Proud maverick Tony Parkin takes flight to southern India to meet a like-minded group of educators
It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to those who know me, but having once been labelled a maverick by a disapproving senior leadership team, I have worn that badge with pride ever since.
So imagine my delight when the status was officially confirmed by an invitation to attend a Maverick Teachers Global Summit. And, even better, it was to be held in India, a country I had long wished to visit, and the event was to be led by Gavin Dykes, who I have known for many years and with whom I have worked on Education Fast Forward. But then the facilitator word was used!
Now facilitating a group of maverick teachers at a global summit sounded a rather challenging prospect, but far too good an opportunity to miss. And after all, I was a maverick too, so surely I could run with the herd at such an event? Except that is just what mavericks don’t do, ‘run with the herd’ (see also "'Ah', Aha' and 'Haha' — maverick teachers at Agastya").
So it was with some trepidation that I headed to Kuppam in rural Southern India to work with an international group of maverick teachers, focusing on the UN’s sustainable development goals and exploring how they could be incorporated into teaching and learning. The outcome was a life-changing experience, and reinforcement that working with children and mavericks is a total delight.
Road to Agastya paved with preconceptions
The journey from Bangalore airport to the Agastya Foundation campus reinforced almost every preconception about India formed during a lifetime of cinema visits, from films of Satyajit Ray to Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Slumdog Millionaire. Car horns, precarious buildings, roadside shrines, monkeys on walls, trucks, dust and more trucks. Plus interesting driving, and the most numerous and vicious sleeping policemen, that had somehow escaped my cinematic briefings.
The tarmac road ran out near the sign saying "9km to Agastya campus", though that turned out to be something do with the proximity of the state border – that’s local government for you. Interesting dust roads followed.
The Agastya Campus itself is a wonderful testament to a belief in educational aspiration, and a passion to educate India’s rural poor. A derelict and bare site that is being transformed into an ecological triumph, presided over by a statue to Agastya (pictured right), an ancient Indian guru who casts his spiritual guidance over everything that happens.
Everyone who visits has to plant a tree, at once both a practical and spiritual activity that leaves part of you invested in the project, and somehow encapsulates the superb combination of the practical and the spiritual that the Agastya Foundation represents.
As did the giant summit logo (pictured left) that towered over the proceedings, with imagery that represented the sustainable goals focus – painted in pigments from dried cow dung – that also underlined the sustainable nature of the whole Agastya approach. While the swimming animals that moved each day emphasised the fun and joy that accompanied our stay.
Beautiful buildings, from observatory to science labs, offer different aspects of education to the hundreds of children that visit daily to have their aspirations raised. And everywhere are the brightly painted vehicles that ferry both the children and the many education resource kits to and from the village schools up to 50 km around the campus. Amazing logistics, and truly inspiring people.
A visit to one of these village schools really brings into focus the uphill challenge faced. Simple structures with small bare rooms, crammed with children cross-legged on the floor. No chairs or desks, not only because they are too poor, but also because there wouldn’t be room for them and the number of children who attend. Hanging on the wall is the library, provided by Agastya – a canvas holder with a collection of age-appropriate readers and flimsy textbooks that are handled with love and respect by children pleased to get their hands on such resources.
Much of the teaching and learning involves chanting, from nursery rhymes to poems, from history to science. The walls are covered with motivational texts. But everywhere are bright eyes inspired to learn, enjoying their shared experiences, and older students trained to act as mentors and role models. Humbling doesn’t begin to cover it.
Of course, mix some of these children with a group of maverick teachers, and magic happens. Divided into groups of seven or eight, given the challenge of working out how to address one of the sustainable development goals in a global curriculum, and a group of such children to work with, and maverick teachers really come into their own. My group (pictured right) included representative mavericks from different parts of India, Belgium, Indonesia, Malaysia and the UK, thinking about climate and ecology. A massive curriculum area that was distilled into three potential classroom projects in several brainstorms, both with and without the local children.
But it was a fifteen year old local girl whose remark inspired the project on disappearing sparrows, that became our focus project by unanimous vote. Especially after one of the group, Sri Parimi, remembered a story of The Last Sparrow, written in the regional language Telugu by a local author on the very same subject.
We worked as a group on this project for the last few days, with the children and some of their teachers rejoining us to make sure that what we were gradually putting together would work for them. They piloted the various approaches suggested, pouncing on passing teachers and colleagues and producing their own images and stories. There were conference sessions alongside this project work, sometimes with hundreds of local children and teachers present; on other occasions just the maverick teachers and visiting speakers.
The mavericks lived up to their reputation. After one atypical and rather dry session from a visiting dignitary, one of the Indian mavericks stood up and firmly berated him for not sticking to his brief, and wasting our time! Not something you encounter at many educational conferences but, if the truth be told, should probably happen more often. And in the evening there was music and dancing and, my, what music and dancing.
Ideas continued to fly thick and fast, and our project transformed into a theoretical website where teachers and students could investigate the disappearance of sparrows, and from their studies begin to see the climatic and ecological shifts believed to be responsible. Then one night our theoretical website became a real website, or at least a prototype.
Koen Timmers, one of the group, has a nice sideline in web development, and he slipped away and quietly built a working site, on the grounds that was as easy to create as the wireframes and slides model we were considering. This blew everyone away at our final presentation (pictured above left), and a wonderful group of teachers basked in well-deserved applause.
These mavericks were all such awesome folk to work with, and every group member contributed to the project in a unique and idiosyncratic way that will stay with me forever. And you can imagine our delight, some months later, when Koen Timmers featured on the list of 50 teachers nominated for the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Awards 2017.
Where have all the sparrows gone? Since the Summit Koen and I have continued to work intermittently, as time has permitted, on the ‘Where have all the sparrows gone?’ website, and it is now on the point of being officially launched. Hopefully this will not only act as a useful resource for learners around the world, but also as a lasting memorial to this great idea for a Maverick Teachers Global Summit, superbly delivered by Gavin Dykes and the wonderful team at Agastya.
One of my fellow facilitators, on the journey home, asked if I’d go again – then we both burst into laughter at the daftness of the question. Do once-in-a-lifetime experiences ever happen twice? If so, you can count us in!
Maverick Teachers Global Summit 2016
The AGASTYA Foundation
About the guru Agastya
Where have all the sparrows gone?
BeeIT article "Do we need more mavericks in education?"
Global Teachers Prize 2017 (Koen Timmers)