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From a 'good' teacher to a 'great' teacher!

The Innerkern Dialogue with Aparna Vasanshetty

At Innerkern, our Applied Education Research Team regularly engages in deep and enriching conversations with school leaders, teachers, and parents as we explore and analyze their practices within their socio-cultural context. We call such learning conversations the Innerkern Dialogue

Following are the highlights from The Innerkern Dialogue with Aparna Vasanshetty, a teacher by both heart and profession, where we seek to learn more about the professional development practices of a leading school in Haryana. Here, Aparna details her professional development experience with the school as a teacher. Her journey from being a 'good' teacher to a 'great' one as she worked there validates how making teacher professional development the topmost priority of a school positively impacts everyone there. 

Question: You have been a teacher for a long time and as you mentioned, the last school you worked with was a great learning experience for you. Could you tell us a little about the new practices that shaped your life as a teacher?

Aparna: Prior to joining this school, I was lucky to have worked in some of the best schools of the cities I was living in. All that experience helped me hone my teaching skills and as a person I was always an empathetic person. I always put myself in the shoes of my students as much as I could and the experience I was carrying from the other schools, helped me in holding my student’s attention in the class initially. That I felt was the first step as I started my work in the last school I worked in. Going forward I realized holding the attention by knowing your subject is just not enough. As a class teacher or subject teacher I had to make deeper connections in a more constructive way or they would get bored soon enough. I did face several challenges as there were some students who were very challenging to deal with. In all my previous schools, I would not have to bother much because these kids would have been called out by the principal and asked to behave etc. But this school was different. So the onus of being one with the child was on the teachers. The students had a deep bonhomie and the teacher had to learn to become a part of their group and be accepted as one of them. This was learning, at a whole new level for me personally. It was a slow and steady process, I had to rely on my intuition and I took nearly one whole year to figure it out completely. Teachers making inroads into being a part of the children's life was a slow process, which was keenly monitored in the school, without the burden of being watched. Every small positive act and things that need improvement would be noted and there was a fabulous feedback mechanism in place to handhold the teachers through this transition.

Question: How was monitoring made to be non threatening and what did the school do differently to make it graceful?

Aparna: The system was such that the monitoring was done with a positive intent, However there were a few teachers who felt it to be very inconvenient and left the school too. The school made it very clear that teachers were required to be up for the challenge of being an exceptional teacher. While they were ready to provide resources and support, the onus of changing itself was upon the teachers.

There was a seamless circle of connection from the principal, to the VPs, coordinators, HODs , students, parents and it came back to the teachers eventually. There was never any feedback taken from children or parents that would demean the stature of the teachers, Yet everyone in the system was empowered to speak up and bring to fore things of importance. It was a seamless dance of graceful mechanisms that worked around true empowerment and respect. Feedback was not always direct; it would be in the body language or the tone of the students sometimes and it was important for the teacher to be attuned to it.

Every teacher had to practice what you preach, Students would know how to measure you. They mostly followed the lead set by the teachers. If the teacher was not punctual and alert, the students would follow suit. The school made it clear that children can be vocal and challenge the teacher. Students being happy was a very important requirement in the school.

Question: How did the school manage to prepare the new teachers for this approach?

Aparna: Generally, it starts with the induction programme, which is conducted by a very senior teacher from the school, a teacher who might have spent a long time with this school and the school ethos are thoroughly embedded in her practices. I realized other than the set procedures of inducting you into the system, every one, including the most senior members of the school were always available to answer your queries and in a very subtle way, the aspect of ‘being responsive’ was embedded into the new teachers. Everyone around you practiced it in action as they were always available to make the school machinery function well.

The induction process would start within a week and there was time set aside for all involved to ensure that it is a seamless process. The finer aspects of the values like ‘empathy’ were not just mentioned, there were elaborate brainstorming sessions for teachers to imbibe it completely. During the induction process teachers were encouraged to voice out their problems and the teachers were very well supported.

I had a particular child who was very disruptive in my class and the whole issue was handled by the school mechanism in a very seamless manner, including the class teacher and the counselor, by getting to the root of the problem. There I learnt the importance of the Class Teacher (CT), who had to observe the students very closely for any kind of behavioral change. There was a particular case where a child was highly disruptive and when the teachers started talking to him about his behavior, he actually became very quiet and started internalizing his problem. The other children in the class started actively collaborating and helping the child come out of his situation and in two years I was mostly helped by the other students.

We had a two CT system. The two CT systems really helped, as a lot of energy went into handling the emotional aspects of the children. This particular child had gone on to improve very well, by directing him into areas of study that he was interested in. He thrived in the Model United Nations (MUN) activities and he did amazingly well by being the chair at MUN. Most of this work was done by me after I got back home after school. That is the level of engagement every member in the team was expected to have and not feel pressured. However, personally for me I feel highly accomplished having done all that work and having achieved such brilliant results.

Question: What did the school do to see that you are not stressed out and experience burn out?

Aparna: This is a very important question you have asked. One thing that stood out for me in this school is that no one was ever working hard alone and you would see that the principal and vice principal were the most relentlessly working people in the school. While I had only one child in my class to manage, they were involved with all such cases in the school and the detail of the work that they did was exceptional.

Every time there was an exceptionally high stress time, the leaders used to acknowledge it and thank all the educators for showing up and say ‘this too shall pass’. I personally went through a personal experience because my daughter was leaving for the US and I was not able to spend time with her and when I voiced this concern of mine, I was asked to take leave. I took leave for 4 to 5 days to spend some time with my daughter and the other teachers took care of my work. There were no complaints about the extra work. The HODs used to step in and see how the new scenario can be managed in a collaborative way. School was very caring in a personal way and everyone just had a culture to rise up to the occasion.

Question: How did the school manage this level of collaboration?

Aparna: The VP and Principal always had meetings with the HODs separately, with the coordinators separately , with counselors and subject teachers separately, with the CTs separately. Every form and every little matter was handled with care and efficiency. Only the teachers who were up for this level of engagement would stay on and the others would leave the system soon. There was also the fact that while work days were very busy, the weekends were completely undisturbed. The culture was completely like the corporates, there were impromptu meetings and change of plans and a complete agile system in place.

Question: The school as a system was well prepared for efficiency. So what are the few things that the school did to make you efficient?

Aparna: The staffing and the connectivity / communication between them was very seamless. The induction of staff was very well balanced with young and senior staff. As a new teacher started off, you were assigned a buddy. That was a very important aspect of your grooming. The buddy system was an effective way to start grooming you towards collaboration. The school did not have a bell to alert you. You were expected to be alert all the time. There was only a freeze bell that would go off from time to time, for every one to take a one min break, just drop everything and relax. Which was another small element that was brilliant. There was also extensive collaboration in lesson planning by the subject teachers and if any teacher went beyond the plan and did something different, that teacher was expected to share it with the other teachers, as a policy all the sections were supposed to teach the same kind of content across