Education should not only be accessible but also inclusive to all children, by appreciating individual differences, unique strengths and limitations.
Sweta Chatterjee, our next pathbreaker, Remedial Educator, works in a regular school in the Learning Support department which helps children with learning difficulties through remedial sessions.
Sweta talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about giving up a stable and secure corporate job to take up a career in the field of special education !
For students, it is always a difficult path for those who make unconventional choices. But that shouldn’t stop you from following something that you are passionate about !
Sweta, can you tell us about your initial years?
I am Sweta from Mumbai. As a child, though I disliked school, all activities post-school attracted me. I would just wait until school ends in order to go home.
My mother was a teacher (different school), and my regular complaint to her was ‘Who invented education? This is so boring.’ Being a mother, she was worried about my future, and being an academician she tried to provide an environment that was conducive to learning. I had many learning-based toys, story books, art and craft material at home. She encouraged me to inculcate the habit of reading by buying many children’s books. But I never liked reading. She saw my inclination towards drawing and music, and enrolled me in those classes.
In my later years, I developed a habit of reading as I was very interested in sports and I liked reading newspaper articles that carried news about matches, or about my favorite celebrities. That is when my hobby of reading started developing. Over the years I have become an avid reader.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
Both the details I shared are key to who I have become. There are different kinds of learners VAKT – visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactical. I am from the generation where rote learning was part of a school’s curriculum, though I am a kinesthetic person. Since I got to do things at home and learn, I disliked school. In my later life I realized I do not hate education, but the way I was taught in school.
How do I know I don’t hate education? Remember as a child I asked my mom, who invented education? Let me share that I have done three post-graduation courses. It means a lot of reading, a lot of exams. It might seem contradictory to how my journey began.
I have done my Bachelors in Special Education (specializing in Learning Disability). It is here that I realized why I got more and more inclined to learning after my schooling days. In school we have to learn subjects that we may not like, but in college we choose a vocation out of our interest and enjoy the learning journey we embark upon.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I was watching a movie named “Taare Zameen Par” in a theater, when my mind started wandering. I was now lost in thoughts of my long-lost friend from Grade 4. He had failed in his class and was made to repeat it. As a child, I never understood why he failed such a simple test. But now as an adult, I was able to connect to the helplessness of the child who was just about 9 to 10 years old and was unable to concentrate or follow simple instructions. I could see my friend in Eshan Avasti, the main character from the movie Taare Zameen Par. It was then when a spark of curiosity towards learning disabilities ignited in my mind. But I did not immediately jump into this profession, as I was on a different career path at that time.
A few years later I was working as a volunteer in a school and we were recognized for our best practices within Mumbai city. Yet there were a group of students who did not achieve the desired learning outcome. I came across a quote, “ If they don’t learn the way you teach, teach them the way they learn.” I was reminded of my childhood when I hated going to school. I was sad for these children, ‘Do they hate coming to school? How can I help them? What should I do?’, and many such questions clouded my mind. I tried to read up and reached out to people who could help these children. Through my research, I came to know that nearly 10-15% of all children have a learning disability. This number was mind boggling and this nudged me towards focusing on this problem.
At this juncture, I was blessed with a great mentor ,Dr Asmita Huddar. She is the principal of the college where I eventually ended up doing my Bachelors in Special Education. But I did not jump into this course right away.
I shared many events and instances that were nudging me towards this profession, but I was hesitant to make the move because, I was an MBA, and was professionally working in media research, but personally, I was passionate about something that was entirely different from my education.
So I searched for employment in organizations that work for children with learning disabilities, understand their work better and then took the plunge.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
I did my MBA in Marketing & Finance. I was placed in a MNC as a Strategic Planner immediately after that. On a day-to-today basis, we had to do consumer research to provide media solutions to our clients.
As a young person who was just in her 20’s, earning in lakhs was an amazing feeling. I was interacting with CEOs and CMOs of companies and taking business decisions worth hundreds of crores. After the initial high of a well paid job, I did not associate any value with my work.
Each type of work is valuable. Students should not get me wrong that research work is not valuable and teaching work is more valuable. It is more about what a person feels valuable. Palash Sen (Euphoria) explains this scenario well. He is a doctor by qualification. By nomenclature, being a doctor is more valued than being a singer. But he values singing and hence continued to be in a band.
All adults will say, follow your heart, but what is that exactly no one will tell you. So even if you end up in a job that you feel is not your calling, give it your best and simultaneously look out for that thing that you feel more passionate about.
That is exactly what I did. I felt that I would feel valued if I did something that helped society. I looked up volunteering options and came across the Teach for India fellowship of 2 years. Here I got an opportunity to teach children who came from underprivileged backgrounds. That’s when I came to know the prevalence of learning disability.
Since this was my second career, I did not want to jump into it, only to realize that I am not passionate about it. Hence, I continued to volunteer and work in places that worked in the special education sector to be sure about my choice. I worked in an NGO that worked for children with learning difficulties, studying in Municipal schools.
Later, with further guidance from Dr Asmita Huddar, I decided to take up the Bachelors in Special Education degree to ensure that I give my best to the choice of profession that I have chosen now. This one was not because some friend did the same course (like in the movie Lakshya), or a parent’s dream (like in 3 idiots), this was my choice.
How did you get your first break?
I would like to talk about the current profession that I am pursuing, i.e. of a Remedial Educator. I just looked for openings for the role around Mumbai and kept applying via the email ids provided on the websites. I got a call from a number of organizations where I went for an interview and later got a job offer.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Being confused. Acknowledge to be confused. Know that you are not alone. Keep searching for the thing that gives you happiness and do that even if it remains at a hobby level.
Challenge 2: Facing the music from your parents and answering questions posed by society for taking up unconventional choices.
Convince your parents about your unconventional choice, with data. When they see your passion backed by data it becomes easier for them to support your decision.
As I came from a research background, I did a thorough study about the future potential of the special education sector. With the rule that 2% of profits are to be contributed towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), I presented to them that if I continued to work in the development sector (NGO/ Non Profits) I would still have a scope of a good career option. And if I lean towards education with the Right to Education Act 2009, which made inclusive education mandatory for all schools, more and more schools would require to hire teachers to teach children with special educational needs. In MEME language, “Paisa hi paisa hoga, Babu bhaiya.”
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work in a regular school in the Learning Support department which helps children with learning difficulties through remedial sessions. I teach the child differently than how he/she would learn in a regular classroom, so that he/she can access the content in a manner that he/she can understand better.
As I mentioned earlier, since inclusive education is mandatory, no school can refuse admission on the basis of any disability or special needs. I work in a regular mainstream school. So we support children who are medically diagnosed, as well as children who are currently showing a learning lag. Children with learning difficulties, may later get medical certification for concessions in board exams etc.
So any child who is facing difficulty in accessing the curriculum will be supported by us, he may or may not be medically certified. Hence, I love my job because I feel like I am making a difference in a child’s life. I am ensuring a child doesn’t hate coming to school as I did. I am ensuring I am providing a child with an environment where learning is an outfall of active participation.
How does your work benefit society?
As learning disability is an invisible disability, children are mostly labeled as naughty when they do not pay attention in class. No one bothers to understand why they are not paying attention. By making education accessible to children with special educational needs, I am helping in creating an inclusive society.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
In 2004, a movie called Lakshya was released. It showed a story of a young boy who was confused about his future career choices. He is seen getting influenced by the choices his friends make. The movie resonated with me as I was in the final year of graduation at that time and was as confused about my career just as the protagonist is in the movie. The movie helped me realize it’s ok to be confused.
Crucial years like grade 10, grade 12 and the graduating year put students under a lot of pressure. Everyone keeps asking, ‘So what are your future plans?’ to humans who are just teenagers. Cut yourself some slack. My advice will be not to feel stressed. Yes! these are crucial years, but we are living in the age of information. So, try to search for as much information as possible about the things you like. Take the career test, talk to a career counselor. Connect to people working in your choice of career through social media. Make an informed decision. Then share it with your parents.
Let us take an example where your parents might not agree with the choice you make. Say you decide to become a gamer, and your parents do not agree with that decision. Try to look up related skills that you can learn to enhance your career in gaming; like animation, game design, programming etc. Then convince your parents based on the research done.
I am currently researching Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Neuro Linguistic Programming and other courses which will make me a better teacher and help me guide my students in a more effective manner.
I also continue to volunteer for social causes, as helping others in my core nature.