Anyone reading a story about Ms. Shonila Chander, former economics teacher, must follow her most important rule: no gum chewing allowed.
According to her, chewing gum is “the biggest way of showing disrespect.” Not only that, it violates the top rule of economics on a poster on display in her classroom: “Refrain from chewing gum: save money.”
Sadly, current students do not have the opportunity to learn from this elegant, strong-willed teacher. So in early August, they had the next best thing: an opportunity to interact with Ms. Chander at the Center for Imagination, which organized a discussion called “What would Ms. Chander say?” about education in India. But it turned out to be more than that.
Whether they were taught by Ms. Chander or not, students loved interacting with one of the most beloved teachers at Woodstock, commonly known as “the legendary Ms.Chander.”
Sanghamitra Ghosh, Class of 2011, who visited the school a week later, beamed with joy when asked about Ms. Chander. Ghosh said, “Ms. Chander remembers all her students. She was one of the most elegant women [that] I have ever come across in my life. She just had this aura about her.”
Ms. Chander has always been passionate about learning. She obtained her masters in English from Punjab University in Chandigarh. Before joining Woodstock, Ms. Chander was an assistant lecturer at a degree college in Batala, Punjab.
However, she didn’t get the satisfaction she desired. Students did not match up to her expectations there. They did not care about classes and learning.
A friend suggested Woodstock to her, and she was keen on exploring this new idea. But Ms. Chander hadn’t taught in English before joining Woodstock, so she was unsure of whether to come or not.
On July 18, 1983, Ms. Chander applied at Woodstock to teach. On July, 23, she got a telegram saying, “Come and join on the 24th!” And that’s how Ms. Chander’s Woodstock journey began.
However, things didn’t turn out quite as expected.
Ms. Chander described her first semester here as “horrible,” filled with leeches, rain, and scorpions. “Amoeba had a permanent residence in me. I was counting the days to go back [home]. I cried after coming back from Christmas holidays,” she said.
However, things took a complete turn. Somehow, Ms. Chander began to love this place by the time her first year got over. Today, she sits in front of us, exclaiming in excitement, “Woodstock changes you. I came here for one [year], ended up staying here for 34!”
Ms. Chander was an Indian History teacher when she first joined Woodstock. It took her time to adjust to the culture here, but she is so grateful to the students who helped make her time at Woodstock memorable.
She recalled how the students used to time how long it took her to speak one sentence in English to help her improve. “Students then were very different. They helped me grow up in their system,” she said.
Here at Woodstock, students and teachers are encouraged to think differently. One of the best experiences of being a teacher here is the access to plenty of opportunities. Eventually, Ms. Chander became used to the style that people here wanted her to adopt.
Not only students but other teachers also helped Ms. Chander settle in here. One of the most supporting teachers during her time here was Mr. Plater. “He would come to classes not to criticize but to help,” she said, further adding that she believed she had truly grown as a teacher at Woodstock, which was surprising to her.
When the principal of Woodstock at that time asked whether she would like to stay longer, Ms. Chander said that she would be happy to stay and continue to work here, to which he replied, “You are one of the Indians who proved me wrong. I didn’t realize that you would stick out here.”
At Woodstock, Ms.Chander taught classes that aren’t generally taught at other Indian schools such as religious education. She said, “We had to teach what we were asked to. So I taught religious education, starting with Sikhism.”
Education at Woodstock is different from education at other schools. According to Ms. Chander, one of the best parts about classes were the student class discussions. “At one point, students would ask questions and another student would clarify. This would never happen in an Indian school situation,” she said. Students at Woodstock have a very close relationship with their teachers. They are not afraid to talk to them. “One of the good things [at] Woodstock is that you can fail and still learn from it,” she further added.
Students were also very curious to know what made her happy as a teacher. “Teachers will be happy if you are doing your work nicely, and being a conscientious and hardworking student,” she answered.
When asked about the biggest drawback in the Indian education system, Ms. Chander replied, “I would say the failure of teaching language and getting expertise in that language.” Although many students in India are taught in English, students often struggle to converse in that language.
Ms. Chander had many memorable times at Woodstock, but out of them, one of the most memorable was an incident that happened during the 1984 activity week. “We went to Jaipur that year with Grade 10 students. This was the time when Indira Gandhi was just shot. We were traveling back to Woodstock by bus. One of the Grade 10 students was a Sikh boy. We watched the news and realized that Sikhs were being dragged out of the bus. We were traveling via Gurgaon. On our way, a gunman checked the bus. If he found even one Sikh, we would all be dead. We hid the Sikh boy at the back of the bus. We saw trucks burning and people hiding. We soon realized that it wasn’t safe and went back. We stayed the night at a grand hotel, praying to come back safely. The next day, we started our journey again. It was troublesome but we made it back. That was the day when the whole school was waiting for our group to come back including the principal. 31 years down the line, we just had a mini-reunion at Waterloo station in London. It was the Sikh boy who arranged it, and we were all reminiscing about that incident way back in 1984.”
By everyone, Ms. Chander was known as the teacher who stood up for her students and always supported them. Shreen Vaid, Class of 2011, said, “Ms. Chander was our homeroom teacher. I got to know her a lot during my senior year. If she liked you, she would call you badmaash. Every Sunday, she would make aloo paranthas for us. They were the best!”
Photos by Knema Gardner
Edited by Janvi Poddar