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The year was 2018. The new academic session had just begun. The school principal on the phone sounded worried as she talked about the growing effects of communal polarisation on the teachers and students in her school in Meerut.
“Our students and teachers come from both Hindu and Muslim communities,” she said. “Religious identity has never been a problem before, but the communal poison all around us is now starting to seep in. What can we do to stop it?”
Having worked with schools and schoolchildren as a life skills teacher and counsellor for a couple of decades, I understood her concern. I have seen firsthand how quickly ‘othering’ can happen in a class.
I asked the principal how communalism was manifesting itself in her school.
She replied, “Children from Hindu families are starting to call their Muslim counterparts unsavoury names. The Muslim kids retort, and fights break out. This will happen, naturally, because children copy what they see and hear at home. They can be corrected and shown the error of their ways, but what do we do with the teachers who snigger at these incidents and don’t intervene?”
The principal’s concern was valid. A teacher wields enormous influence over her class simply by virtue of being with them daily. If a teacher has a bigoted outlook, it will most certainly percolate down to the rest of the class. The situation had the potential to take a turn for the worse.
After much thought and discussion, we decided to conduct a workshop with all the teachers of the school. An invitation titled Bring out the Best in Your Class was sent to the teachers. A “fun, meaningful and thought-provoking” Saturday morning was promised.
On the day of the workshop, the teachers gathered in the largest available room in the school. After a couple of games and “icebreakers” as they are called in training parlance, we asked the teachers to break out into groups and think about their own lives as kids. We asked them to discuss what they wanted the most from their teachers when they were in school
The answers came fast and furious – “Understanding.” “Patience.” “Love.” “More free time.” “Less homework.”
One answer that came again and again was, “No partiality or favouritism.” Everyone seemed to remember what it felt like to have been treated unfairly back in school. The memory was obviously a strong one!
The ground was now prepared for the main activity of the workshop.
The principal stood up and said, “We are going to ask all of you to get in pairs. To save time, we have already assigned you your partners,” and then proceeded to read out the names of the teachers in each pair. Each pair consisted of a Hindu teacher and a Muslim one.
The activity was straightforward. The teachers in each pair simply needed to ask each other questions like…
What is your happiest memory as a child?
What is your idea of a really good day?
Who is your role model?
What makes you really sad?
What makes you really happy?
What is your greatest ambition?
…and listen to the answers. Not with the intent to judge, but simply to listen to and understand each other.
“Take your time,” we told them. “No need to rush through this. Enjoy the conversation.”
As the conversations progressed, the energy in the room began to change. Everyone loves talking about themselves and everyone enjoys a good story. As the teachers asked each other questions and listened to the answers, sounds of laughter and “Really? You too? Same here!” began to be heard around the room. Fifteen minutes passed, then 30 and then 45. Finally, an hour had passed. Some pairs had finished their conversations and were chatting happily about other things, while others continued to engage in deep conversation. We finally called for an end to the activity.
“How are you all feeling?” we asked the teachers.
The answers came quickly. “Wonderful!” “Light!” “Like we have been heard and understood!”
“How many of you would say you made a new friend?” we asked.
Every single hand in the room went up.
“How many of you realised you have more in common with each other than you realised?”
Again, every hand went up and the teachers proceeded to give examples.
“And finally,” we asked, “how many of you will now give each other the benefit of the doubt if something goes wrong between the two of you?”
As the teachers raised their hands yet again, one of them, an older teacher, stood up and said, “Our joys and sorrows, hopes and fears are so similar. Simply seeing each other’s human-ness and how similar we all are has shown us that we need to care more for each other. For many of us, our role models were our teachers. We need to be the same for our students.”
After the workshop finished, this teacher came up to me, smiled and said, “We realised you deliberately put us in Hindu-Muslim pairs, and we are glad you did. Because it showed us that in the end, it really doesn’t matter.”
This event took place four years ago. Two years of lockdown have taken a toll on the school, but the friendships that were formed that day are still strong. To be sure, there are normal day-to-day differences between the teachers, but in a state that has seen some of the worst communal violence in the country, there is one small school in the city of Meerut where teachers and students, both, are striving to live the principles of secularism enshrined in the constitution of India.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescent issues to help make schools bullying-free zones. He can be reached at [email protected].