Friday, May 19, 2023

Some goodbyes are hard

This Is It

Losing grandparents is hard. The heartbreak you experience of losing a favorite grandparent transcends all sorts of pain. It is even more hurtful if you have loved them as profoundly as they loved you although I doubt any grandkid can beat the love of their grandparents. When I lost my paternal grandmother in the early 2000s, I felt a pang of regret that I did not get to know her enough. She was a warm, compassionate person who talked less but expressed through her actions of affirmative love: being prepared with the best dishes the Delhi-based grandchildren liked, sending the most sumptuous 'pothichoru' (piping hot meal wrapped in lightly toasted banana leaf) for our train journey back home, and spending hours peeling off jackfruit and banana to make snacks for us to share with our friends (and brag). She had a fuzzy way of saying goodbye to us. As we loaded our luggage into the car, she would call my brother and me, and give the 'sniff-kiss'. For the uninitiated, sniff kiss was her kissing us on our hands and occasionally, on the cheeks and sniffing while doing so. It was as if she was trying to soak in our scent to lend her strength till we visited again the following year. I never really cried when I saw her resting peacefully in our house courtyard, surrounded by people offering condolences to the grieving family. It only took the sight of her being lit up in the funeral pyre that I realized: 'this is it'; she is not coming back. And the dams broke. I will never see her again in that home, sitting on the porch flanked by the sky blue walls sipping tea and reading the daily newspaper, her vision 20/20 till the day she passed away; I will never share the same room with her, hearing her stomach-quivering low laugh when the cousins would crack a joke; I will never feel her sniffing my hands that left a lingering smell of her on the back of my hand. It was too late before it hit me that I did not make enough memories with her.

My paternal grandmother

My ammumma

All this while, I was attached to my maternal grandparents. My ammumma (maternal grandmother) raised me and being the oldest (and the only female child) in the house, I was a very spoiled child. Coming to meet them after a stay at my dad's house was a huge dynamic shift because I was the queen here unlike there where I had to fight for my voice to be heard in the cousin hierarchy. Ask and ye shall receive was the order of the house here. Ammumma and I would spend HOURS talking, giggling, and gossiping about the most banal things, and it never felt like a chore to spend all that time. I loved trapping her in the vicious cycle of 'run your hands through my hair to check for knots' and that was it: heaven. She would tell me about who married whom, the news article that shocked her, her next to nil love declarations, antics of her siblings, and frustrations of having a discipline-bound husband, and it would continue. She would share all this while also giving me tips on having voluminous hair, luscious skin, and occasionally desperate pleas to not cut my long hair. I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have accompanied her on her much much-desired visits to the places she wanted to go to fulfill her late mother's wishes.

On the afternoon of 17th May, I lost my ammumma. Although she struggled in her final days being bedridden, she passed away peacefully. I was with my friends when I received the news. Have you ever felt a soul-crushing pain that comes when you experience something incredibly tragic? I felt that sense of pain. Seeing her limp, lifeless body that I once saw with effervescence broke my spirit. As I put the last few grains of rice in her mouth as a part of the final rites, the memories of her running behind me with her childlike feet, to feed me, rushed into my mind. She absolutely hated that I ate sparingly when I was engrossed in work. Seeing a few grains of rice stuck on my palm, I thought to myself: 'This is it'. A fully grown adult who raised me into this version of me is reduced to this.
You feel the void when people you love pass away, regardless of your relationship. You see them in the things or situations you once shared with them. The 'Ah! I wish she was here to see this!' consumes you. Letting my ammumma go was necessary but heartbreaking. She would often joke 'I don't think I will be alive to see you...' and add something morally offensive as per my standards and to which I would scoff and walk off. She did, however, see me tick all the significant milestones of my life. And I would like to believe that despite her slipping memory, she took all those critical moments in, locking them safely in the confines of her mind. 

Watching her funeral pyre, I bid goodbye to her for the last time: walking back to a house where I will never see her waiting for me. I will never feel her fingers caress my hair. I will never see her on the edge of my bed at 4am, constantly reminding me every half hour that it is time to wake up for my 9am bus. I will never see the shock on her face when I would experiment with her hairstyles: the last being a pixie cut because I thought it was cute (and because she was too frail to fight me). I will never hear her say words of affirmation and affection that she loved throwing around like confetti to family and random strangers. She was undisputed in the domain of 'unconditional love' and the woman gave generously and expected nothing in return. I often told her that she was the reason I trusted people implicitly and grew up to be extrovert max, which is not always good. And yet, she would make it a point to go and talk to every person at a wedding or a funeral or a roadside stall. 

I decided that I will not mourn her loss. I definitely feel grief, but I will not wallow in misery because she loved living her finite life. She loved, she lost, she slipped, but she never erred in her ways of showing compassion and empathy. And that is something I will continue to cherish and aspire to secure for myself too. Even though this goodbye was exceptionally hard, I am glad that I experienced her love and that she chose me to share her love. Here's to you Ammumma, you bloody amazing human. You have no idea how much we are going to miss you.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Feeling of Incongruence Kinda Day

 A muddled state of mind

The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.
-Carl Rogers (1967)

Every time I sit down to write something these days, my words gravitate naturally toward the work I am doing lately: my doctoral thesis or, generally, inclusive and safe spaces in educational spaces. Very rarely do I find myself thinking about other things. Honestly speaking? It has been a while since I thought of focusing my energies on something that excites me and hypes me up. So like any typical researcher would do, I researched more about these feelings I was feeling. Turns out, it does have a name: academic fatigue. It manifests in different ways in different people. To understand how it manifested in my thought and behavioral patterns, I started observing my routines (oops! cannot take the researcher out of me!). I noticed that I had a lot of super innovative ideas, albeit for a brief period (memory of a goldfish guuuyyyyys). I decided to note those down whenever I had those bouts of 'voila!' moments. These would be ideas I get about an article I have been sitting on or a post that I want to write on social media or a song that I would add to my list of umpteen songs I want to learn to play on my ukulele or a hobby I want to pursue to enhance my lifestyle a notch. I would tick that off with a lot of gusto and then poof! my brain will remark, "hey! how come you are not working on your Ph.D.? Everyone has been asking about it. Focus!" Aaaaand, I will fall back into the guilt trap, dragged down again into the mundane cycle of what is now my life. There are too many cups to pour into and too less of an emotional bandwidth to do the same. Alright. Academic fatigue caused by overwhelming number of people to please. What could be causing this feeling of abject misery and discontentment then? So me did some thinking:
If someone asked me to define my early to mid 20s in one word, without batting an eyelid, I would say 'impulsive'. That is what I have always been. Or mostly always. I resented not taking a chance on something I believed in and then feeling guilty about it: be it my professional life or my personal. And because of that, I have learnt some valuable lessons. To be fair, isn't it better to have the autonomy in coming to the realisation that you have grown as a person from an experience you created for yourself instead of having someone else (perhaps, a parent or a sibling or a peer or a partner) saying 'I told you so'. The emotional maturity you feel when you OWN that experience without someone making you feel bad about your impulsiveness is something you can proudly carry like a badge. It would feel meh for a few days but you will evolve, and add a small chapter in your book of wonderful adventures. 
Cut to the present, I have become cautious, for the lack of a better word. I am cautious about how I present myself to the society I live in; how I present myself to the family I belong to; how I present myself to the community I work with; how I present myself to my students. Sadly, each version of me is different. There seems to be little to no congruence between those selves. As Carl Rogers once theorized, "For a person to reach a state of self-actualization, there must be congruence between a person's ideal self and their self-image." It is a humanistic theory, and ironically, it is one of the theories that I loved learning about in my human behavior class during my Masters. How does one become 'real' when their thoughts are convoluted and stretched thin between their ideals and the perceptions (read:expectations) they carry? How does one find their authentic self when significant milestones like getting a job is really rooted in just an hour-long video call where they grade you on benchmarks you are not made aware of? How does one present themselves in such cases really? Do they bluff all the way through? Or is it all just about the aura? Or is it just a game of communication skills really? Well, this post is not about job interviews but wanted to just give a scenario where this conflict between the perceived and ideal self is tricky to gauge because you don't know what the other person really needs. And even if you know what they really need, does presenting a congruent self guarantee success all the time? Just a thought.


I would go on a limb and say that, for me, such situations are super sticky to navigate through because I cannot find common ground between my authentic self and ideal self. That teeny-tiny seed of self-doubt and uncharacteristically cautious self is what makes me apprehensive about giving my best wherever I can. Such feelings have the power to hold you back. It makes you feel unpleasant and often, quite emotionally drained. You are in this constant loop of worry that no matter how great an idea is, it is a pointless exercise to go that extra mile in any assigned task. It is true for personal relationships too, is it not? There are moments when you constantly give and give and give and there comes a point, where gods of reciprocity do not cooperate and you are like 'well, wtf'. There! Rebellion unlocked! And yet, you still persist. You still go in with your bright smile and cheery sentiments of change because it allows you to find what you are made of. It gives you a chance to find what you are capable of. And most importantly, it gives you a chance to find that congruence you desperately seek. Here is where being impulsive would help, for someone like me at least. Just giving in to my feelings and my emotions. Zero regrets. Zero guilt. Zero effs to give. Even while I write this, I am aggressively chomping on Blueberry Sour Punk (just being an impulsive writer :P)
Regardless of the self-love mantras we chant or the reaffirmations we bind ourselves to, there is a certain amount of risk-taking, trusting your gut and impulsiveness that goes into churning out interesting life outcomes. But again, society wins this round because no one wants a brazen lass walking around speaking her mind about things that she impulsively decided to do or risks she wants to take in life without having to worry about the disparaging remarks that follow. I am totally ready for my self-actualization journey but how, where and when to find this congruence? Therapy! Here I come! 
What are your thoughts on congruence? :)

Source: Google Images

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Room for Error

 I have been guilty of experiencing what one could call a 'dissipating enthusiasm' these days. I come across interesting pieces that churn my creativity cycles and I spend the next few days heavily ideating and compiling thoughts only to let it sneakily slide out into the oblivion from the edges of my consciousness. Initially, I felt that it could have been a case of acute procrastination but the more I thought about it (pun intended), the more I felt that it has more to do with me not being passionate enough about the things I choose to do. 

I always thought I was passionate about writing. When I sit down to write, I mindlessly catharsise and then reading what I wrote makes me all 'hmm it's meh' and I keep reworking on it till the zest of the initial spark fizzles out. I wonder how many people feel this way. The strive to perfect something till you don't feel like doing it anymore. The other day I was going through cheesecake recipes on Youtube, like all independent adults do, and I decided it is time I bake one. I tagged along a very zen father-in-law to buy a cart load of stuff we did and didn't need for cheesecake. Upon reaching, I realised that the recipe needs what they call cream cheese (four blocks) and sour cream and a decent oven. I had one block of cream cheese, no sour cream, and just a microwave that doesn't allow to bake. Left with no choice, I put off baking for almost a week till I came across a similar recipe and behold! the sparks flew yet again. I decided to find substitutes for sour cream, found it, and became determined to bake, only to find myself with a cheesecake as flat as a chapatti (because one block of cream cheese, I didn't know!). My world came crashing down when my first attempt turned out the way it did. So the next time I conjured up the courage to bake again, I came to the conclusion that maybe I am not able to bake because I don't have the right tools and there again I went, caving in to Bezos' brainchild, buying measuring cups, lining papers, oil brush and spatula. I shall not go wrong this time, I thought. The cupcakes I made became cup biscuits basically and my morale went spiralling down yet again. 

As I write this to reflect where I went wrong, I feel that it is not that I didn't have the right tools to do what I wanted to do but it is because I was blaming external factors for my internal dilemma of not having a damn clue about what I wanted to do. I have always taken pride in knowing that I knew what I wanted to accomplish in my life. I have never experienced an identity crisis and neither did I go through a confusion regarding what profession I see myself in. It has always been education and teaching. These last two years of my doctoral study which I spent with me, myself, and my thoughts solely in front of my laptop and phone has been a massive jolt, to say the least. I could blame it on being asked to stick to the topic that I wasn't super keen on or making little progress owing to the pandemic or not having consistent supervision. Although the idea of research still enthrals me, it doesn't keep me on my toes as it has become just one more thing I need to just finish, no matter what, because it adds value and a 'Dr.' to my identity.

The dissipating enthusiasm I have been feeling has a lot to do with me believing that I am not a part of the mad rat race and still being a part of one, unknowingly. It does bother me that I am not able to give my best to what I went out to accomplish but this word 'accomplishment' is loaded with such pressure and expectations that merely the idea of not meeting that makes one feel like a rag doll, limp and meek. Perfection. Excellence. Ideal. All these words hold so much more prominence in our society than, say, 'Improvement', 'Better', or 'Work in Progress'. I want to be a work in progress. Becoming a better person, a better scholar, a better social worker, a better daughter, and a better teacher everyday rather than perfecting each day leaving no room for errors or oopsies. 

Perhaps once I make peace with this margin of error that I am allowed, I will be able to bake a better cheesecake and even write about it someday. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Your Submission Has Been Summarily Rejected :)



Never give up. Today is hard. Tomorrow will be worse. But the day after tomorrow will be sunshine. -Jack Ma

It is always hard to pen down your thoughts in an organised manner and fall in tandem with the rules stipulated by various journals and publications only to receive emails that shower you with affectionate rejections a few weeks later. In the world of academia, it is a given that you will have to struggle substantially if you wish to see your name printed on an article that you laboriously worked on. But then comes with it, a barrage of often constructive feedback that doesn't hate your writing but doesn't love it either. After having crossed 2 years of research and countless rejection emails, I write this today as a means to appease my impatient mind. 

When I first started working in the education sector, I did not know that five years down the line, I will be revisiting all those teaching strategies through the lens of a researcher. If I had known, perhaps I would have groomed myself to be a better subject of this control group (obliviously, of course, but then it's a pathetic paradox). But all I did was fail shabbily in my attempts of being a decent teacher. There were some good days and a lot of bad days where I had no clue what I was doing wrong. I carried that trial and error method with me, half-heartedly knowing that I can be better and full-heartedly knowing that I did not know how to do that. With research now, I feel the same. 

Of course, scholars are expected to rise up like a phoenix after every rejection and of course, they are asked to keep at it no matter what the outcome. Every rejection email, however, is a reminder, not a shocking one per se, that I need to work harder to make my mark in this uncertain world of words and knowledge. And the same emails are a reminder of how little I actually know HOW to write a good research article. Why is it that scholars these days are expected to come up with exemplar international level publications in their student life when their senior counterparts have achieved that only later in their academic or teaching tenure? Surely it is setting higher benchmarks and standards for research-based education but is that expected standard commensurate with the technical know-how of writing a paper. I have attended various academic writing workshops in these two years of my research but none guided me with the art (not skill) of curating your ideas in a structured manner let alone how to think in abstract research terms. 

I believe that even something as simple (on paper) as developing a title or choosing a tool or an epistemological ground for your distinctive thought must be taught with utmost care extended towards your unique thought process. In this regard, mentoring should be taken seriously. I learnt from the mistakes I made while developing my articles and presentations. And I decided to communicate those do's and don't's with my students who now sail in the same boat as me, battling deadlines and academic expectations. Is mentoring difficult? Absolutely. Can it still be done fairly well? Sure! Can it be translated to research writing mentoring? Yes! Is it feasible?  I believe so! So, how can we handle this concern differently? 

Step #1: Be a good role model. How about having scholars start off their research career by accompanying their mentors/guides for a publication or two where they observe and learn the art of academic writing? It serves dual purpose. It builds some foundational academic credibility for the amateur authors to hone further; They now know what goes into creating something exemplar and will have a strong example to refer to.

Step #2: Encourage writing perspectives, reviews, and opinion pieces instead of delving straight into rigorously scientific papers. As of today, opinion pieces or perspectives have no research value. There are plenty of scholars out there who chose a topic because they were asked to choose one and not because they wanted to do it. Having this option will allow them to explore the topics and find something they can work with. If nothing else, this will provide an opportunity for them to express and give some semblance of order with respect to their ideas.

Step #3: Make research and inquiry a critical skill to develop regardless of the academic path you choose. Introduce academic writing as a course at all levels of learning. But here, they are trained step-by-step to develop a research article with each day or week focussed on a specific research milestone. For example: Week 1: Read and find a topic that you'd like to work on. Week 2: Give shape to your title and identify variables you'd like to work with. Week 3: Develop your conceptual/theoretical framework; how do variables interact with each other, give it structure...Week 15: Collect data, understanding ethics and consent...Week 20: Analysing your data, learning descriptive and predictive analysis...Week 24: Organising results, choosing significant results...Week 30: Writing discussion chapter, collating your literature with findings. And so on...The key factor is guidance. Having someone as your buddy or coach or mentor (plenty of synonyms!) can not only motivate you in creating something useful but also allow you to come up with a solid article with confidence and the technical understanding of writing one.

It is a personal belief that the right kind of support and research-oriented guidance shall go a long way in paving path for a community of scholars (like me) who are passionate about building their academic career but are lost in this vast ocean of scientific expectations. I hope that all of you who are reading this, no matter where you are on your research journey, know that you are not alone and you will be fine. Till then, continue rising like a phoenix. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Mrs. Phillips

No Child Left Behind

One thing I absolutely LOVE about my profession is that there is not a single dull day. Every day I am either learning something new or unlearning something old or relearning something important. And I feel that that is a critical part of evolving as a teacher. People who know me also know how strongly I feel about children with special educational needs. 
Being someone who struggled with her fair share of speech trouble, I had always doubted myself and felt inferior to my peers. It was something I could control, some said; while others found it easier to bully or mock the stumble in my sentences. I became reticent and socially awkward, and needless to say, hated speaking in public. I loved singing and performing on stage but talking made me go into a shell. My parents being awesome as they are never let me feel inadequate and did a massive thing by being curious about what was happening instead; read up on it and took me to a speech therapist. They never tried to 'fix it' but they tried to help me become more secure with it.  But school, largely for me, was not a safe and happy place. And maybe that's why the very few cherished memories I have of school is that of a handful of teachers who swarmed me with love every time they saw me and that of an equally handful of good, kind friends (and it makes me happy to know that they are still a part of my life and we still are there for each other).

I grew up with a poor self-image until the day we got this one-of-a-kind teacher, Mrs. Cecilia Phillips. She taught us English and doubled as our homeroom teacher. She wore her hair in a bob cut like Hillary Clinton used to have; waltzed in the most lovely kurta-salwars and had beautiful woollen cardigans she used to wear when the winter season set in. When the year began and she started teaching, she would often ask us to read a paragraph from a lesson. While other kids used to raise hands to get picked or being excited to read, I did neither. The only thought that used to run across my brain was what Harry Potter said to the Sorting Hat "Not Slytherin Not Slytherin" but more on the lines of "Let it not be me let it not be me". And the sneaky woman that she was, she would pick me. I remember the first time I read out aloud in the class: my knees were knocking against each other wildly, I was petrified of being laughed at, and there she was all calm looking at me as if she knew what I was feeling. I read. I fumbled. I stuttered. Some snickered. But I finished the paragraph and sat down. And she moved on to the next child. Next day again, she picked me. And then the following day as well. And all I could think was she KNOWS I don't read properly and still she is picking me! In hindsight, what she was doing was what she did best: not leaving anyone behind. She wanted everyone to equally succeed, even if it took more time for some than others but she NEVER GAVE UP. The years that followed was me praying that I get her as my homeroom teacher and I did. I saw myself build up my self-esteem in her classes. 
And then in Grade 5, she told me that she wanted me to participate in a declamation competition and that day I realised that the woman had lost her marbles. But after hours of convincing (me convincing her why she is wrong basically), all I went home was with the knowledge that I am signed up for that competition. I panicked, freaked out rather but Mrs. Phillips would sit with me going over and over the speech. She used her free blocks and help me out. She also had other students whom she was training but she would spend extra time with me nonetheless. I secured second place in that competition and that certificate now sits somewhere towards the bottom of a filled up binder of achievements in public speaking I got after that. 
It took the faith of just ONE teacher to make someone like me into someone I never thought of. I ran for school councils, I emceed events, I did theatre, I participated in every possible competition the school and external organisations hosted. But I never forgot what she did for me. Mrs. Phillips did what no other person in school did for me: she saw me
And that is the lesson I have taken with me every day that I have walked into a classroom. 

Our school system is so obsessed with the perfect score, the perfect child, the perfect profession, and the perfect life to a point that we leave out the not-so-perfect ones behind. There are students out there who deal with learning disabilities, ADHD, anxiety, dysfunctional families, emotional issues, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, autism, cerebral palsy, the list is endless and yet, we are so far from achieving the motto of "every child...". But things are changing. 
Inclusivity in education is being discussed. National and international bodies recognise this as a critical point of discourse and it's amazing that people are actually speaking out about it. And then there is a small school in the outskirts of my birthplace in Trivandrum. A quaint little government school called Ayiroorppara Government Higher Secondary School. When I first saw this school, I could not believe it was a government school. A stunning pucca infrastructure with large smart classrooms, excellent hygiene facilities, midday meals prepared and provided by the schools, and one of the most invested group of teachers I have ever come across. 
The resource centre run by Mrs. Bindu is an enthusiastic learning space. The students with special needs love going to her for remedial time and she has an updated way of working with them. She spends her free time in school and at home preparing worksheets, support resources, activities, and games for all these students and spends a significant amount of time teaching them concepts. Her idea of teaching revolves around ensuring that if a regular child is learning, the special child also deserves to learn. Period. I have met her exactly 2 times now since my research began but her energy is infectious! And she passes on that positive energy to her fellow teachers in such a manner that they never find it an extra burden to help her out. She has trained the regular and special teachers in school on how to best support the students with special educational needs in their respective classes. She helps them to make the differentiated worksheets and assessments for each topic so as to ensure that every single child is learning something of value. That, to me, is an excellent example of inclusivity! 

The latest feather in their cap is a very ambitious project called 'Whiteboard' inaugurated by the Kerala Chief Minister and Education Minister. This initiative is for the special educators across the state to support students with special educational needs through the digital platforms. While the regular teachers upload their videos on the Vikters channel for different age groups, this army of special educators sit and break down EVERY topic into digestible pieces of activities and content for children with special needs. What is even more fascinating is that they have separate segments for EVERY TYPE of special needs. So a child with visual impairment has a time slot wherein his/her special educator will teach the morning concept in a way understandable for him/her. Similarly, a child with learning disability, hearing impairment, autism, and so on. With supportive parents taken into confidence, this project has managed to do some commendable work through WhatsApp and TV. And the students receive social recognition and positive reinforcement through WhatsApp from their teachers every time they manage to crack the activity given to them. When she shared all this with me yesterday, I was speechless for a really long time because for me, it is still a dream. A good one. 
It is heartwarming to see teachers like her and her relentlessly passionate colleagues wanting to do this and to hear them say that those kids deserve it. Yes, they do! 
If you are someone who has/has been/knows/teaches a child with special educational needs, please take out the time to know them and understand their learning needs because your faith in them could go a long way in making them believe that they can take on the whole world. 
I wish that all of you have a Mrs. Phillips in your life who sees you for what you're worth.

Thank you for reading.
L-R: Arjun (my one and only constant friend since Pre-KG), Ashwathi, Mrs. Phillips, Arun (my brother)
Arjun and I try meeting Mrs. Phillips every time I am in town and this was the last meeting we had on 16th July, 2016.

P.S. Mrs. Phillips is still the amazing teacher that she was. She still has that bob cut she had in '99 (as you can see above). She changed schools after I moved into middle school after she taught my brother the same way she taught me: with love. I keep telling her that she left because she couldn't bear to part with me but she continues to refuse. It has been close to 20 years since she last taught me but she still calls me every year on my birthday and hers is the call that I love the most.

Friday, June 19, 2020

You Have Something I Need

Attachment is the Source of All Suffering
-Buddha in Psych

Initially, I thought that when I start blogging, I should stick to mundane things that everyone can relate to. But then I thought what is the point of blogging if I do not bring out the everyday things through an educational perspective because hey! that is the ONE job I have. So, tedious as it may seem for some of you to read (apologies), I am always excited to bring forth a new theory or model that fascinates me and has helped me in some way or the other. This post is about something that all of us feel and experience with things/people we deeply care for and so end up developing a set of behaviours, desirable or undesirable, to win their affection. 

Our first memory of attachment is definitely our mothers. There is a certain comfort in the posture of the newborn babies when they are caressed and held closely by their mothers while they are being fed and eventually, the babies falling asleep. There is an unspoken trust. A feeling that we are safe in her arms. And so, by default, our minds are wired to scream 'Amma!' or 'Maa' the moment we get hurt or distressed or shocked. That is the relationship our brain attributes to the attachment with our caregiver thereby giving birth to a series of behaviours that often lead to us doing the same thing when in a stressful situation.

There is a very upsetting experiment that was conducted by Harry Harlow in 1958 [1;2] wherein he wanted to study how newborn rhesus monkeys bond with their mothers. As popular as it was, the disturbing premise of it was to create two experiments to gauge behaviours: 
1) baby monkeys separated from their mothers at birth and reared in two groups, with a  surrogate mother aka a 'mother' made out of wire and another one made out of terry towel cloth; four monkeys each with each mother (image below) [4]
2) baby monkeys separated from their mothers at birth and reared in complete isolation;

Experiment #1

The mother made of wire had the milk bottle attached to it whereas the cloth mother just existed, figuratively speaking. Harlow observed that both set of monkeys formed a bond with the cloth mother even though 'she' gave no milk. Whenever they got hungry, they went to the wire mother, have milk, and then come back snuggle with the cloth mother. If any danger or obstacle would be placed in the cage, both sets of monkeys would run and cling to the cloth mother for support. He concluded that it is the sensitive care and security given by the cloth mother which surpassed the one that provided food. 

The second experiment was even worse. He reared baby monkeys (gah!) in complete isolation in cages [5] to observe their behaviours as opposed to the ones raised in normal environments. He kept these monkeys alone for 3 months; some for six; some for nine; and some for the first whole year of their lives. Subsequently, when he put them back in with other monkeys, these isolated monkeys exhibited strange behaviours (you don't say!). Although initially they were scared of the other monkeys, later they became very aggressive towards them: doing self-harm, scratching themselves vigorously, tearing their hair out, and biting themselves. And Harlow wrapped up the experiment saying that privation or never forming an attachment bond can be emotionally scarring for monkeys in the long run. He also found that the more they were kept in isolation, the more bizarre their behaviour became: the ones who were kept for a year never recovered from the trauma. Furthermore, the female monkeys became so neurotic that when they became parents, they ended up hitting their infant's face onto the floor and rubbing it back and forth. Since the time I came to know of this man, I have been wondering why did he think of this as a smart experiment. As a researcher, I do understand you have to have some variables to come up with a theory and he did end up disproving the prevalent idea that attachment is merely physical (food) rather than emotional care but come on, man!

Experiment #2

Later, in the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth conducted another experiment, which she called the 'Strange Situation Classification' (SSC) wherein she analysed how attachments vary between children [2;3]. The experiment conducted with human babies included 100 mothers with their babies observed in a series of 8 consecutive episodes of interaction between the mother, baby, and a stranger (a moderator variable of sorts). The episodes recorded the reactions of the baby when the mother and baby were alone; mother leaving the baby alone; mother and stranger with the baby (stranger anxiety); baby alone with the stranger (separation anxiety); and the reunions of mother and baby. Each episode lasted 3 minutes each and the behavior of the babies upon reunion primarily ranged from seeking contact and maintaining that proximity or avoidance of contact and resisting comfort with varying intensities. The babies also indulged in exploratory behaviours like playing with the toys in the room, search behaviours like looking around (for their mom), banging on the door when mother left, staring at the door, looking at mother's empty chair, and expressive behaviours like crying or smiling. 
With this experiment, she and another researcher, John Bowlby, came up with three attachment styles, which would be one of the biggest contributions in understanding the relationships between a caregiver and child [6]. Later, researchers Main and Solomon (1986) added a fourth attachment style based on their own study.
1. Secure Attachment Style: Forming the majority of the kids who participated in the experiment, this comprised of children who felt confident that the attachment figure would come back and meet their needs. They inherently knew they had a 'safe base' so they bravely explored the environment and did seek out for the attachment figures when in distress (knowing that they would be heard). According to Bowlby  and other following findings, an individual who experienced a secure attachment is likely to grow up trusting others to be available, responsive, and helpful based on the modelling received. They are better at taking the perspectives of others and display resilience in challenging situations.
In a relationship, this group of people will be secure and connected to their partners without feeling the need to be together. They are often advocates of honesty, independence, and intense emotional connections [7].

2. Anxious Avoidant Style: This group comprised of children who were detached from their attachment figures and explored their environment without flinching. They weren't particularly inclined to seek comfort from their attachment figures when distressed. This indicated that they likely had a caregiver who is insensitive and rejecting of their needs so they have acclimatised to being independent both physically and emotionally. According to findings, an individual who has this is likely to be emotionally unavailable, consider themselves unworthy, withdraw from stressful situations, have trouble in forming satisfying relationships and often, may also show antisocial behavior such as lying or bullying (all because they prefer distancing themselves from others to reduce emotional distress)
In a relationship, this group will feel that they do not need any human connection to survive. They insist on being independent and easily shut down their emotions in hurtful situations especially during arguments with the partner [7].

3. Anxious Ambivalent/Resistant Style: This group comprised of children who were clingy and dependent towards the attachment figure but will also fail to engage in interaction the next moment. They develop mistrust in the attachment figure and also find it challenging to explore the environment without the figure. They are difficult to comfort and this is because of the inconsistent level of response given to them by their caregivers back home. According to findings, an individual who is anxious ambivalent is most likely to have a low self-esteem, are confused, and stick closely to the primary caregivers. They display exaggerated emotions and reactions to stressful situations and keep their distance from peers, often ending in social isolation. 
In a relationship, this group will be desperate to secure bonds and feel that their partner must complete them or fix their problems, presumably pushing away their partners for being clingy, jealous, demanding, or easily upset [7].

4. Disorganised/Disoriented Attachment Style: Emerging from the need to address child abuse at home, this outlines the possibility of abuse and trauma faced by the child. This group comprised of children who had attachment figures offer inconsistent emotional support and/or abuse (verbal, emotional, physical or sexual) or when the child witnesses an attachment figure engage in a traumatising act (eg: domestic violence, suicide). And because the child doesn't have the safe base, they tend to fear or resent the attachment figure. Often, this happens as a result of responding to the children in the unhealthy ways that their own parents responded to them when they were young. According to findings, an individual who is disorganised/disoriented usually fail to cope with separation anxiety. They tend to have aggressive behaviours often leading to social ostracisation. They see others as threats instead of support and may oscillate between social withdrawal and defensive aggressive behaviour; likely to develop PTSD and become anti-social (especially lack of empathy and delinquency).
In a relationship, this group will become ambivalent as adults. They will avoid indulging in emotional conversations because it overwhelms them. They may have unpredictable mood swings and will be always wary of their partners, making sure they do not get too attached. Needless to say, they fail to form meaningful and healthy relationships with others [7].

When I was shy of 5-6 years of age, my father used to pat me to sleep. And often, like all fathers, he would doze off. So I would nudge him awake so that he would resume patting. The patting was even more crucial to me on the days when I was sick. In hindsight, I am glad that I was born into a family where physical affection was never restrained. All four of us (well, my brother not as much since he thinks he is too old for some louuu but still to an extent, he succumbs) are highly expressive and openly declare our affection. And I do attribute that a lot to the kind of childhood they had and the emotional care they received from their parent/s. 
I don't know why I went in that direction this time. Maybe because I am stuck here without my family, in privation, and without the comfort of the cloth mother, but as I write this, it is 2:30am. And here I am, thinking about the baby monkeys. But the real reason why I wanted to explore this set of theories is to give a peek into what attachment or the lack of it, in what is called the critical period, can lead to a behavioural change in our kids down the line. The onus is on us, as parents, to understand that providing physical care aside, providing emotional care is what the child will remember and hold onto. Modelling the right behavior, giving adequate psychosocial support, and of course, lending out that physical comfort and warmth instills assurance in the mind of the child at a very young age and makes them feel confident enough to take on the whole world. 
I am hopeful that as the world stumbles into a very different time for our growing young adults, we extend just that extra dollop of love and comfort their way whenever they feel like clinging on. Because nothing can and nothing should replace the relief we get when we are right where we are supposed to be: home, with our parents. 


[4]; [5] Google Images

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Mental Health and Student Community

The Silence of Well-Being in the Cacophony of a Pandemic

-Understanding Mental Health of Students


We are going through a tough time. If the virus was not being enough of a miscreant, we have now civil wars breaking out, countries on the verge of war with each other, dormant racism taking a much evolved and blatantly overt form, love dissipating, loyalties shifting, and the world transforming into a melting pot of screw-ups and occasional victories. 

When the year began, I, like most people, had high hopes. And why not? It is a new year. Good things are expected to happen. And I guess with everyone being so transfixed on it being a magical year (2020, ooooohhh!), we seemed to have jinxed it. As the world settles into the new normal, our emotional demons have stepped out for a stroll although it is still lockdown. 

Mental health has been an issue that everyone big or small, rich or poor, literate or illiterate battles with. It is not one of those things that you 'cure' or 'fix up'. It goes much deeper than that. And it involves much more complex emotions than what meets the eye. We need to understand that feelings are abstract and often cannot be expressed in tangible forms or words. We might not always see someone saying EXACTLY what they feel unless they have some feelings monitor plastered on their foreheads that gauges those feelings. 

Now visualise this: You are a 11 year old child stuck within the confines of your home during this pandemic. You cannot step out to play, to visit friends, or to breathe the fresh air. You are expected to attend 3-4 hours of virtual lessons everyday during which you get to see all your friends in one frame and you go back to your life. That's that. No one asks you how you are. No one enquires if you are facing any trouble. No one seems to be interested if you are able to keep up with the pace of online learning. No one bothers about whether you are being given attention at home. If you feel upset just visualising this, imagine going through this day in and day out as a young child. Now visualise the same feelings getting magnified over the years where you have to keep up with the crowd and yet have no outlets for those repressed feelings. If you are fortunate, you will have a few people who will reach out to you and truly care about you. If you are not so fortunate, you will have a difficult time letting people know the reason behind the frown lines on your forehead even when you are smiling. 

I believe that as a teacher, one can do miracles effortlessly even while sitting behind a computer screen. It is like doing your morning meetings with our students but virtually. Spending the first 5 or 10 minutes to just ask everyone if they are happy, safe, and positive could be a start instead of jumping headlong into a lesson. Yes, syllabus is taxing. Yes, curriculum changes are needed badly. Yes, educational policies must  modify with the need of the hour. But, having happy and invested students are way better than having distressed ones. 

Research studies show that even though immunisation, nutrition, and mortality prevention are key focus areas when it comes to children [1], mental health is not given the same priority. Although our current socio-political contexts proclaim the importance of growing number of children and adolescents with mental health issues that range from depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies, there are no concrete systems in place that allow children to vocalise their concerns in case they are going through an emotional ordeal. In the light of these growing concerns, the role of the school in creating a positive and approachable school culture is therefore important. Even the latest Mental Health Care Act (2017) fails to highlight concrete preventive measures that specifically target young children and adolescents [2]. To the same effect, I have been conceptualising an idea on creating safe spaces for children to discuss mental health problems in schools. It goes with the premise that schools play a humongous role in coming up with a culture that embodies values which allows for students to explore, examine and express their barriers towards learning thereby making it accessible for them to feel in control of their own change. There is a need to curate a framework that prioritises children and adolescents’ psychosocial and emotional well-being along with their scholastic growth. Having a team of people who are equipped with up-to-date theory, research and skills based on effective practical interventions can optimally maximise the positive mental health of the students. Success in these challenges will help improve the happiness and well-being of young people; allows them to engage constructively with their peers and with the demands of academic learning; and eventually, help reduce the lifelong impact of unmet mental health needs.

It was during one of these research expeditions that I struck gold mine and found a gem of a framework called 'Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS)' by George Sugai and Robert Horner. It is a beautiful amalgamation of factors that I find to be extremely relevant, vis-a-vis, good school and classroom practices to support students at every level, strong foundational systems that are unique to each school which also promote staff behavior, and multiple pieces of data generated about students every single day that allows for better decision making. The result of all these factors working seamlessly is what gives us outcomes.


The reason why I fell for it instantly is because the model when put into a tiered form looks eerily similar to the topic of my previous blog post on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It has strong resemblance to the idea of fulfilling basic and universal needs of all students to aim for far and fewer students getting specialised and individualised support for complex behaviours. As the intensity of the support increases, there is a decrease in the number of students needing that focused support owing to their psychosocial and emotional needs being met at the base and following level itself. I am attaching a link to their page wherein they have explained in detail what each tier looks like [3].



A study conducted by O'Reilly, Adams, Whiteman, et al (2018) shows that most teachers can and have the willingness to support psychosocial needs of students. However, there is also a need for support within and beyond school to make it comfortable for them to do so. Teachers feel vulnerable and unsupported, lacking in skills and support systems, leading to a threat to their own mental well-being [4]. We must accept that at some point, even we will go cuckoo while we are at it every single day: lesson planning, ideating, executing, resolving conflicts, amongst our household chores. Make sure we reach out to someone in our circle who 'gets it'. Having empathetic listeners is so crucial because that support goes a long way into us having a 'Santa Claus Spreading Happy Cheer' effect on our kids as well. Upset teachers and upset students make a terrible combination and nothing good comes out of it. 

Wrapping up what I know is a long post, I would like to leave you with a few images. While hunting for appropriate pictures for this post, I came across an incredible page called 'BelievePerform'. Their images are available on Google and can be shared amongst your peers, students, colleagues, employers, parents, and everyone who impacts student learning. I am sharing a few that I loved and are well-articulated. 



Times are challenging. In the light of recent events, it is imperative that we acknowledge the importance of mental health and make it a point to reach out to our near and dear ones just to let them know that we are merely a call away and to ensure that we do talk to them if they need us. It goes without saying that doing all this for our young kids is even more important. As we struggle to find normalcy in our upturned life, let us pray that no one is left behind in this mad rush. 


Thank you for reading! <3 





[1] India. (2019). Booklet on Universal Health Coverage (UHC). New Delhi: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. 

[2] Duggal, C., & Bagasrawala, L. (2019). Adolescent and Youth Mental Health in India: Policies and Programmes. In S. Bharat & G. Sethi (Ed.). Health and Wellbeing of India's Young People: Challenges and Prospects (pp. 85-120). Singapore: Springer Nature


[4] O'Reilly, M., Adams, S., Whiteman, N., Hughes, J., Reilly, P., & Dogra, N. (2018). Whose Responsibility is Adolescent’s Mental Health in the UK? Perspectives of Key Stakeholders. School Mental Health, 10(4), 450-461. 



Sunday, June 7, 2020

Contextualising Maslow for Classrooms

Contextualising Maslow for Classrooms

Maslow, A. (1943): Theory of Hierarchy of Needs

When I was in school, I opted for Business Studies because it had interesting topics like motivation, Human Resource management, amongst other personnel-oriented lessons. It was then I read about Abraham Maslow having proposed the famous 'Hierarchy of Needs' in his 1943 paper titled 'A Theory of Human Motivation'. The theory was nothing but a series of needs that every individual goes through albeit in a pyramid form. The needs ranged from basic physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem to finally, self-actualization. He claimed that needs lower down in the hierarchy must be fulfilled before individuals can attend to their higher-order needs and eventually, attain self-actualization. I remember guffawing when I read that the lowest need included sex and reproduction, and so ended up engaging in debates with classmates as to why was it so important to indulge in intercourse to achieve safety and esteem. It was not so much as sex as it was companionship and someone to be intimate with, which in turn, gives you the basic feeling of stability and security (and hence, moving up the pyramid. Jeez! Naivety, I blame you!). 
I had the opportunity to teach in two vastly different schools in terms of resources. My first experience as a teacher was in the confines of a small classroom with broken windows, loud street noises streaming through those gaps, and me shouting out my instructions and lessons. The kids came from homes where physical and verbal abuse were normal. Naturally, the behaviour in the classroom reflected that when I first walked in. There were occasions where I used to get emotionally exhausted trying to make them understand why certain words or actions were not good and why they should speak fluent English or have a creative imagination. Unfortunately, I failed to acknowledge that no matter what I say or do, those kids are going back into the same community after 2pm. 
I did not know if they came from loving homes. I did not know if they had supportive parents. I did not know if they had a space to study. I did not know if they were being abused. I did not know if they were respected at home. And yet, I wanted my 8 year-olds to achieve big things. It wasn't until I finished the tenure and moved to a new city to study a course that will give a name to what changed my perspective, I realised that I had been doing it all wrong. In the pursuit of wanting my kids to read fluent English and come up with innovative pieces of writing, what I did not see was that I had failed as a teacher the moment I prioritised these rudimentary things instead of knowing them as individuals. I was trying to push those kids up into a space where I thought they would seamlessly reach if I gave them books with moral lessons or stickers for positive reinforcement.
So towards the tail end of my fellowship, I started doing home visits. It was perhaps one of the best decisions I've taken in my life. Getting to know the kids at a one-on-one level, talking to their parents, school staff, reined me back into the game. What changed? I did. I started pushing for parent investment in students' studies, more support at home, accessibility to books and stationery from my end in case they were unable to procure on their own (and to my parents' dismay, one of the biggest reasons why I never saved during my teaching stint), we insisted on fixing the classroom walls and windows as a pressing concern, we emphasised on teachers adopting class divisions based on learning levels instead of resorting to physical punishment (which those kids were used to, before we were assigned). Having a conducive environment where the teacher can foster learning was critical before expecting students to miraculously do well.


I have believed that if you want to get into the field of teaching, you must be a social worker at heart. Not only you must have that helping frame of mind, you must also have the aptitude for really understanding the pedagogy. Neither am I an expert on this nor have I degree in Education. But what I know and what has worked for me really is the acute curiosity to know what makes each child different. And trust me, it is not difficult. All you need is: a child, an inclination to spend time with them, empathy, the will to frame lessons keeping all those unique qualities in mind, and you're good to go. And contextualising Abraham Maslow's theory into the classroom has been one of the key game changers for me. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs contextualised for schools (Steve Guditus, 2013)

What Maslow proposed and was adapted for a classroom was a simple approach to motivate students.  Start off by ensuring that a student's physiological needs are being met, vis-a-vis, is the child getting food, does the child have a safe home to go back to, has the child been sleeping well, does the child have kind and supportive parents/guardians who take care of him/her? This is followed by understanding if the child feels safe in school, physically and emotionally. One can talk about pastoral care and providing sound socio-emotional support within the school premises either through the teachers or the allied experts such as counsellors. Once the child feels safe, we have to guarantee that he/she forms strong relationships with peers, adults, and other stakeholders including parents. A child undergoing physical abuse at home cannot be expected to form healthy relationships in school. And so, his/her physiological and safety needs must be taken into account before anything else. After the child feels comfortable in the group and has formed an identity within the group, we move on to safeguarding the esteem needs wherein we create a nurturing environment in the class/school. Providing opportunities to establish and display strengths, a constructive feedback mechanism, giving the space to make mistakes and take risks without guilt, and of course, recognising the efforts of the child. Only if these things are made certain of, can a teacher have the child be in the confident headspace to learn. 
Taking the example of the recent suicide that happened in Kerala where a young girl resorted to the extreme measure because she was unable to partake in the virtual classes that began without even taking cognisance of the fact whether the students have accessibility and affordability to those classes. The child's father expressed that her classes started but they didn't have a smartphone, he had lost his job, and the TV was due for repair. The girl committed suicide because of the stress of not being able to do what everyone in her class was perhaps doing. To what can we attribute that stress?
One can safely assume smart devices to be a necessity during this pandemic and going by that logic, her basic need was not being met. And therefore, she was unable to feel safe (perhaps feel isolated from peers and teachers due to the lack of a device), she was unable to connect with her friends, which affected her esteem and led her to feel that she is missing out on learning. There are scores of incidents now especially with the floating migrant population whose kids are missing out on their studies because the parents cannot afford more than one smartphone in a household or are on the verge of being unemployed and/or might also lead to school dropouts. How do we expect such kids to achieve self-actualisation and independence in learning when their fundamental needs are not catered to?
Maslow's theory may not be THE key to unlock your teaching challenges during this lockdown but it is definitely one of the mini keys that helps you see that it is critical to start off your online class by asking kids if they are doing okay, if they are facing any challenges in learning, and most importantly, if they are safe and happy. 
Trust me when I say that happy kids will always make you proud of the decisions you take as a teacher doing what you do everyday. 
So here's a small quote for you to remind yourself how important your job is:

And so, I hope you go 'basic' this upcoming semester! 

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