From the moment the glass doors slid open at the Delhi airport and we emerged from 20+ hours of travel, it was clear we arrived in a land vastly different than what we left. The first sensation to hit was the heat and humidity that smacked our faces as we stepped from the sterile airport environment to the smoky darkness lit with a sea of humanity bustling to and from the airport. In addition to people, the streets were teeming with all forms of life—roaming dogs, cows and oxen. To say we felt overwhelmed would be an understatement.
The first couple of days were spent visiting Indian national heritage sites that date back as early as the 13th century–Qutub Minar, Fatehpur Sikri, and the Taj Mahal. These visits reinforced the concept of a shared human heritage and provided us with perspectives on our own place and time in history. However, as we walked around these national treasures, it only cemented the fact we were in a foreign land. We were clearly the minority that stood out upon a sea of Indian women dressed in brightly colored, traditional sarees and Indian men in a mix of traditional and Western attire. As we drove around the city and spent more hours in traffic than at our actual visits, we peered through the bus windows at this incredibly different landscape and experience. The feeling of being a foreigner in a foreign land was settling in.
Then something unexpected happened…as we began our school visits, we were transported home. The passion to serve students and provide an education to all children transcended the more than 8,000 miles that separate India and the US. Principals welcomed us with open arms and blessings. They spoke to us about their student assemblies that day and the core message of purity of the heart – this message was in response to the Paris terrorist attacks that had just occurred.
It became crystal clear through multiple school visits throughout the week that we are the same. School administrators are passionate about empowering students with knowledge and preparing them for successful lives. They speak of engagement, service learning, design thinking, digital citizenship and safety. Families care deeply about their children and their futures. Parent concerns were reflected in comments around internet safety, the appropriate amount of screen time for children, and the desire to have skills such as collaboration and creativity embedded within schools. And the faces and smiles of children melted our hearts. Children were excited and proud to share with us their projects and their time. Full of endless potential, children are a glimpse into the future.
Many of the same challenges we face in the US were expressed:
- Digital divide (although the scale in India is unlike anything we can imagine)
- Teacher recruitment and retention
- The need to help parents understand the world is changing and so are the educational needs of children
In addition to the challenges above, India has other significant infrastructure and cultural issues related to poverty, sanitation, electricity blackouts, gender divide, and 22 official languages complicate the education of its population.
Despite its challenges, the education leaders are undeterred. When asked how one implements blended learning or technology in the classroom given electricity outages and lack of reliable internet service, the response was, “There is always a Plan B.” And we witnessed this as we visited classroom after classroom.
We left India feeling inspired, hopeful and more aware of our shared humanity.