Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. No. 11, October 1-15, 2020
Chennai is proud to count two of its own among the 38 teachers who won the prestigious CBSE Award to Teachers this year – Shoba Raman, principal at Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School, Mylapore and Dr. S. Deepa, science teacher at G.K. Shetty Vivekananda Vidyalaya Ambattur West. Recognizing their yeoman service as teachers, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal conferred a merit certificate and a cash prize of Rs. 50,000 to the two teachers in a virtual ceremony.
Celebrating the occasion, Madras Musings spoke to Shoba Raman about her 29-year journey in education.
MM: How did this journey begin?
Shoba: I had just finished my B.Sc course when my thoughts turned naturally to working in a school. I was married by then and had a one-year-old daughter. I had time on my hands because I was treated as affectionately as a child at my mother-in-law’s home. I applied for a B.Ed course and since MCTM school was close to my place, I walked up and asked if they had a vacancy – I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle then! I was invited for an interview where I was asked to read a storybook like I would to a first standard child. I needed no practice – I read it the way I usually did with my daughter, with all my expressions. I didn’t even realize when the senior teacher asked me to stop! They gave me the job of arts and crafts teacher, which I really enjoyed. I put in a lot of time to research and discover new things to teach and we held an arts and crafts exhibition in my second year there, which the school was impressed with.
It was at MCTM, when I observed the teacher taking a chemistry lab class for her students, that I started thinking about teaching chemistry. I put myself in the teacher’s shoes and tried thinking of different ways of explaining concepts. Actually, I’ve always been like this – even today, when I do something one year, I think of how I can do it better the next year.
MM: And of course, this is reflected in your style of teaching as well…
Shoba: Yes! My boredom threshold is very low. If I teach three sections, I teach each of them in a different way. It has to be a different approach because the children are different. Also, the way you teach in the first period cannot be the same as the fifth period after lunch, where you probably need more jokes or activities to keep the children’s focus on the lesson.
I remember once, at Vidya Mandir, I was given three 12th standard sections to teach. It was a funny experience – it was so confusing that I found it hard to keep track of which portion I was taking for which class. I finally decided to solve the situation by taking organic chemistry for one class, inorganic for the second and physical for the third. I would enter the classroom asking, “Physical?” and if the answer was yes, I would continue my class.
MM: How did that transition take place though, from arts and crafts to chemistry?
Shoba: Well, I requested for the position at MCTM but I was told that I needed an M.Sc degree to teach the higher classes. I studied M.Sc through correspondence while working part-time for the school. I had to go to Annamalai University for practical classes for a month. The M.Sc course was tough; we only had three papers in each year, but there were no teachers; you had to learn on your own from books. The pass percentage was only 4 percent or so. I remember telling myself that it would be very funny for an aspiring teacher to have arrears. I worked hard and passed the exams. I also applied for an M.Ed course in science – by that time, I had quit the school.
MM: You did everything you needed to, to reach your goal of teaching high-school chemistry.
Shoba: Yes, in fact I applied for an M.Phil in chemistry, too. I plucked up the courage to tell my husband and mother-in-law that I wanted to go to college and study instead of distance learning. When my husband asked how I would travel – I couldn’t go by bus and my younger son had also been born by then – I asked my father to get me a two-wheeler. I learned to ride it, too.
MM: And you said you didn’t know how to ride a bicycle!
Shoba: Yes, I really wanted to go to college though. I had my daughter ride on the pillion sometimes, and we would come back bruised when we fell down. I spent my time riding my two-wheeler around campus, got my license and also finished my thesis in the bargain. It was around this time that I interviewed for a post at Vidya Mandir.
I was called to conduct a demo class after the interview. I took a lesson in kinetics to a newly-promoted 12th standard class, with all the senior teachers observing. One of them got up and left after a while, so I figured that I probably won’t get the job. But I received a call later from Prema Raghavan miss who simply asked me to come and join the school. That’s how my story with VM began.
The first couple of years were really hard but it was a huge learning for me. I expected that things would be handed to me; it wasn’t the case. It took me a while to understand that senior teachers were very knowledgeable but I had to go and ask to learn; it wouldn’t be given to me on a silver platter. No one would be direct in their feedback either. Once a senior teacher remarked, “Shoba, I will put a hole in between our classrooms, you teach for the both of us.” I blinked and it was another who explained, “You’re probably too loud.” I would ask to sit in, in fellow teachers’ classes and I was always welcomed. They never invited me themselves, but I had the freedom to go observe if I needed to.
It was honestly the best learning I could have had. Today, I ensure that teachers know that they have mobility to learn from each other; anyone can sit in anyone’s class, correct each other’s test books etc.
MM: This feels in line with the spirit of VM, too… while one won’t be spoon fed, they can always ask for help if needed and they would receive it.
Shoba: Definitely. School became like family, too. When I participated in a teacher’s competition organized by a Bombay-based institution, everyone rallied around. I remember the teachers – Meenakshi miss, Pushpa miss, Gouri miss – bringing a pile of designer and silk sarees to school, asking me to take my pick to wear to Bombay. I ended up winning the silver award, which gave me confidence that I can grow further in this career.
MM: That does sound like a family.
Shoba: It was. In 2005, Bhavani miss, then the Principal, asked me to apply for the Fulbright teacher exchange program, which gave me the opportunity to teach in a US high-school for 6 months. I was selected and went to Vermont, to teach at the Union High School. It was a wonderful experience; my approach to teaching changed completely.
My classes were actually a flop in the first week; everything was different there. I had to take photocopies of my lessons because students wouldn’t take down notes; I had no office staff to assist me with these tasks. I had to plan lab work in advance otherwise the attender – an ex-military officer – wouldn’t release the materials I needed. Say I suddenly decided I needed sodium. He would be sitting on piles of the stuff but would refuse to give it to me unless it had been planned in advance.
MM: School culture is different there too, I suppose.
Shoba: Yes. The most that the children would do was to fill in the blanks, possibly a phrase at a time; that too on a one-sided question paper. If I gave them two sides to work on, the immediate response would be, “Ms. Raman! This is too much to do in an hour!” I had to plan my lessons meticulously, ensuring that theory was followed by practical work to hold interest. Otherwise, the kids would wear their headphones while you’re teaching.
And then, there’s the matter of pronunciation. We had different ways of pronouncing words – but I absolutely had to remember the childrens’ names the way they wanted it to be pronounced. If a child said, “I am Scott Nicholas and you must call me Scooter,” I had to respect his wishes. I had to be polite too – I had to say, “Mr. Scooter, can you answer this question?” It is only when the child lets you know that you’ve become friends that you can cut out the ‘mister’ and call him Scooter. I had to learn to be on my toes.
I cried in the first week. Then I remembered how I had handled three 12th standard sections at Vidya Mandir and took the same approach – different lessons for different classes. I was comfortable after a couple of months and we all became friends soon. Once, a student called me at 1am saying, “Ms. Raman! Get up now and run to the window! The first snowflake is falling, go catch it!”
MM: How did the experience change the way you approached teaching?
Shoba: The amount of resources available to the teacher was immense. Schools maintained a repository of interesting lab work to teach all kinds of concepts. I was introduced to the idea of open-ended lessons. Students can experiment to observe reactions and make a note; they weren’t marked on factual accuracy but logical reasoning. For instance, our traditional way of teaching children is to say, “Add silver nitrate to chloride, you will get a white precipitate. Hence, the presence of chloride is proved.”
At the Union High School, it was different. You would say, “Take silver nitrate. Add it to these three solutions X, Y, Z and see what happens. What is different? Why is it different?” The students also had a choice of changing the experiment. Take the concept of surface tension, for instance – it’s a fun experiment, involving putting colour powder in milk. The students can play around – they can dilute the milk and try the experiment; use liquid colour instead of solid; add a soap solution and try again and so on and so forth. It was an open-ended approach – try different things and record your observation.
When I returned to VM, I started a chemistry club after school where the children could do fun experiments and have lab adventures. We also launched an inter-school chemistry fest called Bonds; we started celebrating Mole Day, a fun way to explore a complex numerical concept in chemistry. Mole Day was recognized as a best practice by the NCERT.
I had a lot of support from teachers – Lakshmi miss was supportive and Kanchana and Sowmya were very helpful. We still continue these activities today and I think it was all this that impressed the CBSE to give me this award.
Today, as we move to online teaching in the pandemic, we’re still thinking of new ways to teach and conduct even practicals online. All the teachers are training themselves with online teaching technologies and we’re working to equip the school to live-stream lessons. We’re still learning, seeing how things can be made better.
MM: That quality of yours hasn’t changed, has it? Right from MCTM where you saw an opportunity to make chemistry interesting to today, where you’re the Principal at Vidya Mandir.
Shoba: (laughs) No, it hasn’t. A leader must be proactive and figure out the best possible solution for students.