Teaching her way – Sunanda Khosla

When Manish asked me to guest write a column for My Zen Path, I was honoured but also confused. My path is mildly offbeat, but not zen – it is nowhere close to the zen ideals of balance and peace, but I try. I’ll start from the beginning.

How it started?

I’ve always loved science and have been good at STEM subjects- and in a middle-class, small-town mindset, it meant that I had the potential to earn a lot of money. But by age 12, I’d decided that I wanted to teach. My paternal grandad was a professor of botany, and he was my greatest inspiration. As I grew older, I volunteered to teach underprivileged children and it became clearer that teaching was what brought me joy. My parents were supportive. The rest of my extended family scoffed at the “lost potential”. I went on to pursue a lectureship at one of India’s best engineering colleges, very much on-track with my dream of getting my PhD and becoming a professor. That…. did NOT go as planned.

I quickly found out that a government temporary lectureship is meant for people who do not mind staying dependent on their parents until they finish their PhD- I was paid 18000/- INR (after having completed my master’s with honours). When would my ‘temporary’ position become permanent? Nobody had an answer to that. I could not be given living quarters before that, and pensions and any other perks were already discontinued years before I even began. To make things worse, my seniors who were pursuing their PhDs seemed miserable. My beloved grandfather never had to do a PhD- in his time, a master’s was more than enough, and he had a fair pension until the day he died. I would inherit only his passion for science, but none of the comforts that he enjoyed.

I shifted to a private college with a city that at least had all my friends- Bangalore. In this time, I also realized how monotonous it is to do just one thing at a time- I needed a social life, I wanted to write, I wanted to cook. I wanted to be present in my loved ones’ lives, and I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to learn about art and music and things that were not quite accessible to me during my own childhood. In other words, I had discovered that human beings are oceans, and modern jobs insist on treating us like laminar, one directional little pipelines.

Sunanda Khosla's book
Sunanda Khosla’s book

I worked at schools and colleges, and I did love the teaching aspect of every job. I am fortunate to have students who have chosen to stay in touch after all these years. Dan Ariely, my internet teacher of choice, said in one of his lectures that when basic needs are fulfilled, what brings us happiness is not more money- it is mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Now, the ‘purpose’ column of my ledger was in the green – what greater purpose can one have, than learning with bright young minds? The ‘autonomy’ part on the other hand, could not be found while working for someone else. It took me a decade to come to this conclusion since I am an eternal optimist, but even workplaces that promise to be “different” and “holistic” will have zero qualms about working you to the ground if it means better profit. A lot of educational institutes that pretend to have good values – words like “inclusive”, and “feminist” are thrown around by institutes that gleefully discriminate against marginalized communities. Teaching was my calling, but the one value that I could not let go of was integrity. I could not pretend that I cared for standardized tests. (Yes, the irony of the fact that I am mostly approached by publishers to create content for the very same standardized exams is not lost on me. But I do have a rule to say YES to every writing assignment unless it is beyond my scope of understanding). I could not pretend that the administration was taking steps to better the students’ education when they introduced systems that solely pushed people towards a better grade, not better understanding. (For example, many colleges now have ready-made kits for electronics labs- the students don’t know how to create a circuit on a breadboard). The unfortunate part of the system is that you are forced to take sides- and I will choose my students above anyone else- even the administration and the parents who are paying me. The education sector has already fallen to crony capitalism, and it does not care about the consumer, it cares for profit maximization of the owners.

Choosing autonomy

I have finally taken the decision to work independently and being autonomous has improved both my mental health and the quality of my teaching tremendously. To be fair, a part of this realization that I should be working for myself had happened a long time ago, but I was crushed under the fear of failure. There was a “what if no one wants to learn with me” in my mind that held me back for years. But as soon as I found the courage to do it, my entire life fell into place. I can now focus on students in batches of three or four at a time and really find what they need and want, beyond what standard textbooks dictate. One of my 12-year-old students is now studying concepts meant for 16-year-olds, and I can provide him the space to do so. Another one of my students needs help with basic concepts – and I can review concepts as simple as long division, something that schools assume that a 15-year-old would know. My mental health has improved because I am in charge of my own schedule, and I can make sure that I don’t have six hours of back-to-back sessions- as is the norm in a commercial tutorial house. I am not forced to sit in a closed office for eight hours on days when my work finishes in four. As for mastery – well- Physics is something that no one ever completes learning. I am a better teacher than I was last year, and I continue to be amazed and inspired by the complexity of the Universe every day.  I learn, and I realize that there is an infinity more to learn about.

Sunanda Khosla
Sunanda Khosla – No greater joy than owning your schedule 🙂

To be fair, a part of this realization that I should be working for myself had happened a long time ago, but I was crushed under the fear of failure. There was a “what if no one wants to learn with me” in my mind that held me back for years. But as soon as I found the courage to do it, my entire life fell into place.

Looking ahead

I have been a staunch supporter of the fact that when schools and colleges are good, tutorials will cease to exist. But I also understand that we, as a society, are nowhere close to it. Why would a highly qualified person work in school or a college, when the pay cannot cover decent living expenses? Why would someone stay in a rigid box where everything -from how you teach, what you teach, how you talk and even the clothes that you wear must conform to an extremely outdated code? I quit and started freelancing and I’ve never been happier. I teach, and I write- now on my own terms. I’ve never messed up my attendance system, it does not require the amount of paperwork that schools would have you believe that it does. I earn modestly, but still more than what any employer was willing to pay me, and for fewer hours of work. I volunteer and help where I can. I believe that a good education is every child’s right, and what we are saddling them with is merely training to pass an exam. I would be lying to say that this path is smooth – there are inevitable periods of time when no one wants to have a class, and when my writing payments are stuck in escrow- but over time I am getting better at preparing myself for these. There are times when a student’s learning style does not match my teaching style and I have to turn them away. I feel FOMO when my husband and my friends in tech receive cool gadgets and shirts and swag for merely doing their job well (the best I’ve ever got is a 10-euro tip, and that was once in my 11 years of teaching). But I am here to tell you that human weaknesses for cool stuff aside, I have no regrets. Nothing will compare to the feeling of helping someone have a lightbulb moment and understand something challenging. The world could do with more science and rationality, and I truly believe that the coming generation wants a more rational and a more humane approach to life. I get to do what I love. I get to have time for whatever else I intend to try. I get to be an ocean in a world pushing us to become puddles.

हम भी दरिया हैं हमें अपना हुनर मालूम है
जिस तरफ़ भी चल पड़ेंगे रास्ता हो जाएगा
– बशीर बद्र

Roughly translated –

I’m a river after all, I know my abilities
I’ll make my way, wherever I go
–  Bashir Badr

About the Author

Sunanda Khosla with her husband
Sunanda Khosla with her husband

Sunanda is an independent educator and an amateur writer. She calls Bangalore her home for now, and lives with her favourite human and two cats.

Her home often smells like baking bread and old books. 🙂

All the photos used in this story are provided by Sunanda Khosla.

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