Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Power of One

My earlier post on teachers seems to have hit a chord with a lot of people.All of them agree that teachers can, and do, influence children in innumerable ways. In this context, I would like to write about an exceptional teacher, "one in a million" as my daughter calls him -Dr.Madheswaran.

Madheswaran holds a Ph.D. in Tamil literature. It would have been perfectly normal for him to accept a post in some university, and be content to do his job. But Madheswaran has chosen to teach children, especially children in primary and elementary school. He is open to new ideas and methods of teaching and consequently, has been able to help children, who are not native speakers of Tamil, learn the language. I remember when my daughter needed extra help, he asked me for suggestions, and then developed a learning programme for her specifically designed to help her understand and progress. Knowing that she was learning Bharatanatyam, he made her perform for the pre-primary children and evaluated it as an oral examination! His observations about the children he teaches are not superficial;he understands each child in depth, what their needs are, and how they can be helped.

When he first came to school, the children were wont to tease him (as we all do with a new teacher). But over the years, he has won their respect, and today his Tamil play at the annual concert is the highlight of the show. He has an eye for detail, and great care goes into the rehearsal, the costumes, lighting, songs, and dances. It is a pleasure to watch the non-Tamil speaking children mouth their dialogues in chaste Tamil!

If that was all I had to say about Madheswaran, it would still be great. But he has gone further. Some time ago, along with a few friends of his, he started a Foundation. Being a teacher, and having equipped himself with Montessori teaching methods, he felt that he had to do something for children in the rural areas. City children had access to Montessori schools, which kindled their creativity and spontaneity, while rural children had a rough time even accessing basic education. In keeping with this idea, the Foundation chose to start their school in a remote village near Madurai called Sendurai. It has not been easy to find or train teachers in the Montessori principles, nor has it been easy to get a place for the school.

At present the school functions in a rented place, and hopes to start construction on their schoolhouse this year. Funds are trickling in. Friends, parents and students of Madheswaran contributed, by donating puzzles, picture books, books to read, workbooks, and the school where he works gave him Montessori materials. Every weekend, Madheswaran travels from Chennai to Madurai to supervise, and to help the teachers who manage the school in his absence. He feels that these village children, exposed to the Montessori methods, stand a good chance of fitting into, and staying on in school. During the summer holidays, his school continued to function, for the children wanted to come! As he told me, "it truly is a Montessori house of children", not just a school.

What strikes me most in this story is the fact that even one person can make a difference. Madheswaran could have had a quiet, unruffled academic life. Instead, he has chosen to reach out and help children from the poorest and weakest sections of society. So often, faced with a situation or problem that demands a response from us, we ask 'what can one person do?' Madheswaran has just shown us that we can, each one of us, if we only had the heart to do so.