‘Are you able to see my background?’ asked a calm Kalyani as she was getting into gear to share her experiences and opinions in response to a myriad of questions surrounding her work as an avant-garde educator and environmental activist. The virtual background in question consisted of a lone sea turtle encircled by plastic bags, submerged in clear blue water — a tribute to the challenges faced by her coastal residence of Visakhapatnam, India.

Changing mindsets

Kalyani first took notice of these challenges in 2014 when she returned to India after a stint abroad as a Human Resource consultant. This was also around the time when Kalyani first got involved in the education world and realised that, ‘these are the little hands who can create a lot of change within parents and the community’. Now she facilitates the annual Ocean Conservation Conference under the name of Save Our Beaches, where children from the school she teaches come up with campaigns and run drives to do their bit in helping the environment.

With Kalyani’s guidance, her students undertake projects in rural and government schools which ‘teaches them empathy, passion, and curiosity; and creates a lot of change within their mindset’. As she leans a bit back in her seat, making the virtual background shimmer, she explains the importance of this type of education for both children and adults — ‘when the child converts [is influenced], automatically it pulls the parents and the family together’. In essence, the experiential mode of learning life skills has helped Kalyani create a positive ripple effect that has made her community more environmentally conscious.

This discussion around her work, which highlights the potential young people have, brought up a couple of nagging and crucial questions. The following responses include edited excerpts from our conversation:

What challenges do students in India face in reaching their full capabilities?

Kalyani took a brief pause here to clarify that her stance pertained to India specifically, before divulging into the often-overlooked idea of student mental health. ‘The main thing I observed is how stressed the child gets. The stress is mainly due to long study hours because parents insist the child studies, but they never insist on activities like meditation, which are really important for the child’s mental ability. I mean, psychologically, they [the child] should be strong first. The child has to be bold enough to take up any kind of a subject or sports or anything really’.

She continued by connecting the need to build mental strength to another prevalent issue that still plagues Indian society for a vast array of reasons. ‘Parents should not push them [their children] towards their own [parents’] choice. This is what is happening in India — you have to take engineering; you have to be a doctor’. Of course, this viewpoint comes after acknowledging the privilege that comes with belonging to certain segments of society where choice and necessity are not intertwined. However, when it is possible for a student to pick a preference Kalyani opines ‘Why can’t they become a journalist? Why can’t they become a community communicator, like a social environmentalist? Why can’t they become a pilot? Or they can start their own business, that is also kind of a career growth. Here, parents are stressing over and pushing away the actual interest of the child which is what I feel puts the child under a lot of pressure’.

To conclude the multi-layered response, she touches upon the negative effect of the lack of exposure to new ideas on student’s future possibilities. As she eases back into her chair, a now smiling Kalyani shares anecdotes of visits she has taken her students on — from areas like defence and automobile engineering to heirloom handicraft and chocolate factories — all in an effort to try and solve the problem she identified.

Do you think that widening the types of subjects that a student can take to include political literacy into the core curriculum will help bridge the gap between exposure and potential in students? How do you think we should approach an education in politics?

‘I didn’t know what is politics in my childhood. My father used to teach me but I used to feel very bored because it was not interesting or fun, but now I understand its importance because India is our nation and we have to build it with our hands. That means we need to start from the rural areas and develop the education system’.

In a country where, as of 2019, 65.53 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, Kalyani makes a compelling point. She went on to elucidate how we can improve schooling — ‘In the education system, make politics and political literacy as one subject and teach it right from the very beginning’.

She also spoke about how the topic should be taught by linking back to her own experience as a student. ‘When I was there in the 10th grade, the social studies teacher told us to [learn] “by heart” some rules. I didn’t understand why we had to do it, but I did it. Over the years I have realised why the rules were applied and how they connect to real life. Why? What? These questions should be cultivated in the school system.

‘I also think we should keep mandatory training workshops for political literacy. This will help educate more young learners and transform them into good human beings, good citizens of India’, said Kalyani as she circled back to projects her students undertook in order to learn about and internalise compassion.

‘Finally, I suggest we concentrate on expanding education throughout India and make sure that we develop a hundred per cent literacy rate’. As of 2020, literacy in the nation is at 77.7 per cent: a figure higher than previous years but with room for improvement.

With the emphasis on high literacy, how do we also ensure a level of quality in the education system?

Here the educator within Kalyani really came alive. She moved closer to the screen, her eyes lit up and the hand gesturing grew more prominent and frequent. She began by suggesting what is currently missing; what hurdles needed to be crossed. ‘Yes, that is an interesting question. I think it boils down to critical thinking which is somewhat missing in the Indian education system. We tend to follow a very bookish manner of learning. We don’t focus as much on developing the child out of the classroom. Where is the thinking?

‘So show them [the students] nature, ask them to give a presentation, give them an answer and ask them to raise a question from that. Every school can do it. There is no need to spend a lot of money. Just take them to a public place and ask them to sit, observe, and write a reflection of their thoughts.

‘Also critical thinking is not only for subjects but is also necessary for community service. Beyond the books, you have to add society-related information — improve human rights and ethics, get out there and help people. These things should also be accomplished alongside the subjects’.

At this point, the smile on Kalyani’s face refused to subside as she summed up an hour-long conversation and the belief with which she enters a classroom — ‘only the educator can bring a change within the child’.

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