“A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman.” – Melinda Gates
Sadly, as an educationist, that is not what I witnessed getting materialised in educational institutions that are ideally supposed to nurture young, confident girls. that’s not what I have seen being taught to young girls who are learning to ‘be’. To be a part of the education system – as a girl who went to an all-girls school as well as as a teacher, the environment has been far from empowering. When I ponder on the relevance and importance of an educational institution, especially for girls, I envision an environment that strongly believes in providing holistic education to women so that they grow and make a better world for each other. Yet, the teachers who are supposed to be the nurturers of these young minds, reassuring them that their mistakes do not define them, are often the first to alienate them, making it a hostile learning environment for everyone, not just the girls.
I was brought up in an institution that believed in ‘taming’ all growing women. You see, in an all-girls schools, one can’t get away with judgements and policing. Not only were the teachers around us quick to draw conclusions about our ‘character’; staff-rooms were filled with prejudices too. “Why is your hair open?” “Why is your skirt so short?” “Why are you hanging out with girls older than you?” But I always hoped that when I grow older, there will be a change of course. Until I myself stepped on to the other side, that is become a teacher, I held onto the belief that schools were fast changing into grounds for planting and nurturing the ‘strong woman’ seed in young girls. I realised soon that was wrong.
“You shouldn’t be sitting with girls ‘like these’ and chatting. The authorities might question you and you have just joined, you see. I am telling for your good,” said a female teacher. A few months ago, I was working in an all-girls school where I was teaching teenage girls. As a teacher of English, I used to get opportunities to talk beyond books and that made me look approachable to many of my students. Some of them used to come and share their feelings; about them struggling with their identities, about ‘boy’ issues, about studies, doubts in Mathematics even, and some of them even confided in me their moments of extreme sadness. It is important to note that the school, meanwhile, had no professional counsellor. A retired teacher was appointed as one and used to counsel girls on and off. In some moments of distrust and disorientation, my students used to catch me in the corridors, hoping for some time to talk. And that is what, the other teacher had ‘cautioned’ against – students confiding And I stand guilty of giving in to that thought and distancing myself from my students. Those teachers continued being a ‘police’ whose utmost responsibility was to teach ‘girls’ how to behave like a ‘girl’ and those young women lost a bit of them with each passing day.
As I look back, I see myself standing with young girls who would grow up to be artists, managers, web designers etc. And when some of these women go through times of stress, I fear they might just shut themselves down or not know who to talk to only because, they, in their foundation years, were taught to better ‘keep it to themselves’. And this vivid picture in my head disturbs me.
As an educator, my vision has been to educate students from a holistic approach, guide them as they seek meaning of the good, bad and the in-between in the world. And from within a faulty education system, for several teachers, there are more dead ends than promising routes ahead. Ever since I completed my schooling in 2013 till now, nothing has changed, especially in terms of empathetic educational training. This reflects highly in how in the name of comprehensive sexuality education, there is one chapter in Biology that explains the reproduction in humans (which is also, the fastest a teacher skimmed through a lesson) and separate sessions for girl children on menstruation, in co-educational schools. None of which, is enough. Since the time I received my education (back in 2013) till now, nothing has changed. ‘Sex’ continues to be a taboo when the school should be a safe space for students to discuss these topics without being scared of judgment or chastisement. It is imperative that every school has well-trained counsellors. At the same time, a teacher needs to re-examine her role too.
I can never forget how my class teacher in eleventh standard told us WHY we should think twice before we enter into relationships at that age. In the way she chose to communicate to us, she made a bunch of us teenagers realise that it is fine that we are attracted to men around us but then that’s what it is – attraction! Back then, this itself was reassuring to know that a teacher was not vilifying us for liking someone, and that stayed with me for long. Therefore, I believe in the idea that the teachers’ role is not limited to teaching lessons. There needs to be a trusting relationship between the teacher and the students, in the safe space that the school provides, so that the students know that it is imperative that they speak up and share. If we are wondering why is this a generation grappling with mental health concerns, then school is a fundamental area that needs to be re-evaluated. Because schools should realise and be accountable for the chaos they have created by shutting down bright, young minds from speaking.
Apeksha started her career as a teacher in Dubai and eventually moved back to passionately contribute to the education system in her own country – India. She has worked with organisations like NDTV and Teach for India and is currently working as a Teacher Trainer at an ed/tech firm called LEAD School. Apart from loving her job, she also enjoy poetry, reading multiple books at a time and hoarding ethnic silver jewellery. She can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
Featured Image Source: LiveWire