Empathetic educators offer lessons on ideal leadership in thought and deed

Parikrma Humanity Foundation runs four schools and a junior college for as many as 1,800 children, often from slums and shelters.
Parikrma Humanity Foundation runs four schools and a junior college for as many as 1,800 children, often from slums and shelters.

Summary

  • Leaders aren’t all of one kind and we must acknowledge the impressions that teachers make on us. They are relevant examples for today’s workforce, which requires different management styles than the command-and-control hierarchies of yesteryear.

A school expedition to reach the Chanderkhani Pass had gone wrong. A severe snowstorm overnight had exacerbated the exhaustion of a group of boys and girls, prompting the headmaster leading the trek in Kullu to turn back. Decades on, one of the students on the trek recalls there were no lectures on perseverance or the need to toughen up. Instead, the headmaster used humour to rally their spirits. The headmaster was Shomie Das, then at The Lawrence School, Sanawar.

During an Independence Day celebration this year at one of the Parikrma Humanity Foundation schools for underprivileged children in Bengaluru, a boy in his mid-teens suffered stage fright. As the children came off the stage, he looked crushed. The founder of the school, Shukla Bose, walked up to him and enveloped him in a huge hug.

As a society, we lionize businesspeople, politicians and sport stars, and overlook great educators who navigate leadership roles and pastoral care simultaneously. They are often more relevant examples for today’s workforce, which requires different management styles than the command-and-control hierarchies of yesteryear. Shomie Das has the unique distinction of having been headmaster at Mayo College, The Lawrence School and The Doon School and then successfully setting up Oakridge International School when most people would have been contemplating retirement. Shukla Bose worked at the Oberoi Hotels and then headed Resort Condominiums India (RCI) before sitting at a small table in a slum in Bengaluru to enlist children to study at a small school she had started. Twenty years on, Parikrma runs four schools plus a junior college for as many as 1,800 children, often from slums and shelters. It counts graduates from National Law School of Bengaluru and Indian Institutes of Management among its alumni. Its football team is excellent.

As a book out this year, Knowing What We Know by Simon Winchester recounts, Parikrma sets a new standard for care of students because it includes their parents in its responsibilities. The schools provide employment for about 60 parents, who prepare the meals or drive its buses. Despite often challenging circumstances at home, the high spirits and confidence of the children is infectious. Discussing the chapter on Parikrma in the book, the children were not over-awed that a famous non-fiction writer had profiled their school. Instead, a girl pointed out that the street dogs adopted by the school had different names from the characters in Shakespeare Winchester had referenced. Another said he had omitted to mention that Parikrma kids call their teachers “Anna" and “Akka," elder brother and sister in South India. She worried that the author had missed the love and respect students had for their teachers.

Though they have run schools decades apart with students from opposite ends of the spectrum of privilege, Das and Bose share common principles. Sukanya Das, who is working on a biography of Shomie Das and has conducted Zoom interviews with him and many of his students, observes that a commitment to social service and “an insistence on getting children out of the classroom" and exposed to extracurricular activities was central to Das’ approach. At The Doon School, Das had boys help with relief work after the Uttarkashi earthquake in 1992. Similarly, Bose has taken advantage of a donor’s large land grant outside Bengaluru to recently set up a “no walls" school to rotate its students through for a few days at a time, so they can get away from the urban sprawl of Bengaluru and enjoy nature. The project called Oxygen is just getting started, yet the great Impressionist painters of the 19th century would rejoice at the exuberance of the gigantic mosaic murals the students have created at the new campus. While recounting alumni’s successes, a director of entertainment on a cruise liner and former students who have returned to the school to work as child psychologists and teachers are mentioned with equal pride.

I was a student at Mayo College a half century ago, when Das was principal there. I remain a life-long agnostic about boarding school education, but hero-worshipped him and his late wife Phiroza for their warmth and irreverent humour. Going to the principal’s house was routine and fun. Decades on, we exchange emails and phone calls every couple of months. He insisted I stop calling him ‘Sir’ a long time ago, saying it made him feel like a bank manager. On his last visit to Bengaluru, Das, now 88, was chief guest at an old boys’ cricket match between Doon and Mayo. I have a photo of him listening intently to a youngster, who wasn’t even born when Das was principal at Mayo, talk about his agricultural trading business. Still with lessons for us to learn, Das gently pointed out that it was a pity that alumni from the two schools were sitting separately. I made amends and had a delightful afternoon. A recent conversation with Bose was about a 30-year-old ex-student who needs a kidney replacement. Her face was clouded over with worry and the stress of planning a course of treatment and being a de facto parent to the youngster who is an orphan. Bose says a big influence has been American writer David Brooks, who in The Road to Character and the recently published How to Know a Person, lays out principles for being a better listener and a more empathetic person. In thought and deed, Das and Bose have lived by those principles to the benefit of generations of students.

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