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To Aishu Didi, with Love—Sitting Down with Aishwarya Shetty

Aishwarya Shetty decided to veer off the beaten path when she became a teacher after completing her engineering degree. An MIT alumnus, she taught in an orthodox Muslim neighbourhood as a Teach For India Fellow. A  batchmate of hers, Athyunnath Eleti, recently produced a documentary film which follows her journey as a teacher. The Post had the opportunity to speak to her about work and her thoughts on education at a recent screening of the film. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your work?

I graduated as a Computer Science engineer and then did the Teach for India Fellowship for two years in Hyderabad. After that, I decided to stay back in the education sector. I wanted to work in the backend and see what goes into curriculum design, so now I am working at the grassroots level, designing curriculum for villages schools across India.

Why did you apply for the Teach for India Fellowship after graduating as an engineer?

I think the state of engineering in India has a way of engendering frustration amongst its students, and this was a deciding factor for me. I was a Computer Science student, and I was not allowed to use my laptop in class, which I found quite ironic. This was not a problem just in engineering, but something that irked me throughout my schooling. I felt that some drastic changes were necessary in the education sector.

I have also always had an affinity for teaching. At every point in my life since grade eight, I have been a teacher or a tutor of some sort. Even in Manipal, we used to go to the Beedinagudde slums and teach there. I remember during my internship, I would go to work every morning, code, and then come back home to realise that this is not something I want to do every day when I’m twenty-two years old. I wanted every day to be unpredictable, and because I already was into teaching, I applied for the fellowship, which looked interesting, and then I got selected.

When your friend approached you to make a film about the work you are doing, what was your reaction and what made you agree to do it?

I was initially very hesitant because, for me, my priority was my students. I had clearly told Athyu (Athyunnath Eleti) that if at any point I feel that even a single child in my classroom is feeling uncomfortable with the camera, you will have to stop filming and go out. In any case, I think he did a really good job. For a couple of days, he just used to come to class and bond with the kids. That is something that they are trained to do in the university where he studies. They are taught to be like a fly on the wall so that the person being filmed is not aware that there is a camera in the classroom. I think once he established a comfortable bond with the kids, even I sensed that my children were not different people in front of the camera.

What did it feel like to see yourself as the subject of a film? 

After watching the film, I wish I had made more of an effort to look nice! I was worried that parents would have a problem with someone recording their children. The very thought of a girl walking around the streets with a boy filming her was foreign and inappropriate to the people of the community. But the movie helped me see the changes that had taken place in my students. Since I was a part of the process, I didn’t always notice the changes, and that was demotivating at times. When I saw the film, I realised that my students had become more eloquent and confident.

Did you notice any changes in your students and your fellow teachers at the end of your Fellowship?

My students have become more courageous and confident. Some of them recently went to places like Hong Kong, ISRO and Mumbai. Their parents have also become far more open-minded. The same parents who used to be hesitant to send their girls out for project work, are now asking me why their daughters are not going to ISRO or Mumbai. That’s one major shift that I saw.

My kids are now able to distinguish between what they really feel, and what they present to others. I’m a big fan of self-awareness, and it is something that I tried to bring to attention in my class every single day. Maybe even through the books that they read, they became more self-aware, and they were able to identify their feelings. They would come to me and say things like, “Didi, I think now this is the real side speaking,” and, “Maybe I’m not showing my real side to people.” That was another significant change that I saw.

I think regarding the schoolthe teachers are more energetic now. When we were there, Independence Day and Republic Day were celebrated for the first time in 15 years. We conducted a lot of events, and the teachers learnt from that, and now they are conducting events on their own. I think there is a lot of activity in the community, in the school, and also a lot more open-mindedness now. These are some of the things that I felt really proud about when I left the school. The last day was especially very painful for me; it was almost like a tear-fest.

The school where you taught was in a very conservative locality. What were the problems that you faced in that regard?

I think the first, was acceptance. That was a challenge for me. I mean acceptance by virtue of my religion, and by virtue of the way I looked. I must have looked very intimidating, and people wondered who this tall girl, walking around the streets not wearing a burqa, was.  The community is very resistant to people of other religions because they feel that they might corrupt their kids. Although not all parents are like that, a majority of them did think that way. It took a lot of meetings and interactions with the parents to slowly build trust. The very rigid and fixed mindsets of the kids, the staff, and the parents were also a contributing problem. They believed that this is what they’ve always seen, this what they know, and this is what they’re always going to do. There is no space for any new ideas or novel ways of doing things.

Image Source: From the documentary Aishu Didi by Athyunnath Eleti via the NYU News & Doc Film Festival

How were you able to bring about even a small change in that rigid mindset?

I think building relationships was key. Once a student begins to trust their teacher and realises that whatever this person is going to do now is for my benefit, they will listen. And once a child is ready to listen to you, and really soak in what you are saying, bringing about change in them is an easy process. But to get to the point where you have won the trust of the children is a Herculean task.

I am generally very good at talking with people, so I would spend a lot of time talking with the kids outside school. I would go and chill with the guys and also spend a lot of my time talking to the girls. But what I think really helped the most was letter writing. I used to write around forty to fifty letters every two days, and I would get that many replies in return. They wouldn’t be open with me outright, but they would write the most personal things about their families and their homes in letters. Back in Bangalore, I have an entire box full of the letters from my kids. The letter writing seemed to seal the deal because it got very personalI would write personal letters to my kids, especially the girls, and they would talk about periods, their families, crushes, falling in love, and sex in their letters.

In order to win the trust of the parents, I made an effort to understand Islam, and I would try to tell the parents that I am on their side. I wanted to tell them that Islam is empowering, but your interpretation of it should not limit your child. I would pay namaaz with the kids, and I attempted to build relationships and be a part of their community. Once a single parent understood what I was trying to convey, my message spread by word of mouth and the parents decided that they could trust me. My principal was also extremely supportive and really helped me out.

Government schools in India do have teachers who want to help children, but they are not always able to impart quality education. What do you think is coming in the way of that?

If you are speaking specifically concerning government teachers, I think their administrative work overpowers their time and space to teach. Government teachers are paid well, and the National Curriculum Framework of India is beautiful, so on paper, our education system is amazing. The problem comes in because teachers end up doing more of everything else other than teaching. You are taking the teachers’ help during elections, for all the admin work, and every state has its own kind of testing schemes, tracker entering, and marks entering systems. At the same time, these government teachers have to manage a classroom of up to 60 students. It is really quite overwhelming. Even a very invested person, without the leisure to think about what they want to do with their classroom, will end up feeling exhausted. Teachers need to be given the space and freedom to impart education.

Many organisations are working towards implementation, but I feel that if a teacher is limited to just teaching and maybe assessments, it will help. But now, government teachers specifically, are caught up in a lot of other things. We either have to find the human resources to take care of their administrative duties, or we have to find a way to manage a teacher’s time. But without the government’s help, it is going to be impossible. Concerning private school teachers, corruption is the issue. But that is another problem altogether.

Teaching is a very important profession because teachers are the ones moulding future citizens. But we do not see a lot of young people wanting to become teacherswhy do you think that is?

I think it is because of a lack of dignity of labour in India, in general. You get dignity in being an engineer or a doctor, but you don’t have dignity in being a farmer or a teacher. I think that’s the kind of mindset that has been cultivated over many years. The lack of dignity of labour especially matters in the pay scale. In India, a respectful job is associated with the kind of money that it makes. Even if a politician is corrupt, but he has power and money, he’s respected. Subconsciously, we equate power and respect with money, and until recently teachers have been paid a minuscule amount. Therefore teaching was not given a lot of importance. But that trend is changing, because young people now want to move to the education sector. As I said in the beginning, many young people like engineering graduates are getting disillusioned with their jobs. They are wondering what they are doing with their lives and how they are really affecting anyone.

A lot of platforms, like Teach for India, map such people to the right areas where they can actually make a difference. In terms of incentive, I think a lack of money prevents people from pursuing teaching. It is very weird to tell somebody that you are a teacher. It is not so for me because I am very proud of my job, but my mom and dad would tell me to say I’m an engineer and not a teacher. I think there’s still a lot of gap in the kind of dignity a teacher is given. If you raise the pay scale of a teacher to that of a doctor or engineer, you will see how incentive will automatically be born.

Is there anything else you would like to add that students might be interested in knowing?

I think no matter what you do in life, it should be driven by a purpose. If you want to work in Microsoft, go for it, but it should be driven by a purpose. I see a lot of people from my batch and from the subsequent batches who are just very purposeless. They are easily fooled by very materialistic incentives which fade away eventually. College is a great time for you to explore and you should make the most of it. I explored teaching slum children in college during most of my third year. I think students should use the platforms available to them to explore and think about what it is that gives them a sense of purpose. That is something that will change over time, but they should think about what it is that they want to work on as of now.

Featured Image Credits: The documentary Aishu Didi by Athyunnath Eleti