It was in early 2010 that my husband and I put an end to the eternal NRI debate of “Should we move back to India or not?”. We packed the contents of our tiny suburban London two bed in to 70 boxes and set sail for India with our toddler son in tow.
While my husband settled down to corporate life in Mumbai, I thought my number one priority would be to find a place to live. I found out how ridiculous an idea that was at a dinner party we attended during our first week in the city.
“A flat? Sod that. You need to get your son admitted in school. Pronto.”
“But he’s only two” I feebly protested.
“Which means you’re already very, very late.”
“Call the schools now. Beg. Grovel. Lie. Go to their gates and refuse to leave. Visit them every day till they see you and register his name.”
The idea that I would have to stage some kind of Dharna to give my son in to school put me off my crème brulee. But of course this was but the first of many such appetite killing conversations that I was to have over the weeks that followed regarding schools. I was told that interview coaching classes were a must and feeder nurseries were what I should be looking for. Some people just looked at me with pity writ across their face.
I couldn’t believe that getting in to a school was that hard. That there wasn’t one school out there that didn’t want parents to register their fetuses and didn’t require three year olds to know what an asparagus was.
And so began my search for something else.
When I first started researching alternative schools in Mumbai, I remember being asked “Alternative? What does that mean?”, “Please, put him in a ‘normal’ school” and “What’s wrong with the kind of schools we went to as children?”
Ah, but I knew exactly what was wrong with the kind of school I went to. Dull classes where long passages on conduction waves, Moghul architecture and calculus were recited in seemingly never ending monotony. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some things my very rigid education taught me. The importance of hard work and the mantra ‘practice makes perfect’ were all drilled in to me from an early age. But my schooling also taught me that there is only one correct answer and only one right way to solve a problem. That science and mathematics were more important than history and geography. And that doing well in exams was the most important thing. Everything else fell to the side at the altar of the mid term. No scope for creativity, free thinking or answers that lay outside the realm of the all important ‘syllabus’.
I wanted something different for our son. I wanted him to enjoy learning about the atom and relish e.e. Cummings with equal gusto. I wanted his curiosity to be encouraged not nipped in the bud. While I agree that many of these things can be inculcated at home, the more time one spends in school the more sway those hours have over a child’s brain. I wanted a school that would work with me in nurturing my child’s individuality.
But everywhere I went I met playgroup and nursery teachers who spoke about curriculum and study-play balance and an IB syllabus for toddlers. I was told about preparing children for school interviews and enabling them to face the stiff competition of modern day India. All I could think was “He is only two” and “Will I ever find the kind of school I’m looking for?”
Apparently I would. A chance conversation with a blog friend of mine lead me to the school my son would ultimately enrol in.
“There’s a fantastic school very close to where you’ve seen an apartment. Look up their website. The school’s name is Shishuvan and it’s in Matunga.”
As luck would have it, the school was having an open day for their Nursery admissions and my husband, son and I went to check it out.
I was surprised. Far from the dour office staff I had dealt with at other schools, at Shishuvan people were friendly, courteous and helpful. They actually smiled!
I liked the open door policy Shishuvan had. That we could walk in to their bright airy classrooms and ask their teachers questions.
Shishuvan believes that learning is a shared responsibility between students, teachers and parents. That it should be meaningful, relevant, and life-long for the learner and teacher. The school should feed the child’s innate curiosity, stimulate creativity and concern through actual hands-on, developmentally appropriate experience and reflection. And most importantly, that all children can learn and different students may demonstrate learning in different ways.
Central to Shishuvan’s philosophy is the idea that all of us: students, parents, teachers, administrative and support staff all hold an equal stake in the school. The great thing is the school’s philosophy and vision statement aren’t just words they use to fill the pages of their bright and cheerful website. They walk the talk. Frequent Parent-teacher meetings consist of small presentations on learning followed up by a forum in which parents can give suggestions, feedback and make complaints. Parent Sabha meetings deal with the issues raised effectively. Each and every sports day, school fair and annual day are followed up with surveys asking parents what they liked, didn’t like and what they think could have been done better. And in return, they ask for our a little bit of our time. Our time. We help make the backdrops for plays. We volunteer to man some of the stalls at the school fete. We accompany the class on excursions. I think it’s a more than fair deal.
The question I am most often asked regarding alternative schooling is whether my child will have that competitive edge. If he’ll be able to go head to head with the best of mainstream education in competitive exams and interviews. But if you’re taught from a young age that you are your own competition and that the only thing you need to beat is your own past performance then children will naturally shine. Having said that, alternative schooling isn’t for every one. The more relaxed pace of learning in pre-primary could give some sleepless nights over whether their children are ‘keeping up’ with their peers.
Not to say that they aren’t learning. Frequent field trips, audio visual, music and story sessions have taught my son a number of things this year. There’s a great deal of stress laid upon experiential learning. My son has fed cows, made chocolate laddoos and bought tomatoes from a subziwallah at a time when some schools are asking middle school parents to buy their children expensive tablets as learning aids. At a recent Parent-Teacher meeting, my son’s teacher said “We’ve been focusing on having fun this year.” I’m not complaining.
And neither is my son. Each and every day he comes home with paint stained feet and hands, glitter in his hair and a big smile on his face. His answer to my daily question of “How was school today” is an unwavering “FUN!” And I have a feeling that he’ll be giving me the same answer ten years from now.
(This piece appeared in the ParentSpeak section of http://www.kiducere.com)