Almost two years ago, my husband’s work took us to a new city and I found myself in the market for a job. When I heard about the pioneering work that Snehalaya English Medium School was involved in, I knew that I had found my calling in life.
The school, in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra state, India, provides education to children who have been isolated from society, those with severe social, economic or health problems. As the main emphasis is on educating children from the slum areas and red-light districts, as well as HIV-positive children, I knew that I would need to be flexible in my new role as headteacher.
Accepting the contract meant not only signing up to be an educator but also signing up to be one of the primary caregivers for the 200 students who attend, of whom more than half are HIV-positive.
School starts at 8.45am with a 15-minute standing meeting for all staff. Every day, I discuss the specific counselling needs for all students, such as emotional counselling for children who have suffered traumas, but also practical advice, like the need for good hygiene and tidy uniforms. Most of the children don’t have parents, so we have to be flexible if they haven’t finished their homework. I keep in mind that this school is the primary environment for these children to develop life skills. I also want it to serve as a place where they can express their feelings.
I try to make sure that we give all the children, especially those with HIV, a good education, and that we give them love.
Once my general inspections have been completed and assembly is over, I assist teachers with their lessons. There are six lesson periods per day; following my observations during a teacher-exchange visit funded by the British Council to Welland Park Academy in the UK, I have introduced departments and specialised classrooms for each subject.
Our students often show up with wounds, and we must show them how to take care of their injuries. Because of the medication they take, sometimes they need to sleep, or they feel very sick. If we give them love, then we are giving them all the things that a parent would normally give.
I have placed an emphasis on sports and extracurricular activities. I have reduced the length of the study periods so that students can concentrate better. I have also implemented programmes for music and drawing, and set up a toy bank for the younger children. Play is such an important part of daily education for them.
At 3pm, the bell signifies the end of the school day. After the students go home, I offer additional skills programmes for my staff. We have a high staff turnover rate because of competitive salaries at state schools and a culture of marriage at a young age.
One of the biggest challenges is that the children don’t necessarily have an interest in education. There are no educated adult figures elsewhere in their lives, so our first job is to teach them the importance of education. My students may be underprivileged, but I have big dreams for them. I want to give them the self-confidence to do anything that they desire. They are honest students; they can work in good jobs. I am sure this will happen, because I am like their mother, and I see them as my children.
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