June 16, 2013

A day off in Bangalore, the Teacher Foundation, and another flight

So Saturday was a day without meetings; though it was several times suggested that I go to Mysore, to see the spectacular temples and palaces there- I am afraid I couldn't quite face the idea of 6-7 hours in the car to get there and back. This may well be something I come to regret; but with two more domestic flights in the next 4 days, followed by a long day of driving to Agra for the Taj Mahal...followed only a few days later by the trek home (15.5 hr flight, 7 hr layover, 2.5 hr flight...), I just couldn't face it. Let it not be said that I wasted the day, however; I actually had a wonderful time walking around Bangalore. While I have waxed-not exactly poetic, but perhaps enthusiastic about both the weather here and the people, I may have neglected to mention the one real negative to quality of life here: the traffic. It is awful. Commutes to my meetings have been noticeably longer, and it's been something that almost everyone, when I arrive at a meeting, comments on- usually the joking, "how do you like our traffic?", kind of like saying to a visitor to St. Louis in an August heat wave, "so how do you like our weather?".  So going anywhere by car is a pretty decent commitment. 

Walking suited me just fine. Based on another recommendation I got, I headed for an nearby art school (Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath) which had a series of different galleries displaying not just student but also other art collections...and it just so happened that they were having a craft fair! 50 or 60 booths, all sorts of items, from textiles to wood carvings to pottery to painted art to jewelry to organic spices and eco-friendly banana fiber bags. You could not only speak with the artisan...but based on past experience I'd say prices were about 20-30% of those in tourist shops/hotels/airports...and you know it's going straight to the makers of the crafts. On my way back, there was a procession of some sort moving through the street; music, women with baskets of something I couldn't quite see...so it was really a lot of fun. There was also time to walk the gardens in this really amazing hotel. There is a temple on the grounds, that was here prior to the founding of the hotel some 175 years ago, some ponds...and of huge educational value to me...some labels on the trees (since I have no idea what they are, other than beautiful). 

Sunday (this) morning I met with Maya Menon, director of the Teacher Foundation, over brunch. She was incredibly generous to give up her Sunday morning! The shortage of trained teachers is an issue at all levels of education; the Teacher Foundation provides training which not only helps state governments come into compliance with the Right to Education act (which mandates teachers be trained) but also tries to get teachers themselves to experience that learning can be a joy...if you've never felt it, it can be difficult to pass it on. Maya had a lot of insight on the social and cultural pressures that contribute to non-ideal classroom settings. I think she's right that working with individual school heads can be one of the most powerful ways to generate change...culture building is going to vary based on the personalities involved, so you can't do much to propose general solutions in that area. However, building the school leadership would allow for each school to adapt in it's own way. Maya pointed out that it is the low cost private schools, which generally teach urban poor (parents do save to pay the relatively low fees involved) that often fall through the cracks in terms of development and improvement. High cost private can take care of themselves, and are aware of best practices in India and globally, and government schools which serve the rural poor have significant government oversight and also NGOs involved to help. The Teacher Foundation is interested in helping these schools as well, however, Maya said often they have to start with "you must provide toilet facilities and drinking water" before they can get to working on teaching! 

After a long afternoon in Bangalore airport due to a flight delay, I ended up in my last new city, Hyderabad. My driver was fairly insistent that I spend my morning seeing the "many beautiful monuments" of Hyderabad, since my first meeting is at 3. How could I refuse? I am still feeling a little guilty about turning down Saturday's opportunity in Bangalore...