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A Teacher Ahead of Her Time

An all boys school, prestigious, sought after, with an illustrious alumni in a large metropolis.  In the 80’s it had one female teacher at the senior school level who taught Economics (which was an optional subject.taken up by a limited number of students!)  It could not be comprehended by the management of the school that a woman could impart knowledge to a bunch of 150 rambunctious boys, raring at the bit, future leaders of this country on  subjects as weighty as English (a compulsory subject applicable to the entire batch, and required to pass!)

At a time when women are being encouraged to “lean in” (or not!), when Oscar acceptance speeches are considered controversial because of their focus on equal wages for both sexes, one person – characterized by resolve and determination, along with a sense of gravitas – challenged a “gender bias”.

TeachingSujata Goswami walked in for an interview at the school and met with a principal who was skeptical and closed. But at the same time tempted. Tempted says Sujata by “my qualifications and over 15 years of experience as an English teacher in schools that constituted the crème da le crème of this nation.” Well, they say never stare a gift horse in the mouth. The school could not – it was impossible to resist employing a teacher who had graduated from the best teaching college in the country, with a gift for teaching the works of the bard and the presence becoming of a gifted teacher.  Sujata was accepted as an English teacher for the senior school and left after 22 years only because she was mandated to as per the rules relating to retirement.

Balancing home and a career is not a post liberalization phenomenon.   And Sujata has been doing it since the 1970s.  In fact she trained to be a teacher after she got married and had a child.  A Masters in English from Calcutta University, Sujata knew she wanted to work. Why teaching? Well, her love for English and the fact that teaching was the most viable professional option available to ambitious women like herself at that time.

Before she actually decided to study to be a teacher, she did a short stint at her alumni encouraged by her former principal who felt her talents could be put to good use at the school.  But in 1975 she had to leave when her husband was transferred to Bhubaneshwar.  Honestly admitting that she found being a stay at home mother “stifling” she decided to take up a job at the Stewart School in Bhubaneshwar.  In 1976, while at this school (Jay Panda, politician and Lok Sabha member was in the first batch she taught) she decided to apply for a scholarship to study at the prestigious Regional College of Education.  For those in the know, the Regional College of Education, an undertaking run by the Government of India has 4 centres across the country and is at par with any tier 1 institution in its training for the profession of teaching.  So, Sujata, then a young mother applied under the quota from her native state and was accepted.  She says that the training she received was less pedantic and more practical.  For eg, the College was perhaps the only institution which differentiated between training for primary school and secondary school.  It conducted practical training in an inhouse school called the Demonstration Multipurpose School.

If there is anything that will strike you about Sujata when you meet her it most definitely is her ability to lead life on her own terms.  And her experiences mirror this.  Even while at the Regional College.  When Sujata graduated from the College she was ranked no 2 in the whole of Eastern India.  Why not no 1, you may ask – well, because she decided leave out 25 marks reserved for statistics – something which she did not have a taste for – and 25 marks on a section related to sports – because she was definitely not a games person!

Sujata relates an interesting anecdote related to her practical examination which was conducted at the Multipurpose School at the College.  Her teaching skills were to be tested on a group of Class 10 students whose first language of choice was not English. Well, how does one tackle a situation like this and come out on tops? She concluded that the English proficiency of these Class 10 kids would be at par with a Class 5 student attending a full fledged English medium school.  So, she chose a poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” and put her teaching skills to the test with the help of a diligent young 5th grader (a friend of her young daughter, no less!) The next day, convinced that her decided approach was fail proof, she tackled her test class head on. Much to her relief the lesson was a huge success until one question at the very end from one of the boys completely flummoxed her. Well, what was that question? Sujata says “The boy raised his hand and asked me “Was the pussycat a sea cat?” A sea cat! she thought.  Well, whatever was a sea cat? She answered no, but the young boy was rather persistent in getting to the root of whether the cat was a sea cat.  The practical session ended and with a sinking feeling that the bricks of her well planned session had indeed crumbled, she left the room.  Outside one of the examiners, who had looked rather puzzled throughout the entire “aquatic” experience asked her why she was not able to answer the question which in his opinion was simple. “You see” he said “all he wanted to know was whether the cat was a female!”  It was then that it dawned on her that the question had nothing to do with a species of cat that had somehow eluded her in biology class, but was actually about whether the cat was a “she” versus a “he”! She says “This incident was an obvious example of ambiguity caused by confusion over understanding local pronounciation. It is a lesson that I never forgot!”

Episodes such as this have peppered Sujata’s career.   Like when she move to Indore in 1981 and applied to the haloed Daly College for the position of a teacher.   This was a school sought after by the erstwhile Indian royalty and British civil servants during the Raj.  And she was accepted to teach English to Class 10 to 12 students.  Many years later she recalls attending a Founders Day event at the school where she mingled with the likes of Rakesh Sharma and Sunil Gavaskar. And here her unfailing confidence came to the forefront when she walked up to Sunil Gavaskar and said “I do not know anything about cricket, but I would love to chat with you!” Needless to say they did have a rather engaging conversation.

Books-on-Kitchen-TableSujata has also not been a stranger to adversity, but the gravitas and faith of her convictions that I mentioned earlier always helped her prevail. Like the time when she realized she had to leave Indore and the Daily College, and in the process move her daughter out as well, who was quite frankly devastated.  Her daughter could not fathom moving away from an atmosphere where one could experiment with carpentry or ride horses or indulge (yes, indulge versus compel!) in what interested one the most.  When her daughter refused to leave home and go to school, Sujata decided to take matters in her own hands.  She went on a solo trip to Calcutta, the place they were to move to, and visited her alma mater.  Sujata was determined that if she could not replicate the experience of Daly College for her daughter she could atleast get her into an institution which was close enough.  She requested an interview with the principal and was declined one. Undeterred, she wrote her name out on a slip of paper and requested the office secretary to just pass the slip on to the principal.  A few minutes later much to the surprise of the staff in the office, the person who had the audacity to seek a meeting with the head of the school without an appointment was being warmly embraced by the said head! Sujata says “Many years had passed, but she remembered me with warmth and affection.  And she heard me out patiently, understanding my predicament.” It was the middle of an academic year, but once again Sujata prevailed when her daughter was given a seat at her school.

Even though the boys school she was accepted to realized they needed her, it was definitely not a bed of roses.  Having taught at the Daly College where extra curriculars was considered at par with letters and numbers, Sujata describes the place as a “dungeon”.  Along with a male colleague she had to handle a batch of 180 boys and prepare them to write a competitive exam (and that as we all know in India is enough to make anyone break out into a sweat!) But the challenges were not just the sheer numbers of students or portions to cover but the continued lack of support and animosity from the head of the school. Sujata says that she felt herself wearing down, wondering whether she should throw in the towel.  After an incident which made her break down at the school, she went back to her parents house dispirited and ready to resign the next day.  This she says was the defining moment – she describes it as a situation where facing up to her challenges was something that was thrust on her, not something she willingly decided to do. Her father looked at her and said those words which changed everything. “Remember”, he told her “the job does not need you, you need the job!”

With those words Sujata found the embers of that spark which had made her graduate top of her class, pursue a career while bringing up a child, and work only in the best schools of this country. She decided that this one negative experience would not be her undoing. From then on, she said she began to feel that she “owned” her place at the school.  And with that came the respect and the regard that she deserved.   She has been responsible for setting up the most prestigious debating trophy in the city where she taught.  This happened after two of her students passed away in a tragic accident and she decided to convince the parents to set up a trophy that would keep their memory alive.

Sujata is retired today. Her challenges are different but her professional success and the satisfaction that it has given her helps her manage tough situations even today. In her professional life she has challenged biases related to gender, raised a daughter with an orientation to excellence and had noteworthy achievements.

Image courtesy: Flickr user Cheryl

Image courtesy: Flickr user Cheryl

I have been reading a slew of articles on mompreneurs and top women executives under 40 and more such catchy tag lines.  They harp on the challenges of being successful at work, earning top dollar and being recognized whilst bringing up kids and taking care of a home.  But for me the real stories are the ones like those of Sujata.  A woman who is independent, family oriented, intelligent, hardworking – who started her career in the 70s and who never made it to any list or business magazine.  She did it without apps and household help and day care.  Hers is a story that needs to be told because she is an inspiration to women who must know that it can be done – with grace, with spunk, with courage and hard work.

Cover image courtesy – Flickr user Natalie Shuttleworth

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