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 the grades, which I feel was another seamless mechanism to build collaboration.
Question: Aparna you mentioned that every single person in the school, irrespective of their position, was always open to helping you when you needed help. You also mentioned that small things like bothering for your own food etc. is taken care of by the school by providing you food. What are the other supportive mechanisms that enabled learning and teaching at school?
Aparna: Adoption of new teaching methodologies that are not teacher centric was another important aspect. I was sent to learn about differentiated teaching techniques. These strategies were taught by experts from outside the school and teachers across the forms were put for one workshop after the other for continuous capacity building, which got translated into classrooms during the planning sessions. Every year there were several lacs put aside for continuous professional development of the teachers. Teachers were also openly encouraged to choose any particular area that they wanted to develop themselves in, within the country or abroad. But the teachers were expected to come back after the course and induct it into the system of the school.
Question: You mentioned the numerous meetings that you all had with each other. What were you guys talking about?
Aparna: The meetings were about different things like the extracurricular, inter grade teachings etc. Every year the Principal and VP would schedule meetings for every department. Before we went for the meetings we had to be ready with what we did, what worked, what went wrong and what were the challenges we face, what we started and did not work and what is the change we are proposing. The strategies had to change all the time, so that would be discussed too. The teachers were always expected to have their own meetings to be ready for the meetings with the principal etc. Starting from worksheet, questions paper, lesson plans, teaching approaches etc. were critically discussed and only then it would be finalized.
Question: You mentioned planning the lesson together could you tell us a little more about the process you followed?
Aparna: Yes, while we meticulously planned the lessons with the activities, questions, sequence etc. during the lesson we could do something impromptu and if we felt that it worked out well, we would have to go and share it with the other teachers of the form so the same activity is repeated in all the sections of the form.
Question: Every time a teacher goes to a new system and has to adapt new methods of working, we see there is resistance to change. What are some of the practices the school has in place to collapse resistance and get a buy-in from the new staff?
Aparna: The fact that there is constant ‘Constructive’ feedback from various people, steers you in a gentle way. There is also the aspect of the personality to this because I was a positive person and wanted to learn more every time. Sometimes individuals are not up for this kind of change and expectations and then they leave the system.
Feedback is handled with a lot of sensitivity. Sometimes the feedback is sent through a friend just so that a particular individual won't be offended. When children give feedback it is handled with a lot of caution to ensure that the particular teacher doesn’t become a laughing stock. Teachers are required to be supportive of each other and be very responsible for each other. Empathy is expected to be a lived reality, to be exercised even with the teachers and other staff. This was even a part of our Annual Confidential Report (ACR.) We were expected to give ourselves marks and then the principal would mark us and put comments. The ACR itself was a fabulous mechanism to infuse several qualities into the system.
Question: So it was more of an open, reflective, supportive culture. Were these the three core culture components?
Aparna: There were others, firstly like, sheer professionalism was very encouraging, conducive work environment and functioning as a team, for me it was an enriching experience.
Secondly, student centric teaching, adoption of new methodologies and technical skills to teach. There was a strong technical department and we were taught one new software after the other. It was a very well structured mechanism. The teachers were paid very well too. One of the top qualities is to not have any ego, and availability of people when you needed help was phenomenal. Open appreciation of people was amazing. Every year once a year, 15 min interaction with the principal and you were allowed to speak your mind and say anything you wanted to. There was also a form that was sent taking feedback about senior management and you were expected to be absolutely truthful. The exit interview was beyond amazing, there was feedback and personal expectation / challenges discussed about every single department in the school.
Equality and respect was actively practised and six months after induction every teacher had to go through a board and were asked what are the things they liked and did not like in the school. The student election was another very democratic and keenly directed activity for children to learn the quality of healthy competition and regard for the other.
My journey as a teacher has been an enriching one, but I now know that for a teacher to function at her best, it is important for the school to provide an ecosystem for evolved functioning.