I have just completed a month of volunteering at Shanti Bhavan. This has been part of my gap year in which I have also been to Florida and Quebec in Canada. I have also made plans to travel around China in the month of July. I will enroll in Stirling University in September to study International Relations in a Master’s Degree.

My time here has been, above all else, a fantastic experience for me. This is my first visit to India, and even though I had read
Dr Abraham George’s book “India Untouched” nothing could have prepared me for this. I had only a two-day gap between my trip to Canada and my trip here. My trip to Canada was a ski expedition for middle class British Gap Students. So, firstly temperatures of – 40 and the concept of skiing was very different to rural South India! Socially also it was completely different with well-off British teenagers spending thousands of pounds of clothes, eating out, and excess living, compared to families of the students of Shanti Bhavan earning barely
1 dollar a day.

Enough digression from myself; and onto my time here in
Shanti Bhavan. My teaching responsibilities were to teach History to the 9th grade, Geography to the 8th grade, and English to the 8th, 7th, and 6th grade.  I enjoyed teaching these lessons immensely due to the civil way the students act and their thirst for learning. These subjects came quite quickly to me at school and I was able, I hope, to teach efficiently and effectively. My lesson style is informal without being out of control, and these lessons were fun for me and for the students.

I am a strong believer in class contribution and I frequently asked questions to the students, but not necessarily to the students who put their hands up! It can be the case where a few students can easily dominate proceedings, and I try to have each member of the class make a telling contribution during the course of the lesson. Such lessons such as Spelling and Dictation can be terribly boring in title, but these lessons proved to be one of the most enjoyed lessons throughout the week. I included some English slang such as “snazzy” and also the spelling of the German Philosopher Ludwig Wigginistein (not even sure if that is correct!) in one particular class. Other highlights were most definitely the World Wars 1 and 2 lessons to the present 9th grade. This is a topic which I found fascinating as a student and I believe the members of the class did too. Though these lessons involved myself talking a lot and making frequent amendments to the map, the occasional gasp and open mouthed expression from several of the students confirmed their thrill for this period in History.

My other main responsibility was the Games sessions both early morning and evening for grades 1-9. I therefore got to teach almost the entire school. Sport has been a huge part of my life ever since I was able to walk, and my addiction to it will remain for the rest of my life. In Sport, humans as a whole can connect in a way that no other activity can provide. Life skills such as compassion, determination, and responsibility are all brought to the games field. I saw a drastic improvement in all students in the sports of football, tennis, and volleyball. In particular, football, which I have been able to give my most time to, has seen an extraordinary improvement!  My first football session with grades 6-9 resembled a group of 20 players (excluding the keepers we were in the correct position i.e. the in-goal area) kicking and pushing in the small area around the ball. Three weeks later they were spread out across the pitch and playing real football -- passing to each other (it appeared never to have happened before), moving into space (again “nhb”) and scoring frequently (rarely happened before). Rishab and I held many weekend sessions on the grass area outside the dinning hall, for which, in the main, 9th grade boys were involved. This helped close control, touch, and overall perception of the game, which is vital in a good player. I think we held a few too many sessions, as the student team was victorious over the teacher’s team in a match we played!

My other duties included library work, helping out in the moving of stores, bedtime reading, and sorting of the DVD and VCR collection which, at the time of writing, have all not yet been completed! I also provided grades 8 and 9 with ring binding files to keep their work in order. Many of them previously had many loose sheets, which were untidy and frequently lost. These files are for use in the 10th standard for the present 9th grade, and for the 9th and 10th Standard for the present 8th grade. At the start of the new academic year, the 7th grade will have files too. Shanti J has promised.

So these are my overall comments on Shanti Bhavan and the
George Foundation as a whole. I feel that perhaps most importantly the children of SB are a huge success story. The kids never fail to amaze me day after day - their sponge-like minds remember facts and the rapid pace at which they learn. They are not only hardworking intelligent children, but are turning into fantastic human beings too, which, as the mission statement shows, is a very important aim of Shanti Bhavan. The Shanti Bhavan motto rings loud and clear in the children’s minds of being the “best they can be”.

The eradication of poverty in India can be done most effectively by a high standard of education. I do feel that at Shanti Bhavan the children do receive a very high standard in comparison not only to India but worldwide. However the school can always improve and the school must actively aim to improve day by day in all departments. There is a large feeling of naiveté and innocence throughout the children, which has not been caused by them, but the way the school is like a Garden of Eden in an “evil” world.

As the children grow in age and mind they must engage in more out of school activities and thinking “outside of the box” exercises to prepare them for the real world. One weekend a group of young IT professionals who are regular visitors and supporters of the school, came in for an afternoon and the 9th and 8th grade were engaged in several activities. One in particular caught my eye when each member of the class was asked for positive criticisms of their friends. The effect on the children was immense, showing their true inner feelings. These kinds of experiences I actively encouraged, and should, I feel, occur more frequently throughout the school year.

On the subject of positive criticisms, I am going to make a few myself about the school. Firstly, there seems to be a large problem with Bureaucracy throughout the school in terms of levels of authority which unfortunately has affected all areas. Now I myself was at boarding school only a matter of months ago, and I understand better than most that to run a school you need rules and you need leaders. However this has gone too far here, and the people in higher authority seem to be squashing any kind of creativity within the teachers and in some cases, volunteers. There were many times I saw this and one particular example will highlight this. Another volunteer and I were showing a film, which would have concluded my study of the World Wars. Now firstly the girls were not allowed to watch the film in the boys’ dorms because it was deemed inappropriate. Although not only was I present and another volunteer present, but two aunties, too. This was ridiculous but we moved to the KG room anyway and we were just putting the film in the player to start watching, when lo and behold a member of staff stopped us. Because the class teacher had not been told that we planned to watch this particular film, we were not allowed to watch it. Although I was the assistant teacher of the World War lessons, and I was using this film as an educational tool, the residential staff member did not permit me.

Remarkably we were allowed to watch another film which was not educational instead. There are several other instances where things like this happened. I likened it to the situation of the European Union where due to the large bureaucracy there is a lot of discussion but very little action. I feel there needs to be more connection within the staff collectively as a whole, otherwise I fear that sectarian groups will form even more so, which will create a bad atmosphere and have a negative effect on the children.

I also feel that the lesson plan for each week is another piece of needless bureaucracy, which the school could do without. The teachers should still plan the lessons, but have their own independent plan. This would allow teachers more freedom and add a more creative edge. The teachers should be given more responsibility in their lessons and so should the volunteers while they are here. I feel the lesson plan is a waste of time, and crumples creativity juices within the teachers.

Secondly attention to detail is something in which the school needs to improve. I am astonished that after 9 years that the idea of files has never come up. Other things such as the state of sports equipment - the tennis net is utterly unusable, and there is a lack of good balls too for football and volleyball. The sporting equipment room itself is very dusty and dirty and it’s impossible to know what is inside because of its disorganized state. I suggest that things be moved to the storage to create space. 

In my young life I have been fortunate enough to be in social contact with adults from an early age and traveled extensively meeting numerous people. I have also been in several places of work as an employer which my CV shows. I have also been blessed with a good judge of character from an early age due to all this. I have seen unfortunate cases of teachers using the school as a way to increase their authority and social standing in society. They should be primarily teachers who strive to give their best to the children, and not use them as a tool for self-proclamation. It is very obvious to me in the way they speak, act, and their body language in this regard. I feel that such teachers need to change their ways or leave, as they have no place in a school like this, which promotes fairness, equality, and hard work.

In addition the way the children hold the pen has not been looked at in detail. In an English lesson I saw several incorrect ways of holding the pen from a number of different students both in 8th, 7th and 6th grade. Many teachers have been complaining of poor handwriting but have not realized that poor grip has been a large part of that problem. Another detail not addressed has been the planning of work. Teachers have set work - an example being a Creative Writing piece, without asking the student to plan before writing. Thus without planning, work becomes disorganized and jumbled. So during my English classes I encouraged a change in writing grip and a brief plan before writing.

At the ages of 10,11,12,13 and older, students accumulate more knowledge and are more likely to work quicker and in some cases in a more disorganized manner. Thus handwriting as a result will become untidy in certain students and I know this as well as anyone as I had the same difficulty during my school career. The connection between what information the brain is holding and then the transfer of knowledge onto the page is something which needs to be looked at and assessed.

I hope that these criticisms will be taken in good faith and I know that as a volunteer I had only had a month in which to experience this school life. I could have easily written a book on how great the school is and what a fantastic faculty The George Foundation provides. The fact is I fear that that would be useless and I am sure many before me have complimented in detail the school and The George Foundation projects and work. Criticisms, I feel, make us better human beings and can help us achieve greater things.

In conclusion I would like to say that all Staff (kitchen, teachers, ground, aunties, and health workers, and most of all the children) has made me feel very much at home and have extended such kindness which I have rarely experienced in my life. The setup and the way every single person at this school conducts herself or himself are a credit both to India and to the education system as a whole. The school is providing a better education than many schools in my country, and the way the children behave and act is outstanding and should be an example to every young student worldwide. I will most definitely return, I hope, with members of my family and I would love to be here when the current 9th graders graduate from12th standard.  I wish everybody here the best of luck and I hope they can achieve their dreams. The children at this school can achieve anything they want; all they have to do is to take the chance they have been given and use it to the best of their advantage.

Justin Taylor

April 12, 2007

Management Notes: (1) Supervised visits by boys and girls to each other’s dorms in groups are permitted with prior approval from the residential administrator. (2) Shanti Bhavan attempts to develop teachers as well, and lesson plans are considered an essential (and required by the accreditation agency) part of that effort.

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