A TEACHER who gave up her position in a top Sheffield school to offer her skills as a volunteer working with disadvantaged children in India will leave Britain this week to take up a new role as vice-principal of HEAL Paradise Village in the rural Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
Amanda Smith, 38, has been appointed to commission the school being built at the Village in Thotapally and openly admits to being “scared” of the challenges ahead.
“I leave for India early in October having never been there before and, yes, I am scared,” admits Cumbria-born Amanda.
“I don’t really know what to expect other than it will be very different. I have been appointed the vice-principal of Paradise Village, which is still in the process of being built. Although there is no school yet, my role will be to develop the curriculum, to staff and plan the opening of the school ready for its first children in June 2012.
“Obviously, I will have my work cut out because I go to India with very little knowledge of Indian education and therefore I will need to learn a lot. I have also never commissioned a school from scratch and I don’t know anyone who has so I expect a lot of headaches along the way!”
The school and village are the brainchild of Dr Koneru Prasad, founder of the UK-based charity HEAL (Health and Education for All) which since its formation 19 years ago has lifted hundreds of orphans and needy children out of India’s poverty trap by providing shelter, medical care, food and, above all, education.
His vision, HEAL’s latest and most ambitious project, is to build a self-sustaining and mutually beneficial village community where 1,000 impoverished children can be nurtured and realise their full potential. A 25-acre site has been acquired and cleared and Paradise is expected to open its doors to its first intake of children in June next year.
“I have known Prasad for around 30 years as he was my childhood GP when I grew up in Peterborough,” says Amanda. “I went to Jack Hunt School in Peterborough, a local comprehensive, and Prasad was our family doctor when he first lived in the UK, I believe. I then left Peterborough to go to University and have not seem him for about 20 years.”
However, Amanda’s parents kept in touch with Dr Prasad, even after they left the city and moved to Northamptonshire, and it was a chance meeting which was to change Amanda’s life for good.
“Prasad was at my parents house one day when I was there, showing them the designs and telling them all about Paradise Village and the aspirations he has for the school and Heal,” recalls Amanda, who did a degree in neuroscience and a PhD in neurophysiology before deciding to go into teaching, going on to complete a PGCE at Leicester University.
“Mum and Dad had started to get involved with HEAL and to support its work. That meeting sparked something in me that truly inspired me – I could have the chance to do something that I know I am good at and that I know other people benefit from in a truly remarkable setting.
“I chatted a lot to Prasad about how I may be able to help and, whilst I could offer support and guidance from Sheffield where I worked, the best way I could contribute to this project is to go and actually do it.”
She had taught for two years in Leicester before moving to Tapton School in Sheffield where she stayed for 10 years. During that time Amanda filled a range of teaching positions in the school, some with pastoral responsibility (head of year) and latterly with academic responsibility (Director of Science). As recently as July Amanda won an ‘Outstanding Teacher of the Year’ award in a city-wide ceremony in Sheffield.
“Yes, this was a massive move and a huge decision to leave a very good job, but suddenly it seemed to be the right thing to do. I had the experience, I had the ability, I just needed the courage to go through with it.
“So, I resigned from my job at school, a truly traumatic event for me but, at the same time, I knew that all the things in education that I value I would be able to use to influence a school development in a community of children who have so very little. I have always wanted to give children the best start in life they could have and now I could do that for children whose starting point is one of poverty and destitution. What better way is there to use my advantage in life to the benefit of those so disadvantaged?
“My aspiration for Paradise Village is that it will offer world-class education to destitute children. That education will enable them to enter into global society if they choose and, importantly, will educate them about the value of people, educate them to live in an environmentally sustainable way and to think freely and make conscious decisions about their lives.
“I want Paradise Village to take the best parts of different cultures – i.e. not a ‘British’ school, nor an ‘Indian’ school, but instead a school that reflects the best things about each education system.”
Working alongside an India-based principal, Amanda will be recruiting staff from around the world to work in Paradise Village and will be developing the curriculum to ensure a first-class education is provided for children in the village.
“I have always loved teaching and have a real belief that it is the foundation of any development that a person, community and society undergoes. Something that I think made me good at what I did was that I never lost sight of the ‘child’ and how education may help them in life to make well-thought-through decisions, to have moral values, to care about others and the world around them, to ask questions, to value difference and celebrate that difference.
“I honestly think that a teacher has a massive influence on children and it isn’t just what you teach them but how you do it that is important. I could have happily stayed at Tapton for another 10 years I imagine, continuing to influence, continuing to benefit the lives of young people and getting along very well. Then I bumped into Prasad again…”
If anyone would like to find out more about the work Amanda is doing or would like to be involved, please contact the Heal UK secretary (firstname.lastname@example.org). For details of how to sponsor a child or make a donation towards Paradise Village please visit www.heal.co.uk.
Amanda will be among a group of 30 people from the UK, US and India taking part in Cycle India 2012 in January to raise funds for HEAL. If you would like to sponsor her please go to www.justgiving.com/Zoe-and-Amanda