Three weeks ago, I returned from volunteering at Pardada Pardadi Education Society, a rural girl’s school in Uttar Pradesh, India. Set in the middle of 64 villages along the Ganges River, over 70% of women in that region are illiterate.
Yet, remarkably, here in this school that was started by Virendra (Sam) Singh — the first person from India to be hired by the DuPont Company — 1400 girls were learning at levels far beyond what my own daughters have been exposed to. In Sam’s childhood village of Annupshur, fifteen and sixteen year olds were working handily through trigonometry formulas on the chalk board with no teacher present.
It was my first time in India, my first time seeing subsistence poverty, and my first time experiencing structural subjugation of women: 85% of girls are denied a primary education, female infanticide is too common, and the maternal death rate hovers near 20 percent. Amidst chaos and oppression, however, I witnessed a profound respect for education amongst students that I’ve seen only once before while living in Hong Kong and China for 8 years. Many of our students in Delaware experience poverty and oppression, but the third-world areas I visited felt more cut-off from resources and hope.
Each night of my trip I tried to untangle my unscientific thoughts, careful not to extrapolate too far from a single experience in a single area. But still – I wondered what it is about American culture that seems to have dissolved our respect both for learning as the gateway to a productive future, and for teaching as a revered profession? Is it access? Rigor? Guns? Drugs? Is it that our celebrities are sports stars, pop stars and film stars? Is it our orientation to self, versus community?
Much of the conversation in our state focuses on resources versus the pursuit of teaching and leadership. If one thing is even clearer to me after visiting Pardada Pardadi, it is that PEOPLE make the difference in our students’ lives. Technology? Sure, if we have evidence that kids are learning. Beautiful school buildings? Sure, if we have evidence that kids are learning. When I see concrete floors, windowless rooms, a single chalk board and trig formulas, I start to question my own sense of what is valued most. We have to be able to talk about our schools in the context of the privileges and opportunities that we have, not simply the deficits.
When I returned home, and as we approach the end of another school year, I asked our teachers to continue to extend love and commitment to their students as rigorous, curious scholars. It is through teachers that our kids can learn to respect the value – and the ticket – of an excellent education, and it is through excellent leaders that life-altering teachers continue to teach. I am more convinced than ever that teachers change lives.