We humans

Powerful life lessons from teachers, collected by their students

May 17, 2019 /

By training kids to interview their teachers, film them, and elicit their wisdom, Deepak Ramola is helping them gain valuable new skills and new appreciation for their elders.

At a primary school in northern India, the tables have been turned on the typical teacher-student dynamic. As a student sits across from her instructor, she gently asks, “Are you comfortable? It’s okay to be nervous.” She is conducting an interview for the Out of the Syllabus Project, an uplifting initiative that trains students to capture the wisdom of teachers and share it with everyone in their school.

Out of the Syllabus was launched in July 2018 by Deepak Ramola (watch his TED Talk: Everyone has a life lesson to share), an educator and founder of Project FUEL (Forwardly Understanding Every Life Lesson). He wants to deepen connections by using teachers and their personal stories as tools for students to learn. “In schools and colleges, teachers have been reduced to a source of passing inspiration or as a vehicle rather than as the inspiration. I want to change that,” says Ramola. “I had some phenomenal teachers who helped me grow and learn.”

A life lesson shared by teacher Reshu Dora, collected as part of the Out of the Syllabus Project.

Collecting and sharing people’s life lessons is a passion of Ramola’s. His mother was a major source of inspiration. He explains, “She didn’t go to school, yet she knew so much. I remember questioning her, and her reply was ‘I have learned from life.’ And I thought if she’s learning from living, then that means everyone who is living is learning something.”

He began documenting people’s wisdom in 2009 as a hobby while he was a college student in Mumbai, and he expanded the idea into Project FUEL, an educational organization based in Dehradun, four years later. Its mission is to create a tangible, memorable experience from life lessons so other people can be inspired by them. For example, the population of Saur, a once-thriving village in northern India, had dwindled after many inhabitants migrated to live in cities. Ramola collected life lessons and folktales from the remaining villagers, and in 2017 he and his organization covered some of Saur’s abandoned buildings with words and pictures, sharing knowledge and lifting spirits.

Through the project, students get to learn many skills — they become interviewers, directors, cinematographers and designers.

The Out of the Syllabus project is Ramola’s way of transmitting his enthusiasm to schools. Here’s how it works: In a school, teachers select 10 to 20 students to participate in a Wisdom Club. These club members are trained by the Project FUEL team and by volunteer professionals in filmmaking, data documentation, interviewing, recording and design (the professionals also share the necessary equipment). Then, the students ask teachers about their life lessons while filming and photographing them. The process, according to Ramola, “provides the children with amazing new skills in film, research and the art of conversation. It also allows the teachers to be more honest and authentic with their students.”

Afterwards, the students design posters that capture the life lessons. The posters are framed and hung in school hallways in what Ramola calls “wisdom corridors” so that the lessons can be accessible to everyone. (Schools that have resources pay minimal fees to Project FUEL to cover the costs of filming, design, printing and framing; with under-resourced schools, Ramola’s team raises funds to help them.) “For me, the project celebrates the wisdom of teachers outside their curriculum, “ says Ramola. Instead of spotlighting educators for their abilities to explain chemistry or literature, they have a chance to be recognized for their humanity and their qualities and skills outside the classroom.

Students look at teachers’ life lessons displayed in a “wisdom corridor” in their school.

For the inaugural Out of the Syllabus Project, Ramola’s team collaborated with the Purkal Youth Development Society in Dehradun, a fee-free school that assists children from impoverished families. Watching the students — who weren’t accustomed to being in charge — film their teachers and work together was “phenomenal,” recalls Ramola. “Seeing that beautiful choreography of conversation and that dance of emotions happen between these two generations was moving and empowering for me.”

When the wisdom corridor is complete, the project enters its second phase. As Ramola explains, “The Wisdom Club students coach their classmates to do the same, to document life lessons from staff members, parents and visitors, and to share them using creative tools.” He and his team provide the students with monthly check-ins. “We support and guide them until they can take it up on their own,” Ramola says. “I’ve gotten messages from one of the teachers on Instagram explaining that students now come to them saying, ‘I read on the poster that you suffered from a drug problem, and I’m going through that. Can I speak to you?’”

A life lesson from teacher Shalini Gupta.

So far, Out of the Syllabus has been brought to five schools in India, each with a distinctly different student body. “We’ve worked in all-girls government schools where the girls work and help support their parents. Then, we’ve been at a school with girls who come from economically sound backgrounds. Their passion to learn was the same, although their resources were different,” says Ramola. “The last school we did was a community nonprofit that serves children from slums. Imagine them getting to interview their teachers — and to be directors, cinematographers and designers all in one project and to be taken seriously in those roles.”

Ramola is full of anecdotes about the impact of their work. He says, “In one school, we had a girl who was very shy and would hardly talk. Interviewing a teacher was beyond her imagination.” Over the course of the project, he watched her gain confidence. He continues, “One day, she had to interview a teacher whom everyone dreaded. With shivering hands and voice, she faced her fears and managed to do it. After listening to her teacher’s story, she was so moved and said she understood why her teacher behaves the way she does. Seeing this girl find her voice and embrace empathy was one of the most meaningful outcomes of the project.”

Project FUEL founder Deepak Ramola works with students in a classroom.

Ramola shares an experience from another school. For her life lesson, “a teacher talked about a homeless person from her college days. She said that everyone, including the teacher, called him ‘crazy.’ One day she saw him with pieces from a broken glass bottle. She was afraid he might hurt himself, but she didn’t have the courage to stop him.” He ended up with cuts, and she went to him with cotton, bandages and antiseptic lotion. Ramola says, “She was very scared, but she felt it was her responsibility to help. He let her wash his wounds, and he was very quiet. When she told him he shouldn’t play with glass, he told her that he had been removing it because he knew dogs came to play in the corner and the glass could hurt them. The lesson that the teacher shared was you shouldn’t label people unless you know their side of the story.”

One student was immediately touched by the account; he told her he also labelled people as “crazy” or “mad.” He pledged from then on to listen and to help, and the other boys there did, too. Ramola finishes, “Witnessing that label get shattered in this powerful sharing was another fulfilling experience.”

Many schools have written to Project FUEL to get involved. There are nascent plans to bring Out of the Syllabus to other schools in India and beyond. He says, “We’re collaborating with a school in Antwerp, Belgium.” While he acknowledges the many difficulties posed by expanding, he strongly feels the benefits of sharing stories and creating strong teacher-student bonds will be more than worth the effort. Ramola says, “I believe that when you learn, you become a star, but when you teach, you become a constellation — not shining on your own but finding other stars, connecting with them and their stories, and becoming something much bigger and more meaningful.”

All images courtesy of Project FUEL. 

Watch Deepak Ramola’s TED Talk now: