Mrs K S Jamali – Principal – Beacon High, Mumbai
Can we start with you giving us a brief anecdote about how you chose education to be your career – how did it all start?
I wouldn’t say that this career happened to me by chance because my mother was an educationist. As a child I used to tell her that I would become a teacher. She started her career as a teacher and went on to head various schools. Later, we started our own school, called Beacon High. At the point of her retirement, she got me into the entire school system. I started enjoying it and I then realized that teaching was something that I had in my bones. Hence, the reason for me being here is my mother. A visionary, a dream catcher and a passionate educator rolled into one is not an exaggeration when describing Mrs K S Jamali. With a Masters in Psychology and under the proficient guidance of her mother, Mrs K S Jamali has every reason to hold her head high offering inclusive education – the way education is meant to be.
Can we please, then, talk briefly about your mother?
She, Late Mrs. R K Khariwala, started her career in Bai Avabai Petit School as a music teacher. This was perhaps in her teens, prior to her marriage.
After that, she kept moving up the ladder. She headed the Maneckji Cooper School, Activity High School and the Learners Academy. When she was retiring, I decided to start a small pre-primary school so that she would be occupied, the agile and alert person that she was. Hence, the beginning of Small Wonders in 1998. This is now the pre-primary section of Beacon High.
She handled Small Wonders for a year; at that point in time, I was heading Learners Academy. Within a year, she realized that handling the school herself was taking a toll on her and so she wanted me to assist her. So, I left Learners and there was no turning back since then. Beacon High started in the year 2000.
Where did you study as a child?
I studied in St Joseph’s Convent, Bandra. Then, I went on to do my Masters in Clinical Psychology, after which I joined Air India and flew for 3 years. Whilst I was training for Air India, I did my Masters and did both these examinations together. Post marriage, I quit Air India and did my B Ed because my mother was keen on me entering the education field. And, now I am where I am.
So, did your education career start off by teaching in your own school?
No, I was the Vice Principal at Learners when my mother was the Principal there. I was teaching there as well. That is how I got all my training. After my mother retired, I took over as the Principal and headed Learners for three years, after which I started my own school. We started in 1998 and now, here we are. We complete 20 years next June!
How has the journey been now when you look back?
I think it has been awesome! Back then, I would have never imagined to be enjoying it so much as I do today. Education is in my blood and bones. The system has evolved – some things positive and a few not so positive.
For instance, today the kind of children we are dealing with and their value system is at low ebb. I come from a convent school where the value system is held very high. That generation was quite different. Today’s generation is far more casual and informal. I do get a little perturbed about that, at times. To add to that, when our system came out with this rule that there is going to be no detention for children – children have to be promoted from one class to another. That is quite a dilemma.
I am a person very much for promotion and do not advocate detention. But, in some cases, it is harmful for some children to move from one class to another simply because they are not ready for it. And yet, we have to push them because of the system’s rule. When such children reach class 9, honestly, we don’t know what to do and where to go. That is quite a disturbing factor.
Owing to this, even the discipline is at stake. Children will get the drift that whether they appear for an examination or not, whether they do well or not, they will still be promoted. That attitude is quite sad. Other than that, as far as the curriculum etc., things have evolved and have improved. So, yes there are wonderful things and challenges too.
In fact, my school is mighty different. I call my school a boutique school – it is quite small. We have a maximum of 24-28 children in a class. We also integrate differently-abled children. 10% of every class has differently-abled children. Today we have a 100% visually impaired child appearing for his 10th grade board exams. We have autistic children, children with Down’s syndrome, physically challenged children etc. I have a unit of special educators, psychiatrists, psychologists, speech therapists and occupational therapists who work with these children on a 1:1 basis. They are placed in a class at their chronological level.
What is the strength of Beacon High right now, in terms of students?
We have approximately 700 children. In comparison to other schools in the locality, we are pretty small. I like it that way, honestly, because I can, very proudly, say that I know each and every child studying in my school by name. I know their parents. Hence, the rapport that my teachers and I have with the parents is excellent.
How many teachers do you have?
About 50 teachers.
Which syllabus do you follow?
We follow the ICSE syllabus. Furthermore, I am an ICSE girl and have always advocated this syllabus.
What are some of those things that have given you much happiness in this journey so far?
Many a times I have made a difference in the life of a child. There have been children who have come to me from different reputed schools. They had been asked to leave because they couldn’t cope with the work and teachers gave up on them.
My plus point is being a school with fewer children. That helps the children a lot. Today the same children who were once thrown out of other schools are doing very well in life. These are small little things that make me feel proud.
I have children who have passed from my school since the last 8 years and are still in touch with me. I see them blooming, blossoming and doing well in life. They come and get me to meet their families. Many of their children study in this school. What more can one ask for! All these things keep me active, alert and agile at the age of 63, which is a great blessing.
My daughter now works with me. She is my Vice Principal. Like I said, education runs in the family. She will be taking over my position very soon. Currently, she heads the pre-primary section – the Small Wonders School. She is the chip of the old block and is ready to take over soon.
What are some of the difficulties you have faced in running an institution like this?
I have a small school and starting a new school in Mumbai is difficult. Space is my biggest constraint. I do not have a playground. I do not have large class rooms, which is a blessing in disguise because I can’t get tempted to take more children. Having said that, I still offer my children everything possible!
We have a club round the corner, where my children, right from junior KG, go for swimming. We have the YMCA grounds that are not very far from here where they go for their games and sports. So, yes, we have everything but it is not in-house. When I go visit other schools with huge infrastructure and grounds, I do get a little jealous, if I may say so(laughs).
But, like I said, the flip side is that this very space constraint is a blessing in disguise. I have better control over the school because it is small in size. Today, parents are looking for institutions where children are cosy, safe and are at a place that is a home away from home. Sometimes, large classrooms can be intimidating especially for children who cannot really cope with things happening in class – they feel lost.
Let us talk about the quality of teachers we have today. Is it a challenge sourcing good talent?
Yes, it is difficult to find the right people.Also, the turnover of teachers are sometimes quite a bit. If I look back, at the quality of teachers that groomed me, I think, we have lost that now. The dedication is not as much as it used to be in the past.
I also, at times, feel that people take on this profession for the wrong reasons. You get your holidays; your vacation coincides with that of your children, etc. These are definitely perks but if that is the core reason to build your career, it derails in a short while.
I am blessed with a good band of teachers. Of course, we have issues and some odds here and there; but on the whole my team is quite good. Again, owing to the small numbers, teachers are very comfortable. I believe in giving a free rope to my teachers as long as I know that they are doing what is right for the children.
In your perspective, what is an ideal teacher?
Honestly, I don’t care if they are gold medallists or not. According to me, what they really need is patience and sensitivity. These two attributes are very important in a school such as mine where I have children of varied capacities and challenges. I do not like any child in my school to be treated like a piece of furniture. So, sensitivity is the key.
So, they have to be patient, sensitive and of course, great at their content and to a fair extent good at maintaining discipline. But, among all these attributes, if you ask me to pick 1, I will vouch for sensitivity.
Teachers have to be sensitive to every child and treat each of them as a unique person. It is important and, in my school, it is not difficult to execute in a class of 24-26 children either.
Do you feel that your Masters in Psychology is what drives you to run the school in way you are currently doing it?
To some extent, yes! But, to a large extent it is because of my mother. She was a pioneer in inclusive education. She experienced inclusive education in one of the past schools she was associated with. Two visually impaired boys were admitted into that school. That is where her maturity along those lines came into being and it got inculcated in me as well. The sensitivity is definitely from my mother. God bless her!
Your work is truly commendable. Is there any particular difficulty you faced in putting this in place and making it work?
I did have issues, earlier, with some of the parents. They didn’t want their children associating with children who had such challenges. This was in the primitive years; when we started.
I put my foot down said that these children, with challenges, are more important to me than any other children. People were free to leave the school if inclusivity made them uncomfortable. Today, I don’t face such problems with any of the parents. They have also been sensitized to these children – emotionally, physically or economically backward children.
My teachers are very much oriented about this. When I employ them, this is the first thing I tell them. These children are very much part of the school – like others. I leave it as a choice with them before they decide to join the school.
Are you open to advising and sharing knowledge if another school is open to inclusive education and wants to implement it?
Yes, I would be open to giving inputs. They are welcome to come and talk to me. What rubs me the wrong way is when schools refuse admission to children who do not fit into a special school and they have nowhere to go. There comes a stage when schools say, go to Beacon High. Unfortunately, I cannot accommodate all of them because at the end of the day, mine is a regular school. It is only a percentage of children who needs special care. So, I cannot accommodate every differently-abled child that comes my way.
Mr Sunil Dutt was my mother’s great friend and we would always ask him to pass a Bill or Act that every school should look at adopting inclusive education. We urged him to make it compulsory. I strongly believe that every child has a right to education and if we can change the life of a child to even a small extent, then why not?
I am not saying that every differently-abled child will pass grade 10. There are children who come here and move out after the 4th or the 5th grade. But, as long as they are here, they are made to feel the same as any other child.
Coming to the curriculum; there is a view that our national curriculum only tests children for memory rather than knowledge. And, then we have international curriculum offering a lot of opportunities to prompt children to think and analyse. What are your thoughts on this?
I think a balance of both is very important. Memory, at the end of the day, is important but not to the extent that it over shadows the thinking capacity.Memory should not be the only thing that should be tested. There has to be some critical thinking and logical reasoning.
Fortunately, the ICSE curriculum is rather skill and application based. So, memory is not the only objective that gets tested. We have a lot of things happening right from grade 1 where we delve into projects, research, and learning by doing, hands-on learning etc. This is true for up to grade 9.
In grades 9 and 10, fortunately or unfortunately, we have to follow the curriculum because it is all about marks and numbers for children to make sure they get into their next stage in life. Up to grade 9 we make sure we develop all the other skills possible.
How important is teacher training and teacher development?
Teachers’ trainings are important. It is a must to get into an institution. But I always tell my team that it is after you get into a school when the training actually begins because that is hands on.
I train my team to do things my way. Of course, a little bit of whatever they have learnt in their B Ed college does help. But, you have to be open to unlearning and relearning. Experience brings in a lot of self-learning and self-actualization as you move on and work with children in a school set up.
Do you feel people working in the same institution for a long time tends to get complacent?
In my set up, I haven’t faced this yet because I am fairly new. I do not have teachers who have been with me for donkeys’ years. But yes, if a teacher has been teaching a subject for 5-6 years, it tends to become a mundane thing.
I put teachers through challenges and change the subjects and the classes that they teach. We also have a lot of power point presentations and I keep abreast of the PPTs they prepare. I make sure that they change their PPTs every once in a while.
Also, the curriculum keeps changing. The ICSE curriculum is not static. It changes every 3-4 years. There is no scope for a teacher to teach the same thing forever.
What challenges do you foresee in the years ahead for schools like yours?
I keep telling my daughter these days that I am tired and expansion etc. is too difficult for me to think of. There are people who suggest that we extend the school for classes 11 and 12 too. Currently, we have classes only up to class 10. The space constraint and my exhaustion level are barriers to expansion.
So I leave it to my daughter. It is upto her to take it forward and let’s hope she does. She has my support always. Expansion would mean to get into Class 11 and 12. I could have done so much more if I had more space. But on the whole, I am very happy with my little small school.