later, because you want to keep those kind of people around. When Cadbury sells a new chocolate bar, their campaigns will have a call to action. You are Cadbury and your Fundraising page is your call to action. Go Cadbury! Go you!
#5 Never, never, never make promises you cannot keep.
I think this is true of life in general, but if you are like me, and want to please everybody, you’ll slip into this rather easily. Let’s assume a student asks you to attend her Aunt’s daughter’s 3rd birthday (don’t be surprised — you will get invitations to all sorts of obscure, awesome events). If you know you will not be able to make it or simply do not want to go, please do not say that you will. Politely decline and the kid will understand. What the kid will not understand is waiting for you at the door in her brand new dress, having told all her relatives that her favourite teacher will be coming, only to find out that she/he didn’t mean what they said. On the flip side, when you say you will do something, and you do it, the expression on that kid’s face makes everything worth it.
#6 Make real friends.
Get to know the watchman of your school, have chai with the maintenance staff, look at pictures of the teacher’s kid (even if she shows you the same one every time), chit-chat with the Hindi Medium Principal during lunch, buy Diwali Mithai for the Xerox shop wala — trust me, these are the people who will become your lifeline. The best relationships are the ones that begin with no prerequisite agenda. Be genuine in your efforts to connect with someone and you will build some great friendships along the way.
#7 Celebrate all your victories
If you are expecting an article to be written about you in the Huffington Post or to be garlanded in front of an audience like Shahrukh Khan in ‘Swades’, it just isn’t going to happen. If it does though, please write about it so we can all live vicariously through you. The glory of this job comes in the countless, nameless moments of everyday triumph. If a shy kid in your class stands up in front of the entire school to deliver an impromptu talk about something close to him, it is a victory. If after a long day of work, your father texts you to say he is proud of you, it is a victory. If one of the government teachers in your school asks you to share a worksheet you made, it is a victory. You must see value in these moments in order to find the strength to go on. To further validate this, I will leave you with a quote from one of my favourite authors, Arthur Conan Doyle:
It has long been an axiom of mine, that the little things are infinitely the most important.
#8 Make time for what you love.
I remember a talk by Anjali Sabnani, an ex-school coach at Akanksha Foundation where she said she used to feel guilty about spending money on seemingly frivolous things like an LCD TV when she knew her kids couldn’t afford a decent meal. She went on to say that this job is difficult enough as it is, without you making yourself feel worse. She was right — you have to find a way to understand their pain, without taking on their burden. What has helped me immensely is to find time for what I love — I read as often as I can, I talk to my mum and dad on Skype (instant mood booster) and play with puppies when I find them. If your idea of relaxing is going for a swim every now and then or playing FIFA or listening to Slash, by all means, go ahead and do it. This job demands so much of you that you begin to feel guilty every time you are not doing something for your kids. You will have to make a conscious effort to give yourself the love and space to grow and absorb it all.
#9 Don’t get on the “Oh man, not reflection again!? We just reflected on something five minutes ago!” bandwagon.
I noticed this trend a lot at Institute and a lot more this year in conversations around me and this is worrisome for three primary reasons. One, you simply cannot understand the profound intricacies of this kind of work if you are unable to reflect upon it. Two, as personal as this work becomes, it is still a professional obligation for you to do what the organisation expects of you. If you work for a corporate, there are a gazillion things you do that you do not fully agree with, understand or would profess — but you do them anyway. If nothing else, reflect because the organisation that has hired you sees value in it. Three, reflection makes you a better educator. When you are self aware and can look back on what went wrong in class or more importantly, what went right, you get better for your kids. And ultimately, that’s who you are here for.
#10 Remember why you are here.
The first thing we learn as teachers at Teach For India is the what/how/why of lessons — that is, what you are teaching them(content), how you are teaching it(methodology) and why you are teaching it(purpose). No snaps for guessing the most important one. Think about your ‘Why’. Write yourself a letter on Day one of the Fellowship, pack it with as much detail as you can. Why are you here? Why did you choose Teach For India? What do you want to prove, to learn, to seek? What have you come here to achieve? Stick that letter up somewhere you can see it when you need to — and believe me, you will need to. Purpose stands above all else and this is what will get you through the toughest of days when you’re unsure of yourself or simply feeling overwhelmed.
I want to say something intensely meaningful to conclude, but I am tired and my words are small. Tennyson’s words, however, are not.
“That which we are, we are.
One equal temper of heroic hearts;
made weak by time and fate,
but strong by will.
To strive, to seek, to find
and not to yield.”
And with that, I welcome you to the Teach For India movement.