In Indian mythology, a teacher is given the same – if not higher – respect as one’s parents. During school and college, teachers might be hated, feared and avoided because of the strict discipline they try and instil into each one of us, but just after, they – more often than not – are finally recognised as the powerhouse of patience and forgiveness that they actually are. Not only do they place the building blocks of one’s life, they play an integral role in shaping a child’s personality and future.
And, in the case of these three teachers and their ilk, they change the lives of their pupils entirely. In fact, they give them a life where many others wouldn’t even bother. Mrinal Kanta Saxena, Surabhi Kundra and Bipasha Sengupta are your everyday people, who come from diverse backgrounds, but have now dedicated their time and life to teach children who face more fierce challenges than your average Joe. Saxena, a retired DU lecturer who now runs an NGO that takes care of kids with Polio, Kundra works with children with special needs, and Sengupta has founded a school for the visually impaired. These women have taken on charges that would daunt most, but they persevere and inspire because they love what they do, and they love to see their children realise their potential.
This Teacher’s Day, here are their stories.
Mrinal Kanta Saxena (60)
“I was standing outside my house, when I saw a guard carrying a grown-up child in his arms. When I asked him why was he holding the child, his answer shocked me. He said, ‘Ma’am you should be glad that I didn’t kill her at birth. I have six other children to feed and I end up spending most of my savings on her.’ That was my first encounter with Polio.”
Mrinal Kanta Saxena, a retired Delhi University (DU) professor runs an NGO that provides free food, shelter and medical care to children suffering from Polio. Back in 1986, Meenu di, as her children fondly call her, never imagined running an NGO. Tragedy struck her family early when she lost her father and being the eldest child, she took over her family’s responsibility. To manage expenses, she worked three jobs at a time. After completing her teaching hours in college, she worked as a translator and occasionally as a radio artiste. Yet, she always found time for the children with Polio, whom she taught at the various NGOs, going on to volunteer with them as well to understand the challenges faced by the kids. But she wanted to do more.
“I never thought of opening something of my own but always wanted to know how I could help more and more children.” She tested herself for 11 years before finally opening Prerna Niketan Sangh in 2002. Motivation, as the name suggests, is the main intention behind the NGO. “Children who suffer from Polio often have very low self-esteem. In my organisation, I try to boost a child’s morale and make them aim high.”
She runs the organisation with her savings, pension money and donations. The two branches lodge over 40 kids, who are enrolled in schools and colleges. Along with regular studies, they go for tuition and are also given vocational training. Till today, over 25 children who were raised and nurtured in Prerna Niketan have found permanent jobs and settled down.
Surabhi Kundra (26)
“Children with special needs are not very good with emotions, but when they come to give you a hug every morning, you know you are doing something right,” says Surabhi Kundra, who has been working as a special educator for the past three years. Her day begins at 6am and “seems to never end”. She is always mentally engaged in finding ways to make things easier and more relatable for the kids she teaches. Since 2014, Kundra has worked with various organisations that deal with both inclusive and exclusive education, and keeps herself updated on the latest research on special children. “In my profession, it is very important to be updated with the latest teachings and concepts. Because if you miss out, then your child misses out too,” she explains.
Choosing a career as a special educator was a well-thought-out choice. Her sister, a psychologist, suggested Kundra work with the children. She did her research and finally decided to devote her time and life to building lives. Kundra is currently taking care of 10 children at a Gurgaon school. She designs their curricula, makes notes for them and even designs books if needed. “One needs to understand the level of the child. Even when a child is 15 years old, his/her mental age could be lower. A special educator should always teach as per the child’s needs,” she says.
Eventually, Kundra plans to open up her own organisation dedicated to children with special needs. “As of now, I am focused on observing and learning. I notice a lot of gaps and want to fill them with the knowledge I gain over the years. India has a lot of potential, but as of now there is a shortage of special educators.”
When asked how different is her job from the usual teaching, she replied “It isn’t easy working as a special educator. There is an emotional phase that we go through. I just want to help children do better and honestly, I feel that my children are more obedient than others,” she adds with a laugh.
Bipasha Sengupta (50)
“To make visually impaired children learn, you need to bring the world to their hands.”
After 26 years of working with and later teaching visually impaired (VI) children, Bipasha Sengupta cheerfully talks about being a special child educator. “In my early years, I joined an NGO, Janmadhan, as office staff. The NGO worked for intellectually disabled children and often held training workshops. In one such workshop, I was told I was a natural with children and should divert my attention towards them,” the 50-year-old recalls. After working with them for six years, in 1996, Sengupta moved to the NAB Centre for Blind Women and Disability Studies. It was there that she really understood the technicalities of being visually impaired. “I started my career with intellectually disabled children and wasn’t very aware of the visual difficulties children faced.” Over 10 years, she focused on learning more about the VI and even travelled to the UK for a deaf-blind training programme.
However, over the years, Sengupta realised there weren’t many centres for VI children and it was then that she decided to branch out from NAB, to Saksham in Noida in 2006. “The Saksham Trust has many projects and this is one of them. Here we focus on children who are VI…of all age groups.” Her school has over 85 special children and along with academics, they are given vocational and computer training.
The most important factor, while dealing with special children, is gaining their trust. A special child only learns when s/he is able to fearlessly perform a given task and s/he can only do this once s/he trusts the teacher or guide. Sengupta stresses on the importance of gaining that trust, because once it is established, the child can then be guided to accomplish bigger things. For this special educator and her wards, actions such as going to the bathroom alone (something that we wouldn’t give a second thought) are achievements to be celebrated. Baby steps that lead to these kids going out into the world on their own. Much like their very first student who has just got admission into Delhi’s prestigious college Lady Sri Ram.
For people like Sengupta, Kundra and Saxena, making sure these kids realise their full potential is what gives them the sense of fulfilment and accomplishment. The teaching they impart is very much akin to what Michelle Obama once said, “You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”