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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 30 November 2015

7 Life Lessons: What I've Learned Along the Way

Here's a letter I wrote to for my students who graduated. I miss them!

Life’s LessonsA letter to my students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into “adulthood” and the “real world.” And we teachers believe, perhaps naively, that we’ve prepared you for the real world. We’ve given you formulas and algorithms, we’ve introduced you to Orwell and Bronte, we’ve taught you about wars and revolutions, we’ve taught you to read, write, speak, and sing…. We’ve prepared you for that dive.

But in reality, there isn’t a dive that sends you into the pool of adulthood. Growing up isn’t as sudden or as simple as that. It’s a life-long journey, and for the most part, you swim along just as you did in high school. But -- perhaps not unlike the way your heart sank when you bombed a test, or the way you cried when your friend betrayed you, or the way you tossed in bed wondering if your crush would ever be reciprocated -- you might sometimes feel as though you can’t swim fast enough, or the pool seems too long and too deep to navigate, or you lose your way and hit your head on the pool walls, and ouch, it hurts.

As you navigate the complex world of independence and adulthood, I’d like to share with you some of the lessons that I learned along the way. These lessons may or may not resonate with you – but I offer them to you anyways, with all my best wishes and best intentions.

I have learned to empathize more and judge less. Everyone has challenges of some kind – sometimes heartbreaking challenges – so judge people less, empathize with them more, and be kind, be kind, be kind.

I have learned that forgiveness is always better than anger. Forgiveness is liberating, but anger is imprisoning.

As the poet Jallaludin Rumi reminds us,
Anger may taste sweet, but it kills.
Don’t become its victim.
You need humility to climb to freedom.”

I have learned that when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life*, we bleed, whether we’re rich or poor, gay or straight, Jew or Christian, Hindu or Muslim, Black or White, Indian or Chinese. I hope that as you venture into a world where people define themselves by how they are different from others, often with violence and hatred, you will remember our common humanity.

I have learned that there is value in sticking things out: sticking out relationships, jobs, places, and projects. In a world with so much mobility and so many choices, this can be harder than it seems. Continuity and commitment, endurance and perseverance, or “grit”  -- to use the word of the day -- all matter. We need our roots as much as we need our wings.

I have learned that you’re never quite prepared for those moments when adversity hits – when the pool feels too deep and the currents too strong, when you feel as though you may drown, or worse, you yearn to drown, when you are hit with loss or betrayal or failure or terrifying fear. But, prepared or not, you have to keep swimming and stay strong. Don’t fall apart when life gets tough; be resilient and brave.

I have learned that it is important to nurture relationships – to make an effort with people you care about and people you work with. Stay close to your families, nurture your friendships, and cultivate your professional networks. Give gifts, attend your friends’ weddings (even if they’re far away and it’s inconvenient), go to their baby showers, be there for them when things go wrong, reach out often and stay in touch. In a globalized world where people are scattered everywhere, like raindrops, relationships may start to feel ephemeral and transient. Make the effort; you will be grateful for all those relationships – familial, personal, and professional -- down the road.

I have learned that it is important to cultivate your own intellectual life. Your mind is rich and wonderful – nourish it and care for it. Knowledge and imagination, books and ideas, can enrich and sustain you. Like fire and energy, like a bird in flight and a mountain climber scaling heights, the life of the mind is thrilling. Read widely, read deeply, and read often.

Take care of yourselves always.


* "when we skin our knees on the sidewalks of life, we bleed" - Taken from Billy Collins' wonderful poem "On Turning Ten."

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Salman Khan's Lab School: Will it work?

I just read this really interesting article about Sal Khan's (of Khan academy fame) new lab school in California.

He's putting some of his ideas about contemporary education into practice:

  • year-round school
  • technological tools to teach reading and math so that kids can move at their own pace
  • lots of data about each kid (everything is tracked)
  • an emphasis on mastery of skills as opposed to just exposure
  • and a school that functions more like a tech start-up than a traditional school -- as in kids have flexible schedules and more ownership over their time, and they get to work on "passion projects" of their own
As an educator who has been working in schools for close to two decades now, I'm fascinated. Will this experiment work? And what would it feel like to teach in this kind of a school? I love the commitment to mastery and experimentation. I think the school would be an exciting place.

BUT here are some of the questions I have:

- What is the consequence of learning from machines instead of humans? Can machines motivate better than human teachers? Or will there be something missing? 

- Are young kids really ready to pursue passion projects -- like starting an NGO -- or do they need time to grow up a bit before they can do this stuff in a way that will be fulfilling? Are we expecting novices to act like experts? Does that make sense?

- What do we give up (as teachers and as students) when we don't have long breaks away from school/work? I've always loved the academic schedule -- with a clear beginning of the year to start afresh, and a purposeful end to work towards. I've always loved summer vacations - that lack of structure and that get-a-way from the craziness and intensity of school. And I honestly think that the corporate world should incorporate the academic year schedule into their workplaces, as opposed to schools incorporating a corporate schedule.

- Is there such a thing as too much data on students? Schools and teachers are already so awash in data, and I wonder whether it's useful to have this much "objective" data about kids. As a teacher who works closely with kids, the data I like best, the data I find most useful, is not the kind of data one can track. It's what I learn from a conversation with a student in the hallway, or from the comment a student makes during discussion. It's what I learn when I watch a student in my classroom - when I watch her body language or notice the look in her eyes. It's what I learn when I engage in a casual conversation with a parent. It's the everyday stuff of human interactions. And that's what really allows me to get to know a child and build a relationship with him or her. And I would never want to put any of that stuff into an excel spreadsheet.

So, in conclusion, I'm fascinated but still a little skeptical. But I loved Sal Khan's book, The One World Schoolhouse, and I think he has some great ideas. Let's see how the school works out!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Getting Published!

So, my book, Beyond The Tiger Mom, is finally in print. I received my author's copies this afternoon! As I flipped through the pages and re-read those familiar words, I couldn't help reflecting on the long, drawn-out, and sometimes agonizing process of writing and publishing a book.

When I began the writing process, I envisioned going from idea to published book in a year, but it has taken far longer than that. In fact, the interviewing and writing stages were the easy parts -- at the time, I was consumed by the ideas that were floating around in my head, and I couldn't help but write them all down. I often fell asleep thinking about my book, and then woke up thinking about it too. I read voraciously. And I talked to myself a lot - turning ideas and reflections over in my mind.

But then came the hard part. Especially for an introvert like me.  I had to find an agent, then wait till she found me a publisher.

And then came the really hard -- the excruciating -- part. I had to work with an editor, who often had significantly different ideas about the book from me. "Who is your audience?" she demanded, and I weakly replied, "Well...people like me." She looked at me and declared, "Well, that's a very small market, isn't it." And then she cut out whole sections and chapters -- "they don't work for the audience we've defined, and anyways, these profiles, they're a bit bland," she added. Now that the process is over, I can look back and say that she was a wonderful editor because she was deeply invested in the book and she was honest. I still feel bad about some of those sections that were cut though - but perhaps the book is a little more focused now.

But that's not all. So after those agonizing months of editing, there's more. Who knew that authors have to send their manuscripts out to other authors and academics in search of endorsements (or book blurbs)? And who knew about things like galleys, proofs, and typesettings? And who knew how much anxiety and dread an author feels when the manuscript finally goes off to the printer?

The process took more than twice as long as I had anticipated. But it's done now. And I have a beautiful hard cover book with my name on it on my bookshelf.

And you can order it from Amazon if you'd like!

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

What really makes a great teacher?

So what really makes a great teacher? Last year, I asked my graduating class this question and their reply was interesting: great teachers are ones who care about students.

And this, to me, I think is the most important and rewarding part of teaching. Great teaching always happens in the context of a strong, supportive, and mutually respectful relationship. When a student knows that a teacher genuinely cares about his or her well-being and learning, then the student becomes deeply invested in the learning process. The more I think about it, the more I think that the teacher-student relationship is, in fact, the most essential pre-requisite for great teaching and deep learning.

I would add that the next essential element is a deep passion for one's subject matter and the teacher's own love of learning. If teachers are to inspire students, they need to be inspired themselves. They need to be scholars and model intellectual excitement for their students.

And finally, teachers need to work hard. Great teaching is very hard work. It's intellectually, emotionally, and even physically draining.

Increasingly, I find all the raging discussions about pedagogy somewhat irrelevant. Some great teachers are constructivist, others may use a more traditional approach. Some great teachers may run tightly ordered classroom with lots of rules, others may run more relaxed classrooms. Some great teachers may engage their students in lots of activities, others may choose more traditional lectures and discussions. Pedagogy, I think, is not so important because kids can learn in a wide range of ways, and great teaching can happen in many different forms.

However, what great teachers have in common are the following:
- They care about their students. And their students know it.
- They care about their subjects, and they demonstrate a deep love of learning themselves.
- They work hard. Very, very hard.