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The teacher is a good learner

On Teacher’s Day, a non-conformist with radical ideas about education who managed to implement them, Shantha Rameshwar Rao takes a walk down memory lane. Serish Nanisetti listens in


Competition is very wrong, it is violence, it is jungle law. We followed the philosophy of saying no to competition

Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

Life’s a lesson Shanta Rameshwar Rao, Principal of Vidyaranya School

You don’t talk to teachers, you listen to them. That’s the lesson one learns while listening to author and unorthodox educationist Shanta Rameshwar Rao in her school on the foothills of Naubat Pahad that’s a byword for freedom. The school has the look of a palatial home and not a boxy building, instead of silence there is noise, instead of uniformed commonness the children are a blaze of colour and styles. Unconventional? Yes. But then that’s how Shantha wanted her school to be from the time she confronted her mother with:

“If I pray I don’t need to study?”

“No no you have to make an effort,” said the mother.

“But you only said if I pray I will succeed,” I was small but argumentative, says Shantha who nevertheless listened to her mother and never stopped making the effort.

Step into her room and she is reading a book on geography. “One of the teachers is on leave and she was teaching about Australia and to fill in her shoes I borrowed these books from our library,” says Shanta as she describes how she spelt ab-origin-es to let the students arrive at the name of the original settlers and how adi-vasi is related to the word in our culture.

Information about aborigines led to the legend of Lemuria about the isthmus. Learning about physical geography they learn about Australia and then southern hemisphere. Australia is base for bigger knowledge. And I will learn about Australia,” says Shantha with the enthusiasm of a child about to be read a bedtime story.

“I was ignorant and I am learning. So at 85 I am learning,” she says. But Shantha wasn’t always a teacher. Before that she was just the wife of an IFS officer J. Rameshwara Rao who had stints in Africa before he moved to politics and won elections from Mahboobnagar.

“One day I was dusting the books in my husband’s collection when I saw the cover of a book Education and Significance of Life by J. Krishnamurti with a foreword by Aldous Huxley. By Jove! I cannot tell the impact: it was like a knock on the head, a bolt of lightening and I could see the path,” says Shanta, her eyes glinting with passion and her fingers and arms bringing alive the impressions. “Another trigger was when my daughter told me about her teacher beating her on knuckles for not being able to write within the small squares of her notebook.

Of course I was always interested in education as I was a very poor student inattentive and easily distracted,” she says.

“I learnt about our old mode of education. Observed different schools in the country including Rishi Valley School, spoke to principals of various schools in Hyderabad. And then developed my own ideas about how teaching has to be done. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I realised that if you have ideas you try them out on your children first exactly as Edward Jenner did with his experiment on vaccination with his own daughter and then you know where it hurts,” says Shanta.

Where non-conformism is the norm, there are strong opinions. “Competition is very wrong, it is violence, it is jungle law. We followed the philosophy of saying no to competition. We try to prevent competition but children are competitive, teachers are also competitive. I feel competition is the reason for the world becoming what it is,” says Shantha.

“I started my first school with three children my daughter among them in Adarsh Nagar where we used to live. Our first piece of luck was when Kamala Subramaniam joined the school and brought her training experience from Chennai. We tried to do away with the bogey called exam.

Learning is given a go by when there are exams,” says Shantha about her school which has no exams till class VIII.

“The other day I was in class VIII. And I saw the children behaving in a peculiar way: not playing, nervous and fearful. Examinations put an end to learning, either you pass or fail. I feel learning is more important than exams, what do you think?” she asks.

Not just a teacher Shantha is a storyteller who has earlier written Tales from Ancient India, Bekanna and the musical mice, Bulbul’s nose ring and other stories. She narrates her life like a story. “Once I was in Monda Market and the woman selling vegetables asked me about the school and she was incredulous: ‘Rs. 25 fee (it was long time ago) and the children don’t have uniform and don’t have exams. Mari enti chestaru? School lo enti nerchkuntaru? Chaduvukora?’ We came across the same sentiment about the school in other circles also. But I never gave up.”

“We were very slow to grow, then children who had a problem started coming to the school. Since we were new, we adopted everyone who came,” she says. In her school that carries its radicalism like a placard, Shantha also says:

“But you need discipline, if you don’t have discipline you cannot do anything. Even for cooking you need discipline.” But there is no irony in what she says. As she flits between discipline and the young rebels in her school, the idea of karma about the students and how the school can change them, she says: “I think I am a good teacher because I love it. It is challenging work. Because I am willing to learn,” she sums up.

And as you walk away from the principal’s chamber, Oliver Goldsmith’s poem comes to mind: “And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew, that one small head could carry all he knew.”

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