“They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.” – Carl W. Buechner
After one of the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) sessions, Shahbaan Shah, my colleague at Apni Shala, and I were debriefing about the theme we had taken to the class that day. During the discussion, he mentioned how we as facilitators have varied intentions when we engage with the students. I inquired, “What did you mean by intentions?”
He responded by asking me, “Apart from the lesson and the topic, what do you take to the classroom; what is it that matters to you whenever you are with the students?”
The question confounded me. As I started thinking, it made me realise that I had always tried my best to make sure that the students felt safe with me, and in the classroom with their peers. He said, “Do you think maybe that could be your intention?”
As we continued the discussion, I asked him what his intention was? He said, “to create a sense of community in the students.” For him, since the students came from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds, it was important that whenever they were in the class, they should feel trusted and cared for, and feel like they belong there. This way they could form lifelong friendships too. I thought this is such a beautiful intention to go into an SEL space!
This conversation stayed with me since that day. Whenever I planned any lesson after that, I planned it while keeping this intention in my mind. I also began thinking, why was it important for me, which made me recall my school days, and how happy and safe I felt there.
Due to moving from one school to another every couple of years, at times in the middle of an academic year, my education took place in different cities. I remember how whenever I’d go to a new school, there would be a lot of nervousness. But in all the schools, I’d see the warmth that the teachers showed in welcoming the new student and helping them adjust. There were always a few students who’d introduce themselves, show the new student around and immediately become their friends, and one would stop feeling lonely. They’d make one feel like they [new students] belonged there.
In our classes, we had a sense of togetherness. Students supported and took care of each other. I remember when my friend’s mother passed away, all my classmates took turns bringing food to her house, and meeting her, till she felt better and started coming to school again. The idea of not letting anyone feel like they are alone, was something that we believed in and tried to follow as best as we could.
The idea of safety in the school also came from the freedom and opportunities we got to express ourselves. The various activities which we got to participate in, created a sense of self and helped one explore the different aspects of their personalities. In the schools where I studied, one was encouraged to do what they wanted, within the limitations of the schools. It helped me gain self confidence, showed me multiple examples of trust and support from peers as well as adults, resulted in making friends with people who are with me till now as supportive, and kind, as ever.
I guess, ever since I started working with students, it became a priority for me that my students felt the same way about their school too, and I should try to make that happen for them.
Meaning of Intentions
When I talk about intentions in this piece, I think about- the learning outcome, the hopes, and the values that a facilitator takes to a classroom. They also play a role in how the communication of ideas happens. The intentions are based on the facilitators life experience, and qualities they hold important; which develops into what they wish to see to be happening in their classrooms. The facilitator needs to be mindful in understanding whether these intentions are going to be beneficial for the students or not, whether the students themselves are okay, and onboard with those intentions. Lastly, these intentions are not to be forced upon the students, but are achieved with their willingness and cooperation.
The facilitator’s intention acts like a motivator- to continue what they are doing, and also as a guide- to better the delivery of their lesson according to the needs of the classroom.
Whenever we go to any classroom, we have a topic in hand, a lesson plan, and our agenda for the day is to help students achieve the objectives of that lesson. For any educator, they hold utmost importance as they provide a structure to their lesson. Now, how these objectives are realised, differs from one person to the other. Here, the intentions of any facilitator play the role.
When I first started facilitating, the focus was mostly paid on whether or not I am able to achieve the objectives of the day. It is not to say that I didn’t care if the students were feeling alright or not, but that was not something where I put my conscious efforts. But since the realisation of the “intent”, I started planning my lessons in a way where I was able to hold the space for the students, and also fulfil the objectives. This required me to make a few changes in the way I was conducting a classroom.
Working with the “intention of creating safe space” in the classrooms
The changes began with the daily “Check-in’s” where I tried to spend some more time and talk about their day or the past week, if they wanted to share something about it. It worked because the way we started the session helped in setting the rhythm for the whole hour. The check-in and grounding exercises helped the students feel calm and rested, and helped me in feeling connected to them.
Next, I took some time to understand the paradigms of “feeling safe”. It started with creating a space where they can share their feelings, and talk about the things which were bothering them; then about them feeling joy in the class, by being playful and comfortable; and it finally became about creating a space where they can feel like what they say is important, and that they feel valued and appreciated.
This I experienced for the first time when I was facing certain problems conducting sessions in one of the grades. After consulting my Supervisor, and Programme lead, I decided to have an open conversation with them [students], where I expressed that I was not able to understand how we can have a productive session, and asked them what they wanted from my sessions, or if there’s anything they’d like for me to do for them. After a few minutes, one of the students said, “this is the first time someone asked us what we wanted.” I saw that as an opening. We then negotiated what all we can do together, so that I, as a facilitator, can conduct the session with their support, and they get to experience something that they like as well. Since then, I was able to build a wonderful rapport with the students, and we figured out a way to balance fun and learning in the class.
Another learning for me throughout all this was that early on, whenever the sessions didn’t go as planned, I took it as a failure on my part, or felt disrespected that the students weren’t disciplined. But, after opening a conversation with them, it struck me that just like me, there would be times when they are not in the mood, or due to certain things, they may not be receptive to what I am taking to the class, and instead of feeling insulted by it, I should try to listen to them and maybe check my pace. So, since then, we made a pact in the class that as and when they feel, after an honest attempt to the topic, that they are either tired, or need a break, or are feeling bored; we will end the topic there, and change the pace of the class by doing something artsy, or by playing some games, and resume in the next session.
This has helped in building a trust between me and the students, where now they feel that they can share anything, which I understood when I heard them say, “didi ko bata sakte hain, woh gussa nahi karegi (We can tell/share with didi, she will not get angry.)”, “aapse baat karke mann halka ho jata hai (Talking to you makes us feel light.)”, “aaj mood kharab hai, kuch alag karvao na aap (The mood is not good today, please make us do something different.)”.
It’s amazing how that one conversation opened up a new world of facilitative practices for me, and helped me work on myself, and towards the students, with an exciting aspiration, and a lot of warmth.
Not always a smooth road
It is not to say that the journey so far has been easy. As a facilitator, it took time to understand how different the classes, and schools I work in were, and how different the students were from each other. Even if the intention is uniform, the way of bringing it to classrooms has to be modified or tweaked every now and then. At times, I have struggled with prioritising the learning objectives of the lesson, and I have received comments such as, “didi bore ho raha hai, game khelte hain na (Didi, we are feeling bored, lets play a game, please)”, or “dimag bhar gaya ab, kuch aur karvao (The brain is full now. Please make us do something else)”.
At such times, I have tried to talk to them and tell them why it is important to talk about the topic at hand, or I have tried to change a few things to make the content more interesting. At times I have also negotiated a few spare minutes, like 5-10 minutes, at the end of the session where I’d play a song of their choice, or play some game, if I am able to finish what I had planned for the day.
This is not to say that one is more important than the other, as they are mutually beneficial for the facilitator. One can say that if the objectives are the end goal, the journey is often designed by the intentions.
Different people, Different intentions
I had the chance to speak with a few of my peers on what they took to the classrooms. Their responses helped me understand the variety of aspects that one looks for in their sessions.
Intention of Expressive space
For Abhijeet Dhurve and Mayuri Golambde, my colleagues at Apni Shala, the intention was to create spaces for students so that they feel free to express themselves as much as possible. According to Abhijeet, “I didn’t have such expressive spaces in my school. But once, through an organisation, I got the opportunity to access such a space where I could learn through play, and express things to educators. Hence I feel such spaces are valuable, and I feel motivated to create such spaces for the students as well.”
Intention of Building Support
According to Priyanka Tiwari and Ajmer Shaikh, Apni Shala Fellows, it is important to create a sense of support and trust for the students. They work on building good rapport which helps students connect more with them, and also with their classmates. They try to make the students feel supported by their friends, so they motivate them to talk to their partners, and share.
Intention of Joy
For Aditi Ganguly, my colleague at Apni Shala, learning with fun is important in the facilitation process as it helps increase engagement, and also makes students feel that they can be themselves. Having joy in the classroom can also create a lot of curiosity in students which can help unfold new things for them, and as well as for the facilitator.
Dynamic nature of Intentions
Some intentions remain uniform for a facilitator through their life, for others, they may change depending on the group/class they are working with. “Apart from objectives, it depends on which group I am working with. If I feel that in my session with a group I need to work more on their teamwork or their communication, and for that, I go with the intention to create space for it, so that in the long run, it can help me fulfil the lesson objectives as well”, says Siddharth Gupta (Apni Shala Fellow).
Shahbaan shared, “We try to create a safe space and try to fulfil the lesson objectives, but one must go with the awareness that it might just happen that we are not able to achieve them that day, to be okay with that, and be okay to talk if a student is triggered by something. Also, more than intentions it is important to have a need-based action after reading the mood of the class. So yeah, it is possible that if the intention is clear, the impact may not be so, or if the impact is good, the intention is not followed. I feel it is necessary – to be open to all the possibilities, and talk about what is important, then.”
Thus for the facilitators, the intention to work for student’s wellbeing doesn’t change but the way of achieving it does.
To conclude it all..
“Consciously we teach what we know; unconsciously we teach who we are.”
In the last 7-8 months, I changed as a person, but my root intentions for my students never changed. Rather it kept on evolving, to be more nuanced, the more I worked with my students. We try to bring in new things to the classrooms, but what remains is the idea that students are at the centre, and no matter the topic in hand, their wellbeing and their comfort remains of the utmost priority.
I have come to the realisation that, for every educator, who feels passionately about their work, there is a driving force. These intentions help one to understand oneself, and also helps in realising the range of influence we have. Doing what we do, it is necessary to have clarity, that keeping all the resources and materials aside, how do you impact your students, and it is also necessary to think, what intentions do you take to your class?
About the Author: Mitali Dixit is an Apni Shala Fellow. She facilitates SEL sessions in four MGCM partner schools. She has done her Bachelors in Psychology, Economics, and English Literature from Banasthali University, Rajasthan.
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Acknowledgements: To understand diverse perspectives on this topic, I talked to my colleagues who are working in various capacities at Apni Shala, and have experience with classroom facilitation. The intentions they shared are their own, which they have observed in their years of facilitating.
I want to thank Abhijeet, Aditi, Ajmer, Jessica, Mayuri, Niranjan, Pooja Bhanushali, Purvi, Priyanka, Shahbaan, Siddharth, Shruti, and Shweta for sharing their experiences with me, and providing valuable inputs during the writing process.
I would also like to thank my wonderful students, who provided me with memorable experiences, which inspired this article.