Expect to feel a little lost and alone at first: What life is like after an alternative school
You’ll be fazed by all the deadlines, challenged because you have opinions, but it will be worth it once you start your career, say the college-goers and young adults we spoke to.more lifestyle Updated: Sep 28, 2017 17:22 IST
The first day of college is a lonely, scary experience for most kids. For those from alternative schools, it’s the beginning of a different way of life.
“Just the sight of a class of 80 students where no one bothered to listen to the teacher made me feel so uncomfortable. Here we’re just faces, barely even names,” says Aryaman Jal from Andhra Pradesh.
“I noticed that people were getting irritated when I asked questions in class. I had to stop,” says Kunal Lalchandani from Ahmedabad.
“My confidence took a dip. It’s different to speak among six children and suddenly have to open up among 35,” says Rohan Jain from Delhi.
Feeling alone in a crowd; classmates who think they’re strange; teachers who seem distant and want them to stick to the script — these emerged as their most common concerns, when we spoke to kids from alternative schools who have moved into the mainstream.
It’s a culture shock that the parents and schools have known was coming, and in many cases there are organised efforts to prepare the youngsters in their last year at the alternative school.
These institutes — places like Mirambika Free Progress in Delhi; Tridha in Mumbai; Riverside and Eklavya in Ahmedabad; Rishi Valley in Andhra Pradesh — have flexible curricula and timetables; classes as small as six and eight; teachers who visit each student’s home; a practical approach to learning that includes camping trips to study the constellations.
Student from alternative schools are used to speaking their minds, and this can be perceived as an ‘attitude problem’, says Gita Bhalla, associate director of the V Excel Educational Trust.
“When we were learning about India’s medieval history, we decided to cover the class in a mud floor just to see what it was like,” says Akshay Menon, a former Tridha student.
Moving from these schools to the rush and bustle of college, the first casualties are personalised attention and the freedom to choose.
“These students are so used to personal attention, pursuing what they like, doing things that make them happy, that following the rat race in conventional education can make them feel lost in a crowd,” says Dr Samir Dalwai, developmental pediatrician and director of New Horizons Child Development Centre.
Student from alternative schools are also used to having an opinion and speaking their minds, and this can be perceived as an ‘attitude problem’, adds Gita Bhalla, associate director of the V Excel Educational Trust that runs the Ira Institution for Learning, which trains teachers for alternative schools.
“The students too can develop an ‘I don’t care’ attitude towards their new school or college,” she adds.
The good news is that the worst of the turbulence last, on average, a year or two. “They are used to a community, but will eventually come to terms with the more formal systems because they are still young and flexible when they make the shift,” says Dr Dalwai.
The bad news is that most of them face this additional challenge at a time that is already very confusing — teenage.
“On the upside, most already know what they want to do because their schools taught them to discover and build upon what they like,” says Dr Dalwai.
‘College feels constricting, stressful’
After studying at Ahmedabad’s Riverside alternative school since Class 1, Kunal Lalchandani is finding college quite an inhibiting experience.
“I soon realised it was all about the rules. There are rules for attendance, penalties for not attending things you don’t like,” says Lalchandani, 21, who is now studying Business Administration in Mumbai. “Anything not in the rules, no one cares about. Then it becomes about passing the buck — everyone thinks it’s the peon’s job to switch off fans and lights, upright toppled dustbins… I can’t come to terms with this approach.”
In his school, each class had 25 children, four students to a table. Teachers used ice-cream sticks to teach addition and subtraction.
“The children looked happy and teachers smiled,” Kunal says. “We didn’t rote-learn formulae, but understood the why behind everything. The school focused on producing human beings, not rankers.”
“Encouraged to ask questions in school, in college that has had to stop. I noticed that people were getting irritated.”
In a class of 60, teachers don’t have as much of a bond with each student either.
Interestingly, where he was once used to doing everything in a small group, he is now finding that most students are looking for or already have that one best friend.
“It gets stressful to feel like I’ve been thrown into a crowd of people I meet every day but don’t know anything about,” he says.
For his mother, Kiran, who moved him from a conventional school so that he would be able to grow up as an individual, these feel like teething problems and part of the price to be paid for that opportunity.
“He’ll learn to adjust; everyone does eventually,” she says. “It’s definitely been worth it overall. He’s been away from home and never complained about homesickness. He is always praised for how confident he is. These are a child’s real achievements, not degrees and marks, and alternative schools help you get there.”
‘My classmates think I’m strange’
Trisha Salvi’s alternative school, Tridha, had customised desks and a library in each class. It taught her how to stitch, and how to plant, tend and pick vegetables. She learnt about the constellations while camping under the stars.
Now in her fourth year of architecture, she says it’s been a challenge adjusting to a conventional classroom.
“It feels like a one-way process, teachers coming in, teaching, leaving and children reproducing their words on paper,” says Trisha, 22. “In a class of 40, only about two children ask questions and I happen to be one of them, so the others think I’m strange.”
On the upside, all the questions have helped her build a good rapport with her teachers. “Some of my classmates seem to have a problem with that too… they seem to think that the teachers are biased towards me when that’s not the case at all — we’re just talking,” she says.
The pace is a lot more hectic than she’s used to too. “The long hours and stringent deadlines make me wonder, sometimes, if I am ready for this kind of lifestyle and if this is how it is going to be when I start working,” she says.
“My peers, they’re used to this grind, this amount of homework and exam pressure. They seem able to deal with the stress much better.”
Trisha’s mother, Rutuja, says they knew this time would come — a period of adjustment that would be relatively difficult — but the joy her daughter knew at Tridha mattered more.
“Anyway, how long can institutions promise personal attention? You grow up and learn to deal with situations on your own, and she will learn to do that too,” Rujuta says.
‘Age and designation are not barriers to me’
At Mirambika Free Progress School, Delhi, there were no textbooks, uniforms or desks arranged in rows. An English class could just be each student talking about what they were reading.
“I remember talking about Charles Dickens in English classes,” says Rohan Jain, now 26. He had to shift to another school mid-way, though, because Mirambika then ended at Class 8.
The new school was a different world — everyone sitting in rows, wearing uniforms. “It all felt so alien,” Jain says. “Children asked for permission to enter the class…. I thought that was really odd. Why would you need to ask to enter a space that is yours?”
“I was told class participation was important, but it’s different to speak among six children and suddenly open up among 35.”
He hadn’t expected it, but his confidence took a bit of dip too, in the middle of so many students per class, all of whom knew the system better than he did.
“I was told ‘class participation is important’, but it’s different to speak among six children and suddenly open up among 35,” he says. “I was asking a lot of questions, but all the other kids were focused on answering as they had been taught to.”
Jain now works as manager of the innovations and exponential impact team at Charities Aid Foundation India, a non-profit organisation that connects donors with charities and helps companies utilise their CSR budgets effectively.
The fact that he thinks differently is still noticed all the time, sometimes positively and occasionally negatively too.
“When I joined, I advised the company to reuse the runoff from an RO machine,” he says. “I know people were surprised, but I’m glad I could think about it when nobody else had and it’s these small things that tell people that a person is different.”
I think I feel the difference every day, he adds. “I am confident and outgoing and I find it easier to speak with seniors because that’s the way we were moulded in at Mirambika. With classes of just six kids, we were always making friends with seniors, so age and designation are not barriers to me.”
‘I had to stop caring, think of normal school as a stepping stone’
At the Eklavya school in Ahmedabad, teachers would visit each student’s house; kids would make duck ponds and tree houses on the school’s massive grounds; some classes were held in the surrounding forest.
“We were so close to our teachers that they could always tell if something was wrong,” says Sheel Parekh, now 26 and an interior designer.
Since she loved to draw, she decided to pursue design at a college in Ahmedabad, and in preparation switched to a state board school for Classes 11 and 12.
“There was no campus and no place to play sports. The teachers didn’t really know the students,” she says. “The students were so used to mugging that I became afraid to ask questions and I didn’t know how I should go about writing the exams.”
A few months in, she says she just stopped caring. “I was there only to get a get a passing certificate. For me, my only school will be Eklavya. It pushed me to pursue my passion and understood my love for art even before I did.”
Thankfully, the design college at CEPT University was a better experience.
“I was doing what I had always wanted to do,” says Parekh. “And it was a bit like Eklavya, where we were just 30 students per class.” She began to make friends with teachers and seniors, thanks to the confidence she says she had gained in school. “Today, I am doing what I love for a living, and it’s all because of the school I went to,” she says.