‘Nurture talents, not just marks’: Meet the Kerala teacher who goes beyond call of duty

Babu Kodamvelil has one agenda: He wants his students, who belong to SC/ST families, to go out into the world as confident individuals with dreams to pursue.
‘Nurture talents, not just marks’: Meet the Kerala teacher who goes beyond call of duty
‘Nurture talents, not just marks’: Meet the Kerala teacher who goes beyond call of duty
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Every now and then, we come across a teacher who goes beyond the call of duty for their students. 'Teachers Who Transform' is TNM's five-part series, honouring the teachers who go the extra mile to understand their students, their unique needs and difficulties, and provide them with education that goes beyond academics. This is the fourth story in the series. 

When Babu Kodamvelil steps out of the classroom, a few children rush towards him, laughing, talking to him about a certain magic trick he tried in class. “Show it now, sir,” a little boy challenges the teacher. “Oh no, you can’t perform it after 1 pm,” the sir says in all seriousness. They laugh, they converse like friends outside class. But when it’s time for class again, the students sit upright, clean hands resting on the table like Babu sir wants them to.

“I want my students to care about how they present themselves. Some people may say, it’s okay, they are SC/ST students who won’t go places after this. But I won’t let it be; I want them to go out as respectable, confident individuals with dreams,” says Babu.

Babu is a Malayalam teacher at the Government Model Residential School in Keezhmadu, Aluva. He is also an SPC (Student Police Cadet) community police officer. Model Residential Schools come under the Directorate of Scheduled Tribes Development Department. And SPC is a project started by the Kerala Police, jointly implemented by the Home and Education Departments, to train students to respect the law, be disciplined and have civic sense.

“It’s not always easy. These are students who come from the forests. It may not work if you tell a student to grow trees. So you use the same tools in a way that could nurture the individual talents that students may have. For instance, a student who is not interested in Maths may be good with machines,” Babu says.

He knows this from his own experiences. Teaching is a career he chose exactly because of those early experiences in life. Babu too comes from a financially backward background, growing up in a village called Elanthoor in Pathanamthitta. Students would often drop out of school to do odd jobs, not dream big. “I had failed my pre-degree twice. It is only in the third attempt that I passed,” he says.

He had taken Science in his pre-degree, but realised later that Literature was what he loved, what he was good at. Babu took Malayalam Literature for his degree at St Thomas College, Kozhencherry, and graduated top of his college. He did his Master’s degree in Arts at Catholicate College and also began working with NGOs during those years.

Once he graduated, he first took up a job as the secretary of Dr MM Thomas, a social thinker and activist, who once served as the Governor of Nagaland. He also got a chance to live with him then.

Thomas’s house in Thiruvalla had been open all the time, lots of people walked in and out all day – fishermen, Dalits, women and activists would all gather to discuss problems and solutions. Known names like P Govinda Pillai and Justice Krishna Iyer would occasionally drop in. Thomas slept on the verandah outside the house while he made Babu sleep inside.

Sometime later, Babu became editor of the Malayalam section of a magazine. He realised then that he was meant to be a communicator, and he liked to teach. He studied a Bachelor’s course in teaching and began working in an aided school in Perumbavoor.

Around that time, he also got married to a teacher – Gracy Philip – and the couple has two children – Jeevan and Darshan.

At one point in time, he came to a school near Sabarimala, where the students were mostly from tribal families. “I would see these children come in the morning and go straight to the tap. They would drink water from the tap and come to class, looking tired. Kids would sometimes fall asleep in the class. That’s when I found out that these kids were coming without having any food. What was the use of asking them about homework when they were too weak to even sit awake in class?” Babu asks.

He visited their homes and understood that they lacked basic necessities. Babu spoke to people at work, and to the villagers, and began the practice of giving breakfast to these children.

“You can’t always beat up children and force them to study. One child told me he didn’t want to study. So I took him to the lab and gave him some screwdrivers. He liked working with machines. You should find such talents and develop them. Getting A+ grades is not always the answer.”

Babu wants all his students to pass, but he doesn’t insist on A+ grades. He is, of course, happy to see his students get high grades, but that shouldn’t define them, he says.

He remembers seeing Basil Thampi, now a cricketer with the Indian team, standing outside classrooms, punished. He would have been playing on the ground all day. “If he likes to play, let him play,” Babu used to tell the other teachers.

Students remember him for that. A young man on a bike came to talk to him the other day, reminding him of the time Babu used to teach him. “He said I stood up for him when there was some talk of suspending him and he went on to do his engineering,” smiles Babu.

You can’t use the same rules for every child, Babu says. There are children who come from broken families, from parents with drinking problems. “There was a child whose dad killed his mom and is now in jail. There was another whose mother worked as a sex worker.”

To such kids, Babu reassures them that he is there for them and encourages them to come talk to him whenever they feel like. “There may not be solutions, but you can survive these problems. I want them to survive and be confident.”

After several years at aided and government schools, Babu specifically asked for an MRS school. He got trained to be an SPC community police officer and made his way to the Aluva school. “There is infrastructure here. There is the hostel facility. I want to use these tools to build confidence in my students. I want these kids to go out and be able to interact with people, in society.”

He made a few high school children make a short film, all on their own, recently. He brought in some professionals to take a class for them and Game got made. Babu’s elder son, Jeevan, did the editing; Babu composed the music.

“I follow the same attitude when it comes to my students, as I do with my own children. The moment you stop seeing the students in front of you as your own children, you should stop teaching,” Babu says.

Read the other stories in 'Teachers Who Transform' here:

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