Why are we blessed with a human life unless we can make a difference?

Why are we blessed with a human life unless we can make a difference?

says Mr Neelkanth Gupta, Principal, MCKV Howrah, West Bengal

Holding the post of a Principal is a challenging task. S/he is repository to all answers, to all the stakeholders. How does it feel?

Indeed, it is challenging, especially since it involves one person playing so many different roles—those of educator, teacher, administrator, event manager, mentor, counsellor, motivator. You have to have an idea of finances and human resource management. You are also the school’s spokesperson, and its face to the outside world. What not! Then you also have to shoulder the weight of the entire school community’s high expectations of you. In its essence, the Principal’s post is a leadership position, and leadership is an opportunity to serve human beings. Therefore, I focus on the three constituents of the school: my students, their parents, and my colleagues. I try to serve them by playing a supportive role in whichever way I can.

 Extraordinary dedication is required for this profession. What would you say?

Absolutely true, but dedication is required not only for the Principal’s position. It is required in any vocation. As educators, we are essentially caregivers. We look after the children, nurture them, and help them in their growth and development. Who would do this unless s/he enjoys the experience? And the moment one enjoys one’s work, one doesn’t count the minutes or the hours, and the devotion and commitment are automatic. In the end, it is all about the desire to make a difference—why are we born and why are we blessed with a human life unless we can make a difference and be of use?

Bringing passion to what you do is also important. I tell my senior students not to think of jobs and careers only in terms of money; the idea is to convert your passion into your profession. I tell them to ask themselves repeatedly whether they are making a difference. Earlier, school children were not really encouraged to think on such lines. In fact, schools used to keep children in line and in place by creating an environment of fear. We grew up in an environment of awe.  Corporal punishment was very much in. There would be a punitive response to the slightest slip-up, and nobody complained about it. But, such an environment wasn’t conducive to self-discovery or self-realisation. Fortunately, things are changing for the better and a new dawn is breaking on the education horizon. Teachers are beginning to understand the futility of aggression and violence in a teacher-student relationship. Children find it easier to accept and respect teachers who have a prepossessing personality, superior knowledge, and engaging communication skills—and this acceptance actually transforms into a love for the subject that such a person teaches. Unfortunately, not everyone is blessed with these qualities, but children do not understand that.

How do you motivate your colleagues who do not have these extra-ordinary qualities?

Look, not everyone comes into this world with the ability to be a change agent. However, I do believe that everyone, through patience, can be persuaded to extend agency to a state of affairs whose direction one is trying to change. What I mean is that everyone can be guided to play a constructive role in a process of change introduced intentionally or unintentionally. I also share my conviction with my colleagues that educators have to evolve into extraordinary people because extraordinary attributes are associated with this vocation. As educators, we operate in a sector, which distinguishes itself by the uncountable numbers of human beings, especially children, whose lives we touch and influence on a daily basis, and our preparation for involvement in such a sector cannot stop with a B. Ed or M. Ed. To stay relevant, you have to work on yourself continuously to enrich your personality, to keep your knowledge updated, and to ensure that your communication skills become increasingly compelling and engaging. There is no short cut. You have to be what you would like your children to be. Gone are the days when you could be content being a Physics teacher or a language teacher, and teach your subject for its own sake and looking on it as an end in itself.  To stay relevant, you have to expand the scope of the responsibility of teaching your subject of specialization, and the related classroom experience, by looking on it as an opportunity to help your students to become better human beings; to help them to use their minds to distinguish between right and wrong, what is beautiful and what does not so qualify, what is ethical and unethical; to encourage them to become thoughtful and sensitive; to help them increase their wisdom. That is the vision I share with my colleagues.

How tough is it to deal with parental aspirations?

Parents, by and large, have nothing but their children’s best interests at heart. But, since they are not educationists, they often find it difficult to grasp the nuances of contemporary pedagogical approaches in use in their children’s schools. So, now, we teachers have the additional responsibility of working out ways of getting them on the same page with us vis-à-vis their children’s education. Thus, one more constituent to educate! And indeed this is a new need. We believe that nothing worthwhile can be done with the children without parental support and approval. That is why we encourage our parents to look upon their relationship with us not as a confrontational one, but as one in which we are partners in their children’s progress. In an extreme case where we don’t get much support from the parents of a particular child, we develop alternative approaches to helping the child and try to compensate for the omission. Addressing the different aspirational expectations of parents is today very much a part of a school’s range of responsibilities.

How often do you get complaints of discipline from teachers? It is a major concern in schools these days.

In our context, discipline problems usually do not go beyond children being hyper-energetic and talkative. But, both these traits can be channelised into positive and productive directions. Thanks to the value-infused school environment my colleagues have created over the years, we do not have problems like substance abuse or liquor consumption. Of course, classes tend to be noisy at times, but that is not because of any major discipline issues. Gone are the days of the ‘silent’ classroom in which a teacher lectured and the students listened in silence. Today, teachers use technology in their smart classrooms. They use pedagogies and methodologies that require students to communicate and interact with each other and with their teachers. Today’s classrooms are better described as interactional learning spaces.

Do you believe in monitoring classes, specially the teachers?

I certainly go on rounds but not with the intention of catching somebody doing anything wrong. Being the head of school, it is important for me to know what is happening, whether everything is all right. Sometimes, as Principal, I need to make my presence felt. It’s important for people to know that the man in authority is around!

Secondly, supervision is different from trying to snoop, pry or being on the lookout to catch someone. If someone is the chief supervisor, he needs to check the establishment minutely— whether or not there is water in the taps, whether or not lights and fans are working properly. Likewise, I go and check if teachers have come on time and the teaching-learning process is running smoothly, if the children are attentive, and so on. I want to observe these things with my own eyes.

Now, in the rare event that I notice a shortcoming or lapse on the part of a colleague, I make sure to talk about it with her/him later in the privacy of my office. And there also my tendency is to know the reason for the shortcoming and not just to find fault with someone. Today, to run an organisation, we have to be people-oriented. One cannot run an organisation as large as MCKV through decrees issued by an invisible authority. Moreover, the important thing for a person in authority is to walk the talk. Therefore, to create credibility, ‘do as I do’ is far more effective than ‘do as I say’. More than anyone else, the children are very sensitive to these things. They are the first to notice if you do not practice what you preach!

The point is that, by nature, I am not a very hierarchical person and prefer to run the school in a flat, democratic and consultative way. I do not take any decisions without first consulting my colleagues. How is it possible for one man to know everything? It is understood that I am accountable for the consequences of the decisions because as the head of school, the buck stops with me!

Would you like to comment on the teacher training system of our country? Is the system at par?

It’s not my place to pass judgement on this matter, but I can share my views. I sometimes wonder if school education is really a priority in our society otherwise our teacher training system would not have been in the condition it is in. For a country to progress and develop, it needs a cutting edge teacher training system that trains high quality and high achieving individuals to become first-rate school teachers. Our children certainly deserve that. School teachers should be trained in the same way that doctors are trained in medical school, lawyers in law school, the way the army trains its officers, the air force its pilots, the Indian Administrative Service its officers. In Finland, university toppers compete with each other to get places in teacher training colleges where they are given a rigorous, five-year skill-based and research-oriented training that ends with their writing a thesis. The result is that their school teachers are highly educated, well-read, well-spoken, and high quality individuals who are worthy of serving as role models for the young. In terms of prestige and monetary compensation, the school teaching profession in Finland is at par with the professions of medicine and law. Singapore also attracts their finest students to take up school teaching as their profession after receiving a first class training similar to Finland’s. I hope one-day school teacher training in our country will compare favourably with these exemplary systems.

And, what about Principals’ training! In our country, a teacher becomes a Principal after several years of service, but then, s/he needs to fall back entirely on her/his own resources and research to meet the demands of the position because there is no formal arrangement for training teachers for this position. Educational leadership is a skill and discipline for which people need to be trained in its theories, principles, concepts and practices. Unlike the Indian Institutes of Management, which trains corporate leaders, there aren’t any parallel institutes to train school principals. We can attend seminars or workshops, but these are usually conducted by resource persons with very little actual experience of teaching in or heading a school. So, strange as it may sound, you are left with no other option but to teach yourself to do this all-important job.

Can’t we absorb their good policies for the well-being of our kids?

Why not? I am sure the Indian Government too has the best of intentions. The draft National Education Policy is pretty radical in scope, and the already existing National Curriculum Framework 2005 is a brilliant document. Teacher training has to be tackled on a war footing because education is all about teachers. We can never have a quality school education system without an equally high quality school teacher training system. World class infrastructure, heated swimming pools, air conditioned classrooms are not of much use unless there are excellent teachers around. For some strange reason, the teaching community has got sidelined in our scheme of things. Just look at the advertisements of the new schools that are coming up. They boast of state-of-the-art classrooms, media centers, sports facilities, air-conditioned buses, and so on, but no information on the faculty! And yet, education is essentially a social activity in which human and relational dynamics play a significant part. Therefore, it is vital for an educational institution to have a faculty comprising high quality educators.

Education to most people is all about exams and marks, and not about what the students in reality know and can do. This perception too has to change, otherwise the efforts to overhaul our education system might suffer a setback.

Was teaching always a passion for you?

Yes, from a young age I have had a flair for it. I instinctively felt I would be able to hold my students’ attention. I took to teaching like duck to water. I think it was my destiny! I did have other interests and dabbled in them, but ultimately came back to teaching.

Being in this post, do you get time to enrich yourself?

Well, there are twenty four hours in a day. It all depends on us how we utilise and manage our time. It is humorously said that it is the busiest person who has time to spare. And when someone says s/he doesn’t have the time to do something, it means s/he doesn’t want to do it. So, to answer your question, I do create time for my self-enrichment. How? I utilise my long, daily commute to school and back in reading and learning.

This much of dedication in professional life requires support from home and family. Isn’t it? Didn’t you ever face any complaints?

I am blessed to have a family that has always been very supportive. Both my wife and I are educators and our centre of focus has always been children. We spent a large part of our careers as residential school teachers, and, as you know, in residential schools, it’s a 24/7 involvement. Our daughter who was very young at the time would occasionally grumble that we prioritise other children over her! There was some truth in that, but we found ways and means of compensating for the lapse. She has grown up to be a wonderful person and is doing well in life.

It seems the best of schools, these days, are more into marketing and PR than cultivating curriculum and pedagogy. Is it so? 

See, when a school starts up, it needs to advertise to attract admissions. There is competition between the new private schools and this will continue. Since education is being commoditised, let me use a corporate or marketing analogy. You might persuade a person to buy your product once, but not a second time if it is not up to the mark. Therefore, the idea is to try to make the product so good that people automatically continue with it. Those who are unsure about their product resort to all sort of marketing gimmicks. But look at the players who are confident about the quality of their offerings. Schools in the private sector like Modern High School, La Martinere, the Loreto Schools, St. Xavier’s Collegiate School and the Don Bosco Schools, all in Kolkata, do not feel the need to ever market their services. What I am saying is that educational institutions indulging too much in marketing and PR are doing so because they are not very sure about themselves, or not making the money they had hope to. These days, many private schools have departments like business development, marketing and PR on the lines of a corporate company. I think this is a disturbing development, because while corporate culture is relevant in its own context, adopting it in schools can confuse their focus. Schools are in the social sector because educating the young is society’s bounden duty.

However, that does not mean we should not make our presence felt. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that. What is wrong is soliciting such publicity!

Mr Neelkanth Gupta is the Principal of M. C. Kejriwal Vidyapeeth, Howrah, West Bengal. He is an educationist by choice. An alumnus of St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Mr Gupta has a rich experience of 38 years as educator, teacher of English and French, and Principal in some of the finest schools in the country. His career began in St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling, West Bengal, followed by senior housemastership at The Lawrence School, Lovedale, Tamil Nadu. As part of the development team, he had spent more than a decade nurturing and building The Indian School, Al Ghubra, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. His institutional leadership experience includes the profile of Principal, The Heritage School, Calcutta, West Bengal; Senior Master (Vice Principal), Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.
Children and their education, reading, music, languages, travelling, aviation, France, Buddhism, games & sports are some of the areas of his interests. He has an advanced diploma in French from the Alliance Française, Paris.
With teaching and administrative experience over 30 years, he has been honoured with umpteen awards and accolades for quality education

Tell us something about your association with MCKV.

Oh! It’s been a wonderful experience. The foundation stone of the school was laid in 1997 and classes started from 1998. I joined MCKV in 2009 and it has been my privilege and honour to be part of a very dedicated and talented team that has worked very hard to bring the school up to its present level under the guidance of our inspirational Vice Chairman, Sri Kishan Kumar Kejriwal.

Accolades, awards, and accreditations have been generously and steadily streaming in by way of recognition of the school’s achievements in several of its curricular areas—the Telegraph School of the Year Award, the British Council International School Award, the Education World Survey which placed our school among the top ten boys’ day schools in Kolkata and West Bengal; being the second school in India after the Doon School to be granted membership of the prestigious California based International Boys’ Schools Coalition in whose annual international conferences we have been taking an active part regularly. We were the first school in Howrah and the second in West Bengal to be accredited by the National Accreditation Board of Education and Training; our children are toppers at the national level in the board exams and go on to be accepted in the best colleges, institutes, and universities in the country; our Boy Scouts, for the second consecutive year, received the Governor’s award; we have a thriving NCC programme; our budding sportsmen regularly play at the District and State levels; hundreds of our children work tirelessly and selflessly in social and community service projects… .The exhilarating journey continues!

MCKV is under CISCE. Is there any specific reason behind choosing the board? Is there any plan to be associated with CBSE in future in another branch?

We do sometimes toy with the idea of opening a branch with affiliation to the other board, but, honestly, the choice of board hardly matters. What matters is the kind of learning experiences we create for our children on a daily basis. Children will do well in any examination provided their understanding and concepts of the syllabus-dictated topics of the subjects are sound. To go back to CISCE vs CBSE, we see the gradual convergence between the two boards in some curricular areas. For example, there’s no longer much of a difference between the Classes 11 and 12 Science syllabuses of these two boards.

To answer your first question as to why our school chose to be affiliated to CISCE, I think at the time of its foundation, what our Trustees took into consideration was the freedom and flexibility the Council allowed its schools at the lower and upper elementary levels (Classes 1 to 8). Schools had the freedom to design their own curricula at these stages as long as they conformed to the learning objectives specified by the Council.  But now, the Council decides the curriculum right from pre-school.

Would you like to share any message with our readers?

Let’s make children, their well-being and education our first priority. The course that our nation will take in the future depends entirely on how our children are evolving in the here and now. We must never judge children on the basis of exam performances. It’s high time we aspired to a broader vision of achievement. Finally, the responsibility of helping children to evolve into sensitive, thoughtful, creative, and compassionate human beings cannot be outsourced entirely to educational institutions. The entire society has to be involved in this process. Let us not forget the African proverb: ‘It takes an entire village to raise a child’.