How Change Starts Within Yourself – Personal Transformation Is Systemic Transformation
Romana Shaikh is the Chief Programming Officer for Kizazi, which partners with local NGOs who work with government schools to design, implement, and codify breakthrough school models for a deeper purpose of education. Romana is committed to creating and enabling a thriving life for every child.
Big Change/Eva Keiffenheim interviewed Romana at Salzburg Global Seminar Education Futures: Shaping A New Education Story. The questions build upon insights from the global research A New Education Story – Three Drivers to Transform Education Systems. Romana’s perspective connects to the three drivers, purpose, power, and practice, and sheds light on the mindset shifts and actions needed so that all children can thrive.
This article was originally published on Romana Shaikh’s LinkedIn profile.
Romana Shaikh // Credits: Salzburg Global Seminar
In your work as an educator and leadership developer, what have you learned about power as a lever for system change?
All systemic oppressions that exist on the outside have an impact on each of us on the inside. Even though I was a speaker at this global conference, able to talk about what I wanted to talk about, I am aware of being the minority in the room – as an Indian Muslim Woman.
A few months ago, at home, in India, “indianmuslimgenocide” was a trending hashtag on Twitter. The increasing violence against Muslims, the increasing felt sense of hate and otherness, has created a sense of powerlessness, of feeling like a victim. There is a fear in my mind, in my body. If I express my voice, what is going to be at stake? Am I going to get attacked for this? Will my family get attacked? WIll i lose friends?
Even though my work has afforded me many privileges and so much power, there is this part that continues to feel powerless. Do I really have power and agency in a system that sees me through a single lens of being Muslim? A system that discriminates against this one part of my identity? That fails to see me in my wholeness.
Whatever you do in life, if some parts of your identity are those that are not the majority, you are always looked at differently. The system treats you differently.
That’s why to understand power; you need to understand identity. Many systemic challenges stem from how we perceive our own identity. And more so from the way others perceive us, which gets shaped by social norms and the access we have in the system we grow up in. The personal exploration of my identities, and the impact that they’ve had on me, helped me begin to see these patterns in the world more clearly.
Before, it always felt like, “oh, this is just something that happened to me”. But what I’m experiencing is not just my experience. Every other person who shares some shades of my identity, some intersections, is probably experiencing the same thing. So, “This is not just my problem. I’m not the only one who’s gone through this” was a big insight. I’m not the only one who has to fight this fight. There are other women and Muslims who’ve experienced the world the same way i have, many have experienced worse. There’s a pattern there.
And then, once you recognise this, acknowledge this, and understand this pattern exists, you begin to question, “why is it?”
I saw all these different identities or parts inside me and how different identities shape my experience of the world in a particular way.
When you begin to really drill it down, at one point, you will come to more universal constructs of our identity – gender, race, religion, caste, class, and sexuality. In different parts of the world, there are different constructs. Seeing these in daily interactions in life gave me a lens that helped me to see patterns in the inequity in education.
“The question is, what is the rest of the world doing about it?”
Can you share an example of this shift in perception?
When I was at Teach for India, I was leading our program. I saw classrooms across urban cities in India and later some rural parts of India as well. Over the years of visiting government and low-cost private schools that were all providing an English medium instruction, I recognised patterns that enable real progress for children. But there were also some schools and classrooms that were just not making the same progress. Academically these classrooms started lower than others; there was more dysregulation or ‘acting out’ of children in the classrooms. Different teachers tried and tried but still failed.
When we started looking outside the classroom, outside the school, we began to see more patterns. The poverty was more extreme, the exposure to violence was higher, the sanitation was poorer, and often there was a larger Muslim population. All this information painted a complete picture of how things are today. As I’ve looked at data across the country, specifically for Muslims in India, I’ve begun to understand that Muslims in India have been systematically oppressed – Only 17% of Muslims complete Grade 10 compared to a 26% national average, almost one-third (31%) of the Indian Muslims are living below the poverty line, till date, Muslims are denied housing in many parts of the country furthering the geographical segregation which in turn, leads to Muslim ghettos that then continue to have limited access to healthcare, education, or government subsidy. More recent studies have shown that the Muslim child is most marginalised because of the added political marginalisation the community experiences. So as a Muslim child, there are fewer people around you that have benefitted from education, there is more discrimination you face on a daily basis, and more of your family has been in multi-generational poverty.
You can’t just say ‘it’s a poor person’s problem’. The system has made them poor and the system is maintaining that poverty.
With this acknowledgement that so much is at play when you work with children from marginalised backgrounds, the narrative about high expectations in education is one I find quite unfair today. We’re saying to children, “I have high expectations of you; you need to get here.” But then, we’re not giving children any chance to get there. And it’s not just language, it’s the way we see the world, we keep seeing the need for students to work harder than their privileged counterparts.
Anyone who is growing up marginalised knows they have to work harder.
The question is, what is the rest of the world doing about it?
Romana, you said acknowledging the shared parts of identity started within yourself and continued through a sense of shared experience. When you talk about ghettoised Muslim communities, it sounds as if starting on an individual level is insufficient because of a larger systemic injustice.
What do you think is needed from a systems perspective to be fairer to children in these contexts?
Yes absolutely. Rising from the personal to the systemic is very important. But you can’t have systemic change without a personal change. We have to acknowledge that it’s not right to demand and expect the same things from all children. Because no child starts at the same point. Before you replicate any school or education system, you have to contextualise. At a systemic level, we need to ask, “What’s needed here? And how does my system need to change to serve that?” And since I’m part of the system, I would need to change for my system to change.
“What’s needed here? And how does my system need to change to serve that?”
So let’s ask what is needed here. Let’s acknowledge that a child brings into the school and classroom their experience of marginalisation, of poverty, of oppression. A child who works to support their family needs something different from school than a child who is bullied because of her religious identity. A child who is growing up in a single-parent household has different needs from the adults in school than a child who is raising their siblings. All the intersectionalities of their identity are part of their experience which they bring into class.
Then let’s ask how my system needs to change to serve these needs. Our education system has for far too long been a “one size fits all” that focuses very narrowly on a cognitive kind of education – one that’s all about knowledge acquisition and retention. Our children need and deserve more than that. They deserve to be seen and responded to as whole human beings. So when a child doesn’t complete their homework or falls asleep in class or struggles to retain information or doesn’t believe education is important for them, we have to pause and remember everything that contributes to the life this child experiences.
And then, we will realise how the design of schools with their grading systems, their rules of discipline, the rigidity of curriculum and their notion of success need to shift to truly honour and empower each child. This requires us, as adults in the system today, to redefine the values and structures of the school system itself.
It’s acknowledging that an education system is not separate from other systems; we are human, we are whole, and we carry our whole experience with us everywhere. We learn what’s socially acceptable and how to express ourselves in school. So even education needs to see itself in relation to the whole system, in relation to the social system and to the economic system. Then you begin to see the bigger picture and what needs to shift. But this process is not easy.
Eva Keiffenheim and Romana Shaikh // Credits: Dominic Regester
“It’s acknowledging that an education system is not separate from other systems, we are human, we are whole, we carry our whole experience with us everywhere.”
Apart from your experience in teaching and school development you’re also a trained psychotherapist. Based on your insights in trauma work, where do you see the need for a shift on a practice level in the classroom?
My biggest realization during trauma work is that if there’s one thing that’s universal, it’s trauma. It needs the least contextualization. I get goosebumps thinking about it.
The events that traumatize us are different across cultures – but we’re all human and how we experience trauma is very similar. What makes you sad and what makes me sad, maybe different. But sadness for you and sadness for me, feels the same. Because that’s how the body works. And the body is, again, something that’s so fundamental, which none of us learn to take care of. In most education systems – and in what I’ve seen across Africa, Armenia, and India, – you’re taught biology, but you’re not actually learning your own biology. Our education systems need to create space for us to learn about our own human-ness. How our body works, how our mind works and how we can take care of ourselves and each other.
Trauma happens inside our bodies. It stays there and gets triggered by different incidents in our daily life. We see it playing out in our classrooms every day in the bodies and faces of teachers and children. Every time a child (or an adult) reacts in a way that feels disproportionate, or gets too confused or too scared, that is a sign for us to know there’s more going on in the body-mind than what we can see.
The high-stakes nature of examinations, the achievement orientation, the vast syllabi – we all have a childhood memory of school that has shaped some belief in our personality. At a fundamental level, the way we see children and in turn, treat children needs to shift. We need to see them as whole human beings, each unique in how they will grow and each bringing in a unique story of stress, strength and resilience. And this work needs to start with the adults in the system. They too, carry their own intersectionalities and stress, strength and resilience into the school.
There’s so much more universal in trauma and health than we’ve acknowledged in education.
“Our education systems need to create space for us to learn about our own human-ness. How our body works, how our mind works and how we can take care of ourselves and each other.”
So would you say a shift in practice towards more social-emotional learning can be a way to bring this knowledge about our own biology into classrooms?
Yes, and no. Much of our systemic injustice is rooted in a lack of social and emotional learning. And while it’s great that social-emotional learning is becoming the new big thing, I worry it will be compromised into our existing assessment and curriculum structure.
Our generation today and our elders had so much trauma. They didn’t learn to love, to live, and to be healthy. They experienced war, conflict, fights for independence, fights for social justice. And those fights have not ended. We’ve inherited that trauma, it’s in our collective consciousness. There’s a reason we are so scared to share, to trust, to love freely. There’s a reason we’re asking about the cost of returns on feeding a child. No parent would do that. We are biologically wired to nurture. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Social-emotional learning and trauma informed teaching can be a part of healing and working with it. But we have to be mindful of how to integrate it.
How can we meaningfully integrate social-emotional learning into practice?
We must recognize social-emotional learning is not a subject, but a way of life. It’s not a means to an end. Education is about the present and it’s about all of us, young people and adults.
If I’m a teacher, coming to school in the morning, and having a fight with my family at home, and carrying that with me, do I have to pretend everything is fine or do I get a morning meeting to check-in?
In Seroond schools in Armenia, we’ve seen how conversations have changed. There’s no pretending anymore. Teachers take 15 minutes in the morning and start their day with a check-in: “Hey, how’s everyone doing? Let’s check in with each other and with ourselves.” We need to give ourselves that permission to be human.
To include social-emotional learning in pedagogy and practice, it has to be done together and for everyone. In India, the Simple Education Foundation learned this quickly during the pandemic. They started wellbeing circles for their teachers and their families. In a regular virtual gathering, each person shares how they are and give and receive support from each other. The teachers didn’t need training on how to care for children. They needed the space to receive care for themselves.
In Sierra Leone, one of the most important things our local partner National Youth Awareness Forum has done is bringing families to the school. There are school management committees with families to co-determine the purpose and practice of schools. They’ve asked families “What do you want the school to do?”
Initiating a dialogue within communities is a powerful lever for change. Because we’re in this together. We’re all doing this for our space. This is our planet, our country, whatever that unit is. And so social-emotional learning is about really integrating it into the way we live, into the way we relate.
You’re the chief program officer at Kizazi and you work with local partners around the world to catalyze innovation in school design to increase opportunities for all children. In addition to Armenia and Sierra Leone, where do you see community-inclusive education transformation?
One really good example is the Aspire Connect Transform microschools from Egypt. The school’s founders created a network of microschools that strives to create young ACTors throughout the continent who transform their communities for the better. They have a very strong inclusion policy. Moreover, they’ve broken age barriers and taught in a small group, multi-age, and in multigrade settings. Curriculums are designed around cultural and national identities and a sense of belonging. Another example in this school in the US that has redesigned itself around the whole child. –
Another excellent example is Dream a Dream, an organisation that empowers children and young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity and thrive in a fast-changing world.
In India, an organisation that focuses on social – emotional learning in government schools – Apni Shaala and supports teachers, families as well as children in developing practices that support wellbeing.
There’s work that I haven’t seen myself, but I’m aware of through the trauma studies that can be a real resource for us to begin to integrate into our work with teachers and families – Some excellent networks offer resources and trainings for parents & educators – The Attachment and Trauma Network, for example, places a great focus on the role of attachment and the quality of relationships a child experiences with the adults in their lives. Touch the future, though created for parents, has great resources and insights for educators. Especially the resources that talk about the critical role of play in a child’s development.
Thank you, Romana, for taking the time and for sharing your perspective.
All photo credits: Salzburg Global Seminar/Katrin Kerschbaumer