When Devi Thangaraj dropped her second child — a boy — at the Government-run anganwadi near her house, she found a dramatic difference in the way it was run. “My daughter also went there, but, back then it was just a regular centre. My son however benefited hugely, as they had recently implemented the Montessori method there.” And impressed with her son’s progress, Devi decided she would get trained and become a teacher herself. During a meeting at the anganwadi, shortly afterwards, Devi met Jayanthi Ramesh, whose Maitri Trust supported the centre with Montessori materials and a teacher. “Jayanthi madam agreed to train me; and after the month-long training programme, I became a teacher at the centre on Pugh’s Road,” Devi tells me, her face creasing into a wide smile.
The daughter of a petty shop owner, Devi was born and raised in Chennai. She got married eight years ago, and worked as a data-entry operator for a bit. After the birth of a second son, she put her education (B.A Public Administration, by correspondence) to good use. “The teaching job suits me well; the timing is convenient, and it’s very rewarding,” says Devi, enthusiastically showing me files with her students’ work. There are sheets where the children have neatly copy-coloured animals; others where their progress has been recorded meticulously. “The children are taught basic things — like coming into class and rolling out a mat and sitting on it; to use the materials and play-learn; and of course, we teach them hygiene.” The little life lessons are then taken home, and Devi has received some good feedback from the parents — most of who live in the neighbourhood and are economically deprived. “Kids go home and insist on brushing their teeth before sleeping; they wash their hands before eating — habits that spread in the family. They also recite rhymes, and sing songs with action. Their parents are very pleased, and they come and ask me, ‘have you taught them Thirukural? The child came home and recited it’. I tell them to bring their kids regularly, and also ask their neighbours and friends to send their kids here.”
Smartly turned out — in an olive green salwar kameez — Devi’s class consists of around 20 children in the age group of two to three-and-a-half years. “After that, most kids move on to kindergarten in a mainstream school. Children join the centres round the year, and usually, they settle down in a matter of weeks/ month. Food is provided for the kids by the Government, and there is a helper who gives me a hand,” she explains. And while most kids are dropped off on time, some parents bring them in at 11a.m. “That makes it difficult, as even the ones who have settled down, are disturbed if the latecomers cry for their mothers.”
But, ultimately, Devi is very thrilled at the difference she can make in so many children’s lives. “At our centre, we have a library — the books are provided by Maitri Trust — and we give them to the kids to take home. I note down the name of the book in this register,” she says, proudly flipping through it, “and they exchange it after a few days. Reading books helps the family bond. And even if they can’t read/ write, we encourage parents to make up stories looking at the pictures. You know, without these books, they won’t really sit down and spend time with the children!”
As a parent, you can impact one or two children’s life; but as a teacher, you can touch many lives, says Devi, once again wreathed in smiles.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)