Sailaja Vittaldev, Principal, Silver Oaks International School, Bangalore

Women in leadership roles are a minority in India. The glass ceiling is yet to be broken fully. Though most women take up the teaching profession, very few are part of the policymaking in education. The education sector needs more women from marginalized communities to be a part of the education revolution, lending their perspectives and experiences. “At Silver Oaks International School, every teacher is a leader, and only leaders can be teachers. In our School, we assume the responsibility of nurturing the young acorns who live for a purpose, learn to apply, lead with determination and leave a timeless legacy,” says Sailaja Vittaldev, Principal, Silver Oaks International School, Bangalore.

Following a core mantra of “Character before Competence,” Silver Oaks International School, Hyderabad was founded in 2002 by Mr. Dhanunjay. Going forward, to have a greater geographical reach he established Silver Oaks International School Bangalore in the year 2013. The institution partners with International Baccalaureate (IB) for its Primary Years Program (PYP), Middle Years Program (MYP), and the Diploma Program (DP). Student-Led Conferences, Primary Years Learning Exhibition, Personal Project, E-Portfolios, Extended Essays, Research-based Course works, etc., are some of the Instruments that help develop Academic Rigor at the School. “The School believes that their role as educators is more than teaching from textbooks and assessment of knowledge. School provides opportunities and a conducive environment for students who groom themselves to live for a purpose, learn to apply, lead with determination and leave a timeless legacy,” Ms. Vittaldev adds.  

Sharing an exciting story about naming the School, Ms. Vittaldev says, “At that time (in 2002), the campus had many silver oaks trees. Silver Oaks trees take the minimum nutrients from the soil and grow tall and proud.  Similarly, we expect our acorns to take the minimum from society and give back maximum to society. We call our students “Acorns of Silver Oaks”.” Following the same, The School follows a mission “To integrate into teaching and learning, the goals for conservation and social justice, to develop civic virtues and emotional skills that can empower our acorns to be icons of personal and social change who will play leading roles in the transition to a sustainable future.”

One needs to draw inspiration from everything one see and experience. “I believe in inclusive leadership. Culture to trust and freedom to work and explore creativity in teaching and learning is essential to work with the team. I am enthusiastic and positive and approachable to the team,” Ms. Vittaldev opines. In a world where technology is constantly evolving, and new teaching techniques are emerging, the School believes in homegrown leadership and delegates the work to bring distributive leadership. The team’s spirit at Silver Oaks is the ability to adapt and innovate. 

Having spent most of her childhood in a small town, Ms. Vittaldev was quiet and naive and never imagined that she would end up as a working professional. However, she has always had the habit of identifying her interests and passion, pursuing them with grit, and not letting go without achieving the goal. Her family always encouraged her to find her calling and interest and they were the pillars of support which was the foundation of strength in overcoming challenges. Later in life, when she faced challenges as a mother, is when she understood that educators need empathy to groom young people with patience and a caring attitude. “Probably, the lessons I learned from my motherhood made me a better person/educator to understand my students. I always put myself in their shoes and try to understand their perspectives to be it a student/teacher/parent,” she adds.

Her day starts with the smiles of her students and teachers. She draws energy from the ecosystem of inspired learning. The management at Silver Oaks works, keeping the students at the centre, and everything revolves around them. Challenges crop up either from administration/academic-related/ students / teachers / parents/ external issues like change in rules. She always keeps the constitution of the School. “Our schoolhouse, and it gives me a sense of direction and purpose. When you love what you’re doing, then there is no looking back. It gives me immense pleasure when our students enjoy what they’re learning and thrive in the ecosystem of learning. During my interactions with the students, it opens up multiple perspectives. Their ideas and enthusiasm will give me the spirit of energy,” she says.  

Ms. Vittaldev reads extensively and keeps selecting the latest innovative techniques of learning and teaching. Constantly questions herself as to what went well and what is that she needs to work upon. She attends webinars, conferences, and professional development sessions. She believes that every teacher has to be a learner and has to constantly upgrade the global trends and learning needs. Just before the pandemic, she completed a course on “Strategic Leadership for schools in Changing Environment” from IIM Ahmedabad. Following the mantra “Never Ever Give Up,” Ms. Vittaldev believes that women have an innate ability to understand people, their perspectives, and patience. All they need is to keep upgrading themselves and face the challenges with confidence and courage and focus on solutions rather than challenges. Channelize the energy on the things that can be controlled.  

Being Professionally influenced by the director of Education, Ms. Seetha Murthy, she says, “Her (Ms. Murthy) learning spirit is inspiring, and her strengths enrich us to strive for excellence. She always believes that the “Destiny of a country begins in its classrooms.” Silver Oaks, as an educational institution, takes the responsibility to shape the Nation. Schooling is the only time in one’s life that they spend around 6 hrs. each day, 5 days a week, and about 10 months a year for about 14 odd years – learning, growing and connecting with the people around them. It’s the prime years, and these are the most crucial time for young children. Because this is when almost all of their thought processes and ideologies are being formed. This will define who the students want to be. With this thought in mind, the School works intensively on building the character of each student across all its 5 schools in all three cities.     

 Activities, Initiatives, and Teaching During the Pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the overall approach to learning and teaching. At Silver Oaks International School, the pandemic was used as an opportunity to upgrade the skill set of the teachers and students. “It took some time to understand the nitty-gritty of the online platform and onboarding the students, but when you combine the passion with what you’re doing, then there is no period,” Ms. Vittaldev opines.

The institution identified that the social and emotional well-being of the students was a challenge and hence, worked on well-being sessions on a daily basis; to bring out physical fitness, which was a major miss during pandemic times, it brought morning energizers wherein students worked on their fitness quotient. Further, to improve collaboration and social interactions – group learning of the students with their classmates was encouraged.

The School carved google websites with engaging project-based learning experiences for the students. The Google websites were about Science, English, Math, and Social sciences beyond the textbooks. This PBL ran across the grades, and it is focused on ‘Future Work Skills’ – Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication.

Students were given 2 hours to explore the content and do the challenging tasks working at their pace. Students used tools like Project Zero Harvard visible thinking routines. At the end of the day, students collaborated through breakout sessions. They gave outstanding presentations, and self-management, Social, Communication, thinking, and Research skills helped move them ahead in the learning journey without ever entering the school campus. “Our students’ reflections proved, Cells that Fire Together, Wire Together. Our acorns are taking cognizance that they have the power to train their brains and will be empowered to learn more and in different ways,” Ms. Vittaldev says. The School designed a panel discussion on remote learning between teachers and students to understand the challenges faced to set the expectations for the academic year. This enabled the students to understand the teachers’ perspective and vice versa.

Inspiring Morning is a special significant feature at Silver Oaks, which helps children and teachers meet and interact with people making their mark in society, contributing to the people around them. These special mornings were conducted virtually during the pandemic. Additionally, the School coined a unique program called “Coins for the Country.” It is the School’s vision that the acorns take responsibility as a part of its continued Civic and Social Responsibility Program (CSR), and it was born in 2006. The students collect coins/notes diligently every year either by foregoing their wants or by economizing on their spending. Crediting the parents for the successful initiative, Ms. Vittaldev says, “the credit goes to our parents as co-enablers for this important character to be built amongst our students. So far, our acorns from all the schools across the three states have contributed INR. 1.5 crores and have taken up the responsibility of Nation building.”

To cultivate the spirit of respecting others’ needs, the School has another initiative known as the street store – A goodwill initiative. The institution strongly feels it’s their responsibility and not charity. This encourages young acorns to get involved in the joy of sharing and take up responsibility in helping the community. Silver Oaks initiated this program on September 9th, 2018. It’s a part of their continued Civic and Social Responsibility Program (CSR). Speaking about the same, Ms. Vittaldev adds, “We swell with pride when we say, “Me and My Country We Grow Together.” It’s our Director Mr. Dhanunjaya’s vision that our acorns grow with virtues like transparency, sincerity, and empathy.”

As the School and the parents share a common purpose and vision to give the best for the Acorns, the School is inclusive, and the parent community is part of the School for guest lectures as speakers for the inspiring morning. The key elements of the institution are culture to trust, appreciate, and give, and transparency. In 2020, the School carried out an outreach program wherein parents from each grade exchanged their views to learn about the pandemic and its challenges. Online learning from parents helped the institution gain valuable insights. Further, Silver Oaks also conducted a panel discussion on the NEP policy to gain insights into the policy. The leadership team from all the schools had an interaction with students from all the schools to understand what went well and what needed to be improved for their learning. 

Speaking about teaching without hassles, Ms. Vittaldev shares her lessons from the pandemic: 

Change is inevitable: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Despite obstacles that may arise, one must always believe in his/her ability to rise above challenges and emerge stronger to groom the young students who can be future icons of personal and social change and also will play leading roles in the transition to a challenging, sustainable world. Pandemic taught everyone to survive and sustain.

Proactive People: The School always works on the collective spirit. To this end, the faculty collaborates with each other and shares best practices. They work on the guiding principle of Simon Sinek’s Golden circle – Why | What | and How. Why do we do what we do? When one understands the purpose and combines it with passion and interest, they will find solutions for all the challenges. This ‘why’ will motivate one to drive and plunge into action. “Learning and teaching is the singular purpose that resonated with all of us in the School. Thanks to our teachers who worked from home despite their full-time work at home for developing engagements that develop knowledge, concepts, and skills in our students,” she says.

Technology: The teachers are Silver Oaks “teacherprenuers”. They have become agents of learning who worked diligently and crafted the learning engagements with all the ICT tools. Technology and pedagogy were blended to create these teaching/learning engagements for effective online learning. Peer and collaborative learning empowered them to handle the classes. The School carefully planned these engagements to maximize learning. The whole community worked together to get the students on board with the e-platforms. Notably, the parent community’s support was a great deal to take the flight of online learning.

The courage of conviction: Pandemic and challenging times might be new, but the core of learning and teaching is not new, and the institution knows what principles are needed to guide the pedagogy. Silver Oaks knew what they needed to work upon because they were transparent with their “why we are doing what we are doing.” 

“Project-based learning should be implemented in all the classes as all the students are unique, and so are their strengths,” says Ms. Vittaldev opposing the One paper for everyone, an exam-centric mindset. Silver Oaks brought this innovation to the School by foregoing year-end examinations. Instead, the School informed the students to work on project graduation – Present what you know! This is to provide an opportunity to develop Voice Choice Ownership. The students chose significant knowledge from the units and designed a website to suit their thinking. They were informed to use all their English language skills to post their knowledge on each page/section of the website. Suggestions were given from self-record videos, pictures to support the evidence of learning. Condition is to showcase their conceptual lens to present the depth of the knowledge the students gained across the year, and the challenge is to create a rubric to assess their presentation. Initially, everyone in the community questioned the School; why can’t we have simply written examinations and tested the entire portions of the subjects? Students struggled to draw a line for their depth of knowledge. In the end, it was commendable to see the outstanding presentations from the students. They showcased Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration to brainstorm the evaluation quotient, and Communication skills while presenting, collating, synthesizing, and evaluating their own learning. 

The passionate team at Silver Oaks International School is currently working on turning their students to become assessment-capable learners. They aim to move from good to great. “Grooming the young minds and seeing them being successful and also leading themselves into leaders to do their every bit for the community is soul-satisfying. I encourage all youngsters to take the role of the educator as it gives a sense of pride that you’re a part of Nation Building,” She concludes. 

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