My trip to Swasthya Swaraj : Teaching Lessons

My trip to Swasthya Swaraj (SS) was a balanced mix of multiple experiences. I got the opportunity to interact with young students of Diploma in Community Health Practices (DCHP) at Kaniguma village, the staff at Health center set up by SS and also spent good amount of time working in the office of SS at Bhawanipatna, Orissa. All of these experiences are close to my heart and have added value to my being. In this post I would describe my experience of interacting with the girls. In these sessions I focused on revising basic arithmetic concepts, mathematics for community health, developing computer skills through hands-on training and English book reading. I spent close to three sessions on three different days with the girls. Although my experience is very limited yet it has given me some food for thought which I try to share here.

In the first session I decided that it would be a good idea to have a detailed discussion on BMI (Body-Mass Index) with the students. Naturally, the discussion began with malnutrition and how it is assessed. I helped them understand how BMI helps to classify whether someone is severely malnourished or of normal weight. The theoretical knowledge of girls was adequate and they responded well to my conceptual and situation-based questions. Obviously, they were hesitant because I was a new face to them but I ensured that it did not smother the discussion. During the class then, I asked them about the mathematical formula for BMI. This took time and eventually we all arrived on a consensus over the universally-accepted formula for BMI. Later on, I asked them compute their own BMIs and classify self into the three categories of BMI we had discussed, namely, Normal, Overweight and Obese. This exercise would open doors to big and significant revelations to me and would then direct all my efforts into something more fundamental than BMI : addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Computing BMI involved handling decimal numbers and division and multiplication; the students struggled with it and I clearly was not happy. My assuming mind was expecting that high school graduate students would be adept in these basic operations but I realized that we needed to work hard on these. This realization, I’ll be honest, was not quick, it was preceded by anger and a psychological shock. I had read in multiple reports worldwide and also national that students find it hard to read and perform basic mathematical operations. Somewhy I had not really paid attention to the veracity of those findings and never cared to think over what it meant and my first session made me sink within. “How could high school graduates not know division and multiplication?”, I asked myself recurrently. I did not arrive at a satisfactory answer. Postponing the question to my night-time rumination, I composed myself , wiped the white-board and decided that it was more pertinent to discuss and make them practice sums involving basic arithmetic. The anger and psychological shock was morphed into a self-discovery; I was not so much angry on them but on myself for I found it challenging to teach them those concepts. This was another revelation and it pinched me harder than the first one. It was a brush with my own incompetence and I knew I needed to work on it and do my homework. Much thanks to one of the students who eased my job and as she explained certain exercise questions to her classmates. This was my brush with language barrier, although they understood Hindi but obviously they understood Oriya better, the local language. Multiplication was still manageable, what I found tough to teach was decimal division and simplification of decimal fractions. Their confusions were valid, the students were trying hard and responding really well but I was not satisfied with myself. I was not able to teach them that with my existing abilities. I have taught students, mostly in college and yet  I was struggling with basic concepts, things we term as “no-brainer”. That day really hit me hard; at night I called up my friend Manali and shared my feelings. She told me that may be they were never taught while growing up and I naturally asked, how could that be possible. I could not believe that they were never really taught this in their primary school and this thought still haunts me. At one end of spectrum are people like me who aspire to study from the promising institutes of the world and at another end of the spectrum are students who have not been instructed satisfactorily in their primary schools. This is the first time in my life I sensed a real divide and a wide one at that. It seemed like violence to me. For a long time I had been hearing the unwillingness of doctors to serve in the poor and heard-to-reach areas and here I experienced the same for education, primary education. And then it was an attack hurled on myself from self. In that respect, I am still torn and lie in deep ambivalence.

In those moments I also realized how fortunate I have been to receive a good education; it has allowed me to dream higher and aspire for greater things. I wonder what dreams of so many tribal students would be like. Notwithstanding all that I was feeling, I decided to work on my teaching skills and referred some material so that I could teach them properly the intricacies of basic arithmetic operations involving whole numbers and decimals. I had to work extra-hard with two of the students and what followed that was nothing short of a discovery to me. The two girls were able to understand what initially seemed challenging to them; with my naked eyes I saw that concerted effort from teacher’s side and focused practice does pay some fruits. “No student is incompetent”, it was written all over the walls of my brain. I was delighted to see that they did obtain some idea but I do sulk now for my visit was limited and they need more practice and a close interaction with a facilitator. I tried to teach them but I am aware that it was like providing a spoonful of elixir to them from the vast ocean of knowledge.

In the kind of world I live in, I am made to believe that everything is perfect, people are well-read, well-clothed and well-fed and that the problems that we have now are the problems of materialism, substance abuse and other crimes. However, it is a tragedy that there is so much that I do not know. So much which is actually important to know that I do not know of. It is after experiences like these that I can understand books written on social issues and health better. Furthermore, it was precisely due to this experience that I went back to the day when Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of the train in South Africa and read it all over again and what transpired after.

Long Live Swasthya Swaraj.

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