[These transcripts, as with all aspects of Awakin Calls, are created as a labor of love by an all-volunteer team located around the world. They are a collective offering, born from a shared practice of deep listening and service. Diverse and spontaneous teams emerge week to week to create and offer these calls. See our organizing principles here. Listeners are invited to join our co-creative community here.]
Guest: Shaheen Mistri
Host: Nisha and Krishnan
Rohit: Good morning and good evening. Thank you all for joining us. Awakin Talks is a space where we share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way today.
Behind each of these, you have an entire team of Service Space volunteers who help enable this offering. To allow us to pull this space today, our guest speaker is Shaheen Mistri. Thank you all for joining today's call. I request that we start our call with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves in this space.
Thank you. And welcome
Recitation and Offering by Bhumika
Rohit : Thank you for a beautiful offering. What a perfect way to open our conversation today with our special guest Shaheen at Awakin Talks. Before I hand it over to Nisha and Krishnan, who will be our moderators for the day, I would like to walk you through the call flow. For the next 50 minutes or so Krishnan will engage in a conversation with Shaheen.
Post that, we'll have plenty of time to engage with your questions, comments and reflections. So, I would request that at any time during the talk, if you feel like, you can send in your questions or comments. Either via the live comment box on our live stream page, on which you're watching this conversation.
We'll try our best to have your voice in the midst of this inquiry as well. Just a friendly reminder that we are using this usual framework and there are constraints of technology. So, sometimes things do end up going a bit wrong, but we'll try our best to come back and resume things as soon as possible.
Thanks a lot in advance for appreciating and adjusting to that. With that, I would like to pass it over to Nisha. Thank you, Nisha.
Nisha: Thank you so much Rohit and thank you so much Bhumika. Let us evolve together by working and sharing together, which is the theme of today's talk and is the spirit of our speaker as well.
Today's talk is titled a school for life and the broad themes we'll be exploring today amongst other things are, do we work towards our inner calling? Or does it happen to us? Is it possible to synchronize our head, heart and hands in this mission? What does true education look like in a post pandemic world? To explore these, Krishnan Ranganathan will be in conversation today with Shaheen Mistri.
It's difficult to introduce someone as multifaceted as Krishnan, but I will try. Krishnan is a volunteer at heart. His high school teachers who wrote on his report card that he's too talkative, may find it hard to believe that Krishnan grew up to be an introspective adult who walks the talk mindfully. Krishnan is currently working with Udhyam.org. Udhyam is a platform that has touched hundreds & thousands of lives - of children, youth & micro entrepreneurs.
At work, Krishnan is adored for his knack of holding the mission with intensity on the left-hand. Compassion for the team on the right hand and balancing them both. At home, he is adored by his wife Deepa for the quality time he makes for their twin daughters, as well as his parents. Krishnan and his family has been living in Bengaluru for more than a hundred years.
With that short introduction, I hand over to Krishnan.
Krishnan :Thank you. Thank you, Nisha. I don't think I've ever been introduced in such a fabulous way before, so thank you for that. If there is any bit of nervousness in my voice, it is because of just being announced as being talkative in class, in front of Shaheen.
Alright, it is indeed my pleasure today to be introducing Shaheen Mistri, an educator at heart, mother of two girls, hobby painter and an animal lover, amongst many other things. Shaheen, like many of us already know, is the founder of Akanksha Foundation at Mumbai and the nationally popular Teach for India, which has impacted over a million children. It has also been the breeding ground for social entrepreneurship and educational initiatives alike. She's an Ashoka fellow, a global leader for tomorrow at the World Economic Forum and this year's Asia Society 21 leader, and more recently Jamnalal Bajaj awardee for promoting Gandhian values.
What’s most striking to me about Shaheen is that she sees the seemingly impossible task of educating 320 million Indian children, as a magical opportunity. An opportunity of engaging with 320 million partners, to create the greatest show on earth. And in this long and audacious movement, Shaheen wisely remarks that the biggest challenge is to find strength and love in her heart each and every single day.
Krishnan: Thank you much Shaheen, for agreeing to be with us today and I welcome you to this conversation, which I have been looking forward to, over the last few days.
Shaheen: Thank you, Krishnan.
Krishnan: I think I'm going to start with something in your profile that was exciting for me to hear, and something that's uncommon to see in people - I'm referring to the fact about how you lived the first 18 years of your life across 13 different countries. Now while that may look like a data point for many, right, and can be consumed as the numbers and data. But, there is definitely so much more to that experience. So, I know I'm going to take you back many years, in this memory, but do tell us about what those years were like. And what was Shaheen, at the end of that period, of the first 18 years.
Shaheen: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, firstly it's so beautiful to be here. I think anything that Service Space does, and I'm sure this will come up multiple times in our conversation, is done with so much care and so much heart. I just feel it already, my heart feels very full, this morning. So, thank you for having me here. Just a small correction, Krishnan. I actually lived in five countries, but attended 10 different schools. So, I did move around a lot. I think, you know, my childhood was one of just being so deeply immersed in so many different cultures, so many different people. I have a very outgoing mother, who would invite everybody home. So, my memories growing up were, being in many different school environments. I started out in a French school, then in an English school, then an American school and an international school. Many different school environments, many different people, lots of animals along the way.
My brother and I used to pick up stray animals from the road. I had a very happy childhood. I felt my life was deeply blessed, in every possible way. Yet I think one striking thing about my first 18 years was an intuitive understanding that this wasn’t the life of many people. Even though I wasn't in that sense, very aware of it. I lived in my bubble, growing up, but something inside me kept saying, no, but there are children who are just like me in every way, except they're not, because of the lack of opportunity. That felt real and striking growing up. This unfairness in the world, the inequality of opportunity, both with children and also with animals, I think I saw it with both, growing up.
Krishnan: Got it. Fantastic. And yeah, I think we will touch upon later on the animal lover piece as well during the conversation - it was good to hear about picking up pets from the streets, and giving them care. That's fabulous. So, one question - was there a burning desire at the end of this period? Was there a burning need to do something about this? Because quickly after this is when you started Akanksha. So how did that happen?
Shaheen: You know, you can usually always point back to one sort of turning moment and I have that as well. I have it vividly in my mind.
When I was visiting Mumbai, I was in a black and yellow taxi at a traffic light, and a few children ran up to the traffic light. It was the moment when I just wanted to do something and I wanted to be in India. But when I look back, I think, Was it really that moment? Or were it many, many, many things over the 18 years that led to that moment? I think it's probably the latter, Krishnan, and I think again, my parents played a pivotal role. My mother grew up as a speech therapist. We often had children at home, who had multiple needs. I had volunteered since the age of 12. I think that was formative. So, all my summers were spent volunteering either with animals who needed help, or with children.
I had volunteering experiences with autistic children, with children who are visually impaired. I think my trips back to India, every summer, were formative as well. I was able to see clearly, the difference between the school that I was in, the opportunities I had and the lack of opportunity that I saw as I moved around the streets of Mumbai.
So I think many, many tiny actions and seeds, led to that moment where I was at 18. And I thought, why am I going back to the U S? Let me just try and be in India and do something.
Krishnan: Got it. So, Shaheen, you've been a proponent of love, compassion and Gandhian values, both in life and in education, right? Now, there are two parts to this question. One, was there a specific point or event from which this blossomed? And the second part of the question is, when you try and translate these values into action in the education system today, what kind of challenges do you face?
Shaheen: To the first part, I think there are two parts to the first question. One is that, I have learned love and values more from the children we’ve served. Both from Akanksha and Teach for India, then from anyone else. My greatest lessons have been from the children whom I’ve been truly privileged to know.
I think, Krishnan, when I came back to India, I came with good intentions, but with a lot of ideas that very quickly got disproved about what it was like to live in poverty. Which children were lucky and which children are not lucky.
I had a lot of misconceptions and I think slowly and steadily through everyday interactions, my children taught me what honesty was. What courage was. What love was. What acceptance was, and those moments were just incredibly profound. They were ordinary, everyday moments. Whether it's like, after a short break and a vacation, a child looked at me with a big smile and said, “Didi, you are looking so fat!”.
Only a child, right, can so honestly tell you what is on their mind. So it's small, humorous moments to profound life changing moments with kids. I think that was one. I think the second honestly has been, the ecosystem that we are part of, at Service Space. At that time, it wasn't even called Service Space.
I remember so clearly that I used to take a group of Akanksha children to Ahmedabad. My connection with Manav Sadhna, the human beings that I met there, had a profound impact on me. And I discovered that impact more and more over time. So I think, you know, the question that Nisha framed the call with, Does inner transformation happen to you, or, is it something that you work on? For me, in my experience, it's honestly been a little bit of both. I think I've been incredibly blessed to have had such people around me.
As we're talking one moment comes to mind. There was a moment when we were at the Sughad campus in Ahmedabad and Jayesh Bhai was sitting on the lawn. He was pulling something out of the ground. I went over to him and noticed that he was pulling weeds out of the grass. Suddenly, he just stopped, and looked troubled. I asked him, “Jayesh Bhai, why are you looking so troubled?” He answered, “Inside me, I’m not feeling right to pull these weeds out.”
There were many of these little moments I was able to see and observe in the people around me. These made me realize that I wanted to live my life with this level of awareness and love. More recently, love, of all the Gahndian values, the all encompassing value of love, feels so important in the world today. Love in all aspects - starting with love and acceptance of self. Love for the people we work with. The children we serve, and the vision of the work that we do. It feels like that love can perhaps take us further and make the journey more richer than not having it. That’s the first challenge.
There are challenges, whichever direction you take or however you live. It's better to face challenges living the values that you believe in. It will help you sleep well at night. A big turning point for me was when I started to see challenges differently. In understanding that they come and go. That there's a way to elevate oneself to make sense of the challenges. There have been many challenges but not significant enough to stand in the way of the journey that I wanted.
Krishnan: Beautiful. One takeaway or learning for me from this part of the conversation has been that last part that you said, it's better to face challenges living the values that you believe. When we talk about changing ourselves in order to change the world, we often also talk about it in conjunction with the ripple effect. In your experience, have you noticed some of these ripple effects either in TFI or your personal space?
Shaheen: Two things are coming to mind. One is a moment, many years ago, when I didn't know Nipun well. I was still at the point where I believed there was one big thing that would change education and therefore change the world. I remember Nipun, sitting down and talking to me about the power of small things and not big things. I went from believing that I could change the world, to believing I could change India, to believing in the change for this small organization around me, to actually realizing that I can't even really change my two daughters at home and really, the only thing I can do is focus internally. This has been a very big journey. Of having faith in that idea, which I think I brushed off when Nipun said it all those years ago. It is the little acts and the little words that add up and overwhelm the world.
The second actually is much more recent, just last night. I sat sort of covered with goosebumps because it was the online graduation ceremony of one of our students. She was graduating from a well-known university in the United States called Franklin & Marshall. The reason for the goosebumps was in understanding, what a journey it had been for her. To navigate the challenges to get to the place she is in, and what a symbol of hope in these times. With opportunities, children can go on and unleash their greatest potential. It wasn't actually the academic achievement that gave me the goosebumps. The fact that this child has created the most unbelievable ripples in this world just by the way that she lives her life.
One moment that comes back to me about her, as we speak is. Once we took our children to a home for elderly people and people with physical deformities. It was very difficult for young children to go into the home and see that, so we decided to do an experiment with our kids. We said for the next hour and a half, go and find anybody in the home and talk to them. Priyanka went to a lady and started talking to her with a lot of arm gestures and movements. A couple of minutes later, I walked by them and realized that both of them didn't speak the same language. I thought this was going to be fascinating. How long is she going to sit there and actually be able to speak to this lady? One and a half hours later they were still there, talking and at the end there were hugs. We left the place and went back three months later and Priyanka had taken a bar of chocolate for this lady. Priyanka also had a teddy bear with her that had been an important representation of security for her. When she went to this elderly lady, she had the chocolate bar in one hand and she had the teddy bear under her arm. I think the old lady mistakenly thought that she had brought the teddy bear for her as well. At that moment, Priyanka had to decide, do I give her just the chocolate bar or do I give her my teddy bear? She hesitated for a moment. Then she gave the elderly lady the chocolate bar and her teddy bear. That evening I spoke to her and said, Priyanka, you look a bit troubled today. Yes, she said, and I asked why because it was such a beautiful thing you did, you know. She said, No, Didi, if I really understood compassion, I would not have hesitated at that moment. She was 14 at the time. I think when children grow up wrestling with and, practicing the values that matter to them, there is a powerful ripple effect in the world.
Krishan: I think for a 14 year old, to have that sense of connection is beautiful. It's hard to say how much of it is naturally gifted.
Shaheen: It's actually the experiences that we surround our children with and the role models that they have in their lives. Children naturally want to do good and to be good, they get so much excitement out of doing good and being good. That's one thing we've observed again and again at Teach for India.
Krishnan: I absolutely agree but at the same time there is, there is also a deep sense of attachment for children to their toys and being able to give that away. I am going to move to one of my personally favorite themes and that is the theme of serendipity.
While we all plan our lives in a certain manner, I'll rate it short term, medium term and long term. There is the part where life has its own plans for us. What kind of a role has serendipity played in your life, in your journey so far? Both on the external front, on the workfront and in terms of your inner transformation itself.
Shaheen: Yeah. So, my colleagues will share if you ask them that I'm not a very good planner. I think more than more than serendipity, I think for me, instinct has been a really big driver of many of the decisions I've taken. Some of them have turned out good. Some of them have turned out not so well.
I can really attribute a lot of the different directions that my life has taken to a sudden instinct. Maybe there is internal serendipity. There is a sudden instinct that is tells me to go this way, even if logically it doesn't make too much sense. That I feel is a pattern I do feel between my head, heart and hand. My heart usually is the driver of how I take decisions and how I live my life. So, that's one challenge of course I think has been another thing that comes to mind as you say, serendipity. I think it's been a driver of many changes in my life as well.
I think as you get older, we become more aware of how little you can actually control, even if you want to control it. I do think, as a younger person, I had a high need to control. Still my instinct is, to want to do things really well, to want to know what the outcome is. This has been an interesting conversation with many people in the Manav Sadhna ecosystem as well. Is it about the journey? Or, is it about the outcome? I think I've shifted a little bit towards the journey side but not fully for sure. I think I'm still very rooted in a direction. But have started to understand that the direction is not going to be a straight path. It's going to go up and down and a lot of that is outside of your control.
Krishnan : Fabulous! Interesting to hear that. I think we're all in the middle of one of the largest disasters we have seen over the many decades. I'm going to switch to talking about the pandemic and the impact it has had and it is still having on the educational ecosystem.
In the meanwhile, I just want to quickly remind our viewers, please send in your questions either through the chat. That's the email ID you can use to send in your questions otherwise you can post them on the chat.
Over the last year or so, we have witnessed some unprecedented changes in education and learning, Shaheen. I wanted to understand how have you, as an educator and as someone running various impact initiatives processed all of this? What life was before and life became after, was there a significant shift? Especially given that you are running TFI and Akanksha, how did you process all of this?
Shaheen: Yeah, so Krishnan, I'm not gonna dwell upon the many challenges. I think the audience is aware and this year has been an even bigger eye-opener on the difference what a skew of opportunities means for children.
Undoubtedly I think the pandemic has hit all children, but it hit my children at home very differently than it hit my Teach for India children. But, I'm not going to dwell upon that. There were several moments in the year where honestly, I just felt a bit stupid that I hadn't seen obvious opportunities in education, that the pandemic suddenly made very clear.
A couple of these - one of my students pointed out on a call somewhere in the middle of the year. She suddenly said - Didi (sister in hindi), I realized that learning doesn't just happen in a classroom. That was one of my biggest learnings this year. It's such a beautiful title for this talk that you all chose - The School of Life. And it was one of my big learnings - you learn everywhere. When I look back at my own life, I can point to a limited amount of learning that happened in a classroom and a huge amount of learning that happened from life.
So the opportunity here is - How can learning stop when literally, just the four walls of a classroom have been closed down? There's something wrong in our system and our world when that happens. So this was one big moment.
The second moment, equally obvious and stupid in retrospect was - Why does learning only need to happen with the teacher who happens to be at the front of your classroom? If you're lucky, you have a transformational teacher. If you have a terrible teacher, you're unlucky, but basically your life is determined by the human being in front of the classroom. Suddenly, the pandemic challenged that. And it said, anybody can be your teacher. Your teacher can be sitting on the other side of the world and your teacher can be a student who is five years younger than you. Anybody can teach and anybody can learn. Learning doesn't just happen from teachers, it happens at home, from parents and from your community and from the life that you live every single day. So the beautiful African concept of Ubuntu came alive for me very much this year. Yes, it takes a village, not just to raise a child, but it takes a village to educate a child as well.
So those were two big opportunities. And, I think that the enabler that technology can be, despite all the research. Which is really mixed right now, on whether we can roll out technology at scale or whether it will make a difference. The idea that maybe there are things that are better done in person in a classroom, and maybe there are things that are better done using technology. If we can really find the right blended approach, maybe all children can have the opportunities that they need. Opportunities that don't get skewed. So that's what we at Teach for India have been thinking deeply about. Let's not run around and try and find apps on smartphones as a band-aid solution. But step back and reimagine what a blended approach can look like, even when schools reopen. And how can a blended approach allow us to move from teaching a classroom of children to teaching individuals? Because we all know that each one of us has such different needs. Those were some of the big learnings. And then the second learning, slightly different, won't be surprising to you at all.
Perhaps my most powerful learning, and again, an obvious one, was that for years I've been thinking about collective action and the power of community. I have always believed in it intellectually, but I think this year, I felt it in my heart in a way, I've never felt it before. I had never been as proud of our extended community as I have this year, it's been just phenomenal. I think everybody listening to this will have their own version of this. But just to see people's vulnerability in being able to reach out for help and to see people jumping in to help.
Again, Nipun in a conversation mentioned this years ago. And a lot of these concepts came to me as intellectual concepts. What a gift economy is. But I think this year, we saw a gift economy, right? We saw when people were stronger, they were supporting. And when people were weaker and needed help, they were reaching out to receive. Giving and receiving has spread in the world through the power of community.
We leave our kids with math and science and some amount of good values. But do we actually think in our goals, that we need to leave our kids with a strong community of people around them? A community, that will help them navigate the ups and downs of their lives and always be there.
My mind goes to a dear friend of mine who was an Akanksha teacher in early days, called Anjali. Her children have been out of school 15 years now. They are still on a WhatsApp group and reach out to each other, for help and to share achievements. That community is still alive, even after all these years.
I think that's one of the most powerful things we can give to our children well.
Krishnan: Wow, okay. I think at the end of this piece, there are at least three things that are staying on my mind. One is the ah-ha moment, around the kid saying that learning doesn't happen in the classroom, it happens outside. That was a real aha moment.
The second is the last part that you mentioned around how important it is to leave children with a community with whom they can connect with, closely. The third is in fact, a comment and a question. Maybe a follow-up question as well, Shaheen. It’s interesting how you brought up the topic of technology and the blended approach with technology, which we might have to take going forward. Over the last one or two years, how much of a mindset shift is needed or has been needed for this approach? Do you think the pandemic has made it easier to create the mindset shift? I have also seen a joke floating around, which I think is true in many organizations, that the coronavirus is the new CTO or the CIO of your company.
Shaheen: The pandemic has definitely helped. It has given an impetus to that shift. I think it's going to be an uphill journey Krishnan, but I think it's one we need to get on really soon. There are massive issues with just procuring hardware, while we are training teachers.
Kids pick up technology fairly quickly. I think it's more the barriers around them. Like parental investment, up-skilling teachers, rethinking our school schedules and timetables to enable technology. and of course the cost and logistical nightmare of rolling out technology to 320 million kids.
So, I think it's going to be a long journey and it will require mindset shifts and re-skilling, to be able to do it. But, I have never seen inequity as deeply as I did this year with children. On one hand, high-income kids, my own included, literally migrated overnight to virtual learning. And to an extent that I've heard so many high-income kids questioning the need to go to school. They're so plugged in now with world-class learning, that the digital space for them is important. And it's going to over time, become more important than even the textbook.
So, if we don’t think about digital access and a blended approach for our most vulnerable kids, the gap is going to get wider. I don't think hardware and technology, even three or five years from now, will be as important as learning to read and write. So, while yes, I've seen the difficulty, even in a small organization, like Teach For India, Krishnan. I've also seen the uphill task of raising money for hardware, for skilling teachers, and all of these aspects are not easy to do. At the scale of governments, it's going to be an uphill task, but I think we do need to start thinking and planning. We need to embrace this new reality going forward.
Krishnan: Got it. So what do you see coming out of all of this? Are there, and maybe I will talk about this in a cultural sense. Do you see a cultural shift happening in education? A shift in how education and learning happens going forward? Or in people's approach towards education and learning going forward? Is this here to stay? Is this temporary, or how much of this is temporary and how much of this could be a longer term shift?
Shaheen: Whether it's here to stay is in each one of our hands to decide. I think it needs to stay. I think some of these changes need to stay. But we need to jump on board, and change is difficult. It's very difficult in a country like India with our diversity and our scale. But, my submission will be to jump on board and figure it out together. I think we figured out a lot together over this last year. I've seen collaboration happen across organizations that was really beautiful and important. I think if we do come together and put our strengths, we can embrace this new reality and plan well for it. I'm not espousing that Mumbai government tomorrow goes out and buys hardware and distributes it to all children. I think we need to get to that place, but we need to do it thoughtfully and we need to prepare people well. I think a new reality is also parental & student involvement in their own education.
We've seen beautiful evidences of that this year. Especially with younger children, parents were the primary teacher. And while it needs to lessen over time and the school needs to come back for sure. But, how can we not lose the beauty of that?
We also saw the power of peer learning, involving students in the whole process of their own education and the education of others. How do we hold that going forward as well?
Krishnan: Got it. I'm going to ask you one more question, Shaheen, and then maybe we can look at, questions coming in from the audience. If we look at children going to school in India today, we know that more than half of them go to government schools. Right? We also know the kind of impact these children have had over the last one year or so. It's almost like losing a year of education in school or at least school-based education. Do you see long-term implications of this for these kids and for the country? Or what is the extent of damage, in your individual perspective because of this?
Shaheen: My perspective is that we have no idea of how damaging this year has been on children. And we need to do whatever we can, with minimum risk, toget kids back. Have some kind of physical interaction. I'm a big believer that kids go to school for many reasons - content and academics is one, but it's not the only driver of why we go to school. And I think the kind of anxiety, kids are facing today, from a lack of socialization, a lack of a space to actually be with others is a huge damaging aspect to all of this as well.
So my strong opinion is that we need to, again, as society work closely with Governments, follow medical advice & medical research to open schools safely. Perhaps, not in the way they used to be, but even one touch point a week for kids is going to make a huge difference going forward. We can’t afford to keep schools closed for the next couple of years. There are ways to do it: bring in small groups, twenty-five percent attendance in schools. But we need to really put our heads to that.
Krishnan: It is a difficult situation to be in. I do resonate with you when you say that it is hard for us to imagine the extent of damage done. At best, what we can do, is to do what you can, to get it back to the shape it was, even if it is tech enabled. I think there are a bunch of people trying to make efforts in that area. It's very hard to get the children to the classroom in the current scenario, and there are external factors influencing it. It will be interesting to see how best we can deal with the situation and get them back into the normal routine. That is going to be, one of the toughest challenges. For our government school kids, especially. So, I will hand it over to Nisha in a minute, but before that I am going to cheat a little bit. And, for my own curiosity, Shaheen, ask you a couple of quick things. Tell us about Shaheen, the parent.
Shaheen: This is a question we should be addressing to my kids, directly. But for me, I’ve always felt, pulled in multiple directions and seems like I've never got it fully right. For many years, when I was at work, I was worried about my kids. And when I was at home, I was worried about work and there was a lot of guilt associated with that, for a large part of my career. One day I just shed the guilt, saying it's not a helpful emotion and it’s not helping my kids or my work. What led to this? One of my biggest role models is my dear friend Anu, who was also the chair of our board for many years. I remember having many stern conversations with her, that have been life-changing. For this particular one, she sat me down, looked straight at me and asked, “Do you think you're a superwoman?”
It really shook me, because I was trying to be a superwoman in my life. She said never try to be a superwoman. She said that all of us have two sides to us. We have the ordinary and the extraordinary. When we are too ordinary, we need to seek the extraordinary. And, when we feel when we are extraordinary, we need to pull ourselves back to the ground and remember that we are ordinary. Ever since then, letting go of the idea of being a perfect mom, has helped me counterintuitively, to become a better mom. I think where I hopefully, have been a good parent is in the example of how I have lived my own life.
I think where I could have been a better parent, is in the time that I spent with my kids growing up. I felt a lot of a drive to serve those, who had less than my own children. I compromised many moments where my kids probably needed me, growing up.
Krishnan: Beautiful. All right. I am going to hand it over to Nisha, to take audience questions. Thank you, Shaheen. It was fabulous having this conversation with you and if we get a few minutes in the end, I will come back to you.
Krishnan: Nisha, over to you,
Nisha: Thank you, Krishnan. Thank you Shaheen. It was quite illuminating for me. As a mother of a homeschooled child, I also got some ideas for our homeschooling community. We would like to start off the audience's questions with a blessing from none other than Jayesh Bhai. He is the founder of ESI and Manav Sadhna and a mentor to Shaheen. He sends deep love for you, Shaheen and bows down to your spirit of service and kind compassion. He says he is grateful for this connection. So that was Jayesh Bhai. Shaheen, I will start with a question of my own. In one of your interviews, you had talked about, looking at an issue or a problem by holding a mirror, instead of a magnifying lens. Can you tell us more about that?
Shaheen: Sure. We had some trainers many years ago, from the KIPP schools in the US. They had introduced this concept and I thought it was beautiful. Basically, it’s based on the idea that when a challenge hits you, you always have a choice. You can pick up a magnifying glass, which is what usually our tendency is. When you pick up a magnifying glass, you see the problems that are outside of you, and you tend to externalize. Often those are real challenges and real reasons.
But you also have a choice to pick up a mirror. When you pick up a mirror, you look at yourself. In doing so, you start asking yourself, what can you do about this, irrespective of whether you caused the challenge or not. Really, the only thing that I have control over is myself and what I can do about it. So, we have often used this with teachers. When a teacher has had a bad day in class and they come back. There are a hundred reasons they can come up with, which are valid. Maybe the parents aren't that invested, maybe the kid wasn't paying attention, maybe the school environment wasn't strong enough. We tell them, in this moment, if you pick up the mirror and ask yourself, what can you do about it. You will go back empowered tomorrow and maybe things will start to shift.
Nisha: Thank you and here is a question from Satish. He says we are students of life. When can I say I have graduated?
Shaheen: That is a beautiful question. My instinctive reply to that is never. You never graduate from the school of life. Anu is again coming back to my mind now. Even at her age, she is such an active and curious student of life. That is such a powerful reminder to me that we just keep learning and changing. If you can keep that curiosity and more than even curiosity, if you can keep that sense of wonder alive. If you can just wonder about the world and understand it. Wonder about yourself and understand yourself. You can always then, stay in the school of life.
Nisha: So, maybe it is better to stay in the school than to graduate. Now, the question from Vipul, “Dear Shaheen didi, you inspired thousands of us to work with children and engage with the education field. So much gratitude for that. And my question is, if and how, has your vision of excellent education and approach towards transformative teaching & learning evolved over the years ?”
Shaheen: This is an interesting question. When I was much younger & started teaching at eighteen, a lot of my instincts on what education is and the purpose of it, are really not that different from where I am today. But I think along the way I lost the way for a little bit. I think I got caught up in academic rigor, which I do believe is a part of it.
Some of those initial concepts I knew to be important, when I was a teacher. That education has to be fun, kids have to love learning. That you have to build 20 different methods into your lessons, so that you reach every learner. That education doesn't just happen in the classroom. I remember as a teacher, I used to pick up my children from the community every day. We would read the hoardings on the way to school, to practice reading. And we used to sing songs in the bus to start our class. A lot of that is true today also. Today, I'm just able to articulate bit more clearly to what I believe the purpose of education is. And of course this will also continue to evolve. But if you ask me today, I think education is about self, it's about other and it's about country and the world.
In the self bucket, it's about discovering who you are. Discovering what your greatest purpose is, discovering and building the skills to live the kind of life that you want. So that to me is the self piece. In India, we have a narrow understanding of self in most of our schools, which says education is about a job. So expanding the self bucket.
Education is also about the other. It's not just about me and the life I want to lead. But what am I doing to provide opportunities to those around me, so that they can lead the lives that they want to lead. So their potential it's fully unleashed. Other is not just about the way I am with others in the world, but goes beyond that. It's also about the opportunities I create for others to unleash their potential.
And finally the India and world bucket is about, can education be the playing ground to understand what I want to shift, small or big, and to practice what it means to shift it. So that I'm committed to leaving my country, my world a bit closer to my own dream of where I want it to be. Imagine, if kids came to school every day, thinking this is why I come to school. I remember teaching a class once. It was a grade five class and I did a session on the purpose of education. I remember their eyes lighting up, when I said what if you came to school everyday thinking I come to school not to do well on my math test, but I come to school to make my country and my world better. The kids got so excited by that concept. So I think the balance of self other India, is really important in the definition of education.
Nisha: Wow. It really spans the intellectual, emotional and social dimensions, with a strong "Be the change" lens for the child. It's amazing how you can inculcate these at such a young age. The next question is also connected to this. It is from, Ankita, who runs the Fountainhead school in Surat and she asks, "How do you imbibe the value of personal transformation among TFI Fellows and your team?”
Shaheen: I will go back to - children are our greatest teachers in personal transformation. I realized early on, that you can't teach kids to be respectful and then shout at your kids. They are watching every minute and seeing what you do and don't do. What you say or not say. That's one of the hardest things about being a teacher. It is a journey of becoming a better human being and your kids are there on that journey with you. So really, just helping teachers see that. See and deeply understand the importance of being a teacher. I often tell fellows that, in which other job, can you leave a legacy in the minds, hearts and souls of people. That's what you do, when you're a teacher. It's such a profound legacy you leave. So, what helps our fellows is one, re-orienting and understanding education to be broader and more profound than they potentially thought it was. Second, to understand their role, as being important and transformational. Not a role where you have to be a perfect teacher, but a role where you're on the journey of learning with your children. When you make a mistake, you can stand up in front of your class and say, Sorry, I messed up. And your kids will accept that. I think this helps. The other thing that helps is creating safe spaces for teachers to talk and be vulnerable. We do activities like life maps, where we create circles of trust. People just talk. They're able to talk about things that they've done well and things they're ashamed of. They're able to talk about their greatest challenges. Can you create spaces for teachers that feel safe. When you're able to do that, they are then able to do that in classrooms with children. To me, it's one of the biggest things that is needed in the world today. Spaces. Not just where I can be safe, but where I can create a safe space for someone else. Not just to voice what's on their mind, but to be who they really are. It feels like too many walls have been put up in the world today between us. Can we break those down just by dialogue and by understanding? And if I might, I'll just share one thing that came to my mind right now. One of our fellows started a beautiful concept called the The Guftago Circle. What he did was, he just brought together very unlikely people every two weeks in a school.
I was in one of these circles where there was a second standard student, the lady who swept the floors of the school, the principal of the school and the local corporator. So, a motley group of people. And all that happened in that circle was people shared aspects of their life story with each other. There was no response. There were no questions, no answers. We were just listening to each other. And I remember the lady who swept the floors of the school shared that, “I've been offered a higher salary by three or four other schools, but I will never leave this school. Because in this school, everybody looks me in the eye and knows my name.” I remember that after her sharing, the eyes of the principal of the school teared up. Because I think she never understood how important that act was. That's an example, Nisha. Can we find simple spaces, circles to really listen to each other, as far as possible, without judgment and with acceptance.
Nisha: It's beautiful Shaheen. I'm a little moist in my eyes because it reminds me of my Dad. He was a teacher, a principal and he used to host circles after school. All the teachers would rush home, because they have to pedal their cycles and go maybe 10 kilometers as it was, in those days. My dad had to do that too, but he would just sit with all the vulnerable kids for an hour. He was also offered a teaching position at many schools, but he chose to work at a school, which was closest to few slums in my hometown Trichi. So I totally resonate with the concept of safe space.
We'll take a couple of more questions. One question is from Nitya Sriram, from Singapore. "With the pandemic moving a lot of education online, would this create space for volunteers outside India to help?
Shaheen: I think the answer is yes. We've seen beautiful examples of people reaching out from all over the world. Again the issue for low income children, is that of hardware. And how do we provide access to stable internet? Those have been some of our biggest challenges. If we're able to make progress on that dimension, and able to find ways to connect people who want to help with the needs, then that is certainly possible.
Nisha - Yeah. Thank you. The next question is from Shivani Shah, a fellow of 2021. What is the one most important thing we, this year’s fellow students need to keep in mind when we are still struggling with this pandemic?
Shaheen - That’s such a beautiful question. There's no one thing, for sure and that’s my immediate thought as well. I am thinking hard on the question. What will the leaders need to be to meet the needs of children today? I think teachers over the next year, are going to play a role unlike any other year that I have known. It's going to be the most significant year to be a teacher because children are going to have so many needs that are new. They're going to come back and there's going to be fear, anxiety and learning gaps. My advice, if anything, would be to take the lead with your kids, listen to them, ask them what they need, and then mobilize a community of people to help, meet those needs and never underestimate how your kids will be able to help each other.
We've seen that before, in beautiful ways. The Service Space ecosystem introduced me, many years ago, to the concept of “Many to Many”, and I can still visualize the first time I saw all of these dots with lines connected everywhere. Think of your classroom, I would say Shivani, as dots with lines connected everywhere. Standing in front of the class you will find not all the lines are connected, but you are really enabling people to connect our lines to each other and help each other. And again, same things create safe spaces. Let kids talk about what they need, and openly ask for help along the way, to meet the needs of your kids.
Nisha - Thank you, Shaheen I’m going to take one more question from Vishal. While technology has made education more accessible, it has also bombarded children with a lot of information. This has led to reduced attention span and indecisiveness, when it comes to choosing the path for their lives. How do we then, inspire such confused children to navigate their way around so much information?
Shaheen: It’s such a good question. I don’t know but I believe that we just need to reduce screen time and not have our kids only be on their screens. But go back to the things that we know are important and formative for children. Playing and spending time together. Being able to look at other human beings, talk to them directly and not just text them.
I think the first, it’s just about balance. The different things that children do in their lives, with technology being important, but not being the only means. The second and what has helped me a lot has been finding the depth in different practices at different times in my life. Finding the practices that help you process. If you're constantly just absorbing information, you don't have the time or space to make sense of your own opinion and how is this impacting you. We often tell our kids and when I used to teach, I used to always tell kids that the experience you have, matters much less than what you take from that experience. I can sit through a boring lecture and learn more life lessons from that boring lecture. Than from a lecture by the best professor. Only if my orientation is to make sense of how I'm experiencing my life. So, teaching kids the skills of, how to reflect, make sense of things, step back & choose what they are looking at, are going to become important.
Nisha - Yeah, thank you so much for bringing awareness into events. There is one more question from Rohit that seems to be in sync with what you're talking about. In times of emergency like this, we tend to prioritize the immediate, short-term pieces. Like children not being able to attend school, so let's start with their classes. And then before we know, there's the next emergency demanding our immediate attention again. It's the classic challenge, and which often gets long-term, important work to be sidelined. What are some of the longer term aspects that you are seeing, which we should be paying attention to, during this pandemic, from the lens of education?
Shaheen - Such a good question, and I can resonate a lot with the tension. There’s almost a sense of guilt in focusing on anything that is long term. We don't get them when the immediate seems so urgent. For example can I help connect somebody who might be able to get a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder, and there are an overwhelming number of immediate pieces. The first thing is overcoming that guilt and creating space in your own day to step back and to be focused on the future. This in itself is not the easiest thing to do. But it's important because if we don't do it, we will push back. Additional crisises and challenges will unfold in the future. Just because we haven't had the time and space to prepare for them.
So, what are those things? It's conceptualizing, what is this new form of education? To go back to some of the things I said, like are we expanding how we think about the purpose of education? If we're doing that, then what is a blended approach to get there? Thinking through what is best done online, and what is best done in person? Thinking about who are the people that I can leverage to be the new teachers in this world. And then of course thinking about what is it going to take to prepare my team, my people, and my country, for this new reality?
It starts with deeply grounding ourselves in the why. A commitment, that we will not go back to how it was. We will use this as an opportunity to reimagining, and we'll hold on to that. Even when schools reopen, life starts to open up, as it inevitably will. The second part; once we're grounded in the why, we have to think of the What. What is that model of blended learning? Spending a lot of time reflecting on how are we going to up-skill ourselves and each other‘s mindsets & skills to be able to embrace this new reality.
Nisha - Thank you, Shaheen. It may be of interest for you and the viewers to know that on the 30th May, Awakening Talks will get another educator Navin Amanasuriya, from the Contentment Foundation of Singapore. So, we may get to hear more about the subtle values then. Thank you so much for spending time with us.
Now, I will hand over to Rohit who has a surprise in store for us. But before that, I would like to take this opportunity to thank every viewer and also our Awakening Talks volunteer team.
Shaheen - Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.
Rohit – Thank you everyone, Shaheen, Nisha and Krishnan. It was such a beautiful conversation. So many gems to pick on, so many interesting questions and points of view. I feel the need to, sort of go back, and think more. I really loved the point that you said that it's not the actual experience, but how you're oriented in that experience. And how you reflect & how you basically see at a broader level.
You can't control the circumstances of your life, but how you process that inwardly. How you respond to that stimulus is what makes all the difference. Viktor Frankl said, “Then that's where the freedom lies”. So, thank you so much for all the beautiful work that you're doing.
For now, like Nisha said, there's a small surprise for you. Which some of our youngest volunteers have put together for you. They have done a fantastic job, but we were sort of a bit tardy in trying to put it together. So we'll just play it, and I think you will figure it out. But just for our audience, you know, we really have been very inspired by all your multi faceted skills.
One of it includes a heart of poetry. We saw one of your beatiful poems; ‘Get and Give’ and it resonated with so many of us. Our young volunteers actually started off creating a rap song. So, here it is. I will just put it up on the screen in a moment.
The poem is about two characters. One is called, Get and the other is called, Give. This is what Get says to Give and what Give taught to Get.
Get said to Give
in order to live,
just take what you can.
Be rich, dearest, man,
learn to grab and to claw
Always want more more more
and don't stop to think
what you're wanting is for.
Be rich, man. Be cool
send your kid to a school
where he will grow up to be a rich Get just like me.
Then Give interrupted,
Get, stop. Get, please stop
all this talk of just making it up to the top.
Makes me giddy and dizzy and fizzy. I'm sick.
You're upto no good Get, I know all your tricks
You're making these people think love can be bought
That happiness tickets with money are brought.
I know your type Get, I used to be you
till I stumbled on giving and what it can do.
And that is what I must share here with you.
I used to feel good Get
just giving away some old clothes, the torn ones, the jeans that were frayed.
Then one day a child that he dreamed he could play with a new toy,
a new toy, not my giveaway.
So I went out and bought, get a shirt that was cool.
Thinking about what if he'd wear it after school
and the toy car, I bought him up shiny, bright blue.
I thought of what six year old boys like to do
and the smile that he gave Get that smile. It was real,
So real that my heart didn't know how to feel.
And the next day, while I was walking, I saw a small child.
She asked for some money, her hair was quite wild.
And when I said, no, she pointed afar to a coconut vendor behind all the cars.
I followed her as zig zag across Mumbai's loud streets.
We sat down with coconuts on dusty tarred seats,
just me and the little girl sipping away.
A sliver of joy had slipped in my day.
And as we were chatting about things that she chose,
a man not too far watched then quietly rose.
And then he came towards us and almost ashamed,
a bright, shiny Apple,
and left as he came.
And you see Get, you see, Get, when you start to give.
You pave roads for others to change how they live.
When you first start to look Get, it maybe a haze,
but many are giving, you will be amazed
The tree, how it gives of its fruit and its shade,
the carpenter gives of the wood that he's made.
The teacher. She gives every student her right.
The puppy, he fills every heart with delight .
The farmer, he gives up his hard earned new crop.
The sun gives us light until the moon says to stop
The temple and mosque really say we are one.
The swing takes us high, up and down kind of fun
and music she gives us a world that is free
and dreams how they teach us just what we can be.
So I watched Get, I watched
and I learned how to give.
How to always have hope,
how to love and forgive
To compare myself down,
to feel thanked,
to want less
Get I learned to share more.
Get I learn to feel blessed.
Get. I learned to share more. Get, I learned to feel blessed.
Get, I learned to share more Get, I learned to feel blessed.
Thank you. We'll just take few moments of silence in gratitude, to close. And so that we are able to see and honor all these beautiful acts of generosity, which keep our life going. May we have the heart to not just give our left over time, but to have the heart, big heart, to give away our new ones. So many of your stories and your life has shown us all this. Thank you.
Thank you everyone. Thank you. And we'll see you in a couple of weeks and continue the conversation. Thank you all.