The opposite of Powerlessness

Aug. 25, 2021

Every year, as a part of our culture, when a new cohort of Teach For Nepal Fellows completes the grueling six weeks of training, they are given a tiny box filled with soil and a tiny bag of seeds. 

The box of soil signifies the journey they are about to embark on where they will touch and experience the grounds of reality - experiences that will deepen their understanding of the context and the complexities within which we strive to ensure quality education for all children. The bag of seeds – a humble reminder that we will all sow seed in the lives of our children, school and community- will one day bloom into our highest aspirations. Nevertheless, the seeds will take its own time to grow.

Two years ago, our seventh cohort left their comfortable home and stepped into their respective school and community both of which were completely new to them. 
This month, they completed their two years of Fellowship. Like all other previous cohorts, they have turned their tiny box of soil into a big box of lessons and stories of their trials and tribulations. 

These are some of their stories from their Fellowship years.

With high aspiration, Sudarshan Gautam, a science teaching Fellow, arrived at his school. “The biggest slap on the face,” he said, “was when I heard about a teenage girl who had eloped with a boy.” Sudarshan later learned that the girl had married in the premise of false promises that her in-laws would support her to continue her education. Eventually, she dropped out of school because her daughter-in-law's duties took precedence. Unfortunately, this story is not just about one girl but many. School drop-out due to early marriage has become so common and therefore mundane that it barely gets the attention and intervention from the school or the community. 
Sandhya Adhikari and Bishal Shrestha, English and science teaching Fellows found themselves in a context where parents didn’t want their children “mixing with lower-caste”students. “The color of their skin pre-determined the experience that they were going to have in their classroom and consequently their ability to learn and achieve,” regrets Sandhya.

In an event at school, all students, except one girl, were running around in excitement about cooking food for some guests. When Bishwas Regmi, science teaching Fellow, asked why this one girl was staying away from everyone, he was informed: “She is worried that you might not eat the food that is touched by her.” 
The practice of untouchability is still prevalent in our schools and communities. Every day, students from the Dalit group, minority groups and the darker-skinned walk into the classroom already defeated. “The battle is much bigger than that of learning outcomes and grades," many Fellows share this reflection. “How can we expect them to learn when their confidence is broken down even before they enter into our classroom?”
However, it is not just the students who are disempowered through the differential treatment.
For many girl students having a female science teacher is a matter of wonder and pride. Their eyes light up when they see independent female science teachers who have completed their bachelor’s and master’s degree in science. 
Nevertheless, when Ranjana Tamang,  along with her co-Fellow Pratima Shrestha, two short and petite women with big dreams walked into the school as science and English teachers, they were often questioned on their abilities and were commented on their physical appearances. Rajana Tamang, was often taunted for her last name. Tamangs often face the stereotype of being a community where people are born dull and education is not valued. 

It is not uncommon for our Fellows, in their early twenties, to feel overwhelmed at times. On one hand, they felt that they carried the weight of expectations from our movement to take on leadership in their school and community. They stood strong in front of their students who looked up to them with both adoration and expectations. On the other hand, their ideas and plans were often ridiculed for being too ambitious and ahead of time. 
“Powerlessness”, most Fellows related with this feeling at one or other point of time during their Fellowship. But despite the feeling of powerlessness creeping in now and then, what did this cohort of Fellows do?
After the lockdown was lifted, when Lelina Subedi, English teaching Fellow, went back to her school she realized that one of her students had decided to drop out. The student had lost her confidence in herself and didn’t think she would be able to get good scores. “I am not sure that this was the most ethical thing to say,” Lelina reflected, “but I told her that based on the new letter grading system no one really fails, so you might as well just come to school and not worry about grades.” Lelina continued, “I thought if she continues to come to school, you never know, there might be a time where a spark catches the fire, and a moment of inspiration could change her life and her aspirations.”
Ranjana and Pratima, said that in the midst of their personal struggle for acceptance and respect from their school, they persisted every single day without loud protests. They just walked into every class with a plan and learning materials and carried out all their school duties. At the end of the two years, in a regional meeting, their school Principal confessed his initial doubts about the two young petite women coming to their school. The Principal exclaimed, “I couldn’t have been prouder of them and how diligently they worked every single day!” 
When these two young women were battling the prejudices that they were facing, it wasn’t just for them but also for their girl students. And when the Fellows won their battle, their girl students won theirs too.
When Bishwas Regmi, resolved to eat the food cooked by one of his students from the Dalit community in front of everyone, he awakened hundreds of his students to see the pointlessness of some social customs like untouchability. 
Sudarshan and Ojashwi, science and English teaching Fellows, troubled by the dropout rates in their schools, took it upon themselves to visit every student’s home. They often took the headmaster to some of these visits. And soon it became a practice in the school for other teachers as well to visit students’ homes and intervene to counsel students who were at the brink of making risky short-sighted decisions such as dropping out of school.
A classroom is filled with stories of children who come from dysfunctional families, who come with an empty stomach, who are pregnant at 14, who are about to quit school, who are being abused, or whose confidence has been beaten down by social and cultural practices that see them as lesser beings. 
When Teach For Nepal Fellows leave their learning institute with a tiny box of soil and a tiny bag of seeds, sometimes it takes two years for them to draw their personal meaning out of it. It takes time for them to churn out their experiences and understand the several aspects of students’ life, and the larger community of stakeholders who contribute to students’ life and learning outcomes. 
To the Fellows who have completed two years of Fellowship, we remind them of the seed of change that they have planted, relationships they’ve built in their school and community, students they have nurtured, all of whom will sustain those seeds of change.
We hope that you join us in congratulating this cohort who persisted in times prior, during and post-pandemic to support their students in learning and in life. 
After all, the opposite of powerlessness isn’t always power. Sometimes, the opposite of powerlessness is STRENGTH. And this cohort, throughout the trying times, has demonstrated exemplary strength.
We celebrate the strength with which they persisted, sometimes loudly, other times quietly, to ensure that their students had equal learning opportunities in a safe and empowering space. 

After all, the opposite of powerlessness isn’t always power.
Sometimes, the opposite of powerlessness is STRENGTH.


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