A Sacrifice?

Over the past five years, I have been told, by many genuine well-wishers, that I was making a 'sacrifice' by entering the education sector. In this piece, I would like to examine these sacrifices and explain why these were not sacrifices in my eyes.

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First, a professional sacrifice. I was giving up a nascent career in electronics engineering to venture down a path that began with teaching primary school children in a low-income school in Pune. What was often ignored in this viewpoint was how I came to choose engineering in the first place.

In India, one has to decide on a course stream towards the end of 10th grade that determines the kind of undergraduate program that one will attend after 12th grade. I remember finalising the science high school that I was to attend in February 2007 when I was yet to clear my class 10 board examinations! In effect, my parents and I took a decision regarding my future career at a time when I was rather undecided about what I wanted to commit to as a profession.

I opted for the science stream as those subjects, specifically mathematics and chemistry, interested me in school. I proceeded to complete an electronics engineering degree and found my coursework to be mentally stimulating. However, when I honestly questioned myself about working in the field for the next 40 years, doubts started creeping in. I began looking back on my life for clues about career options that I might have unknowingly discarded and that is how I came to consider the education sector more seriously.

Being the oldest cousin on my father's side of the family, I had spent many summer/winter holidays with my younger sisters playing games and engaging them in different activities. I discovered that I was good with children and, for some time, nurtured hopes of becoming a teacher when I was grown up! During high school and summer breaks from college, I volunteered with children at risk at Dream A Dream and saw how critical it was that we stop merely saying that children are building blocks of the nation, and start backing up that statement by investing time and resources in them. This motivated me to explore education and join the Teach For India (TFI) fellowship upon graduation. Since then, I haven't looked back, as teaching, working and studying about education have given me a lot of joy over the past few years.

A photograph taken on the last day of the computer course that I assisted in teaching at the Dream A Dream centre in Koramangala, Bangalore in June 2012.

Thus, I see it as a blessing (and not a sacrifice) that I am able to work in a field that excites and motivates me each day and that I discovered this early in my career. Professionally, I have not sacrificed anything - I have gone through experiences that are different (not better or worse) from those I would have been through as an engineer. My experiences in education feel more aligned to my long term aspirations for who I want my work to impact; thus, if anything, I have gained and not sacrificed by switching fields!

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Second, an intellectual sacrifice. Working on electronic circuits at the micron level is regarded as a more intellectual pursuit than lesson planning, teaching, curriculum design and creating assessments. I would posit that different kinds of skill sets and intelligence are required to excel in these two fields. Comparing engineering and education to decide which is intellectually 'better' is analogous to comparing apples and oranges. Engineering definitely challenges the mind in ways that education cannot but the reverse holds true just as strongly.

The knowledge, skills and mindsets (KSM) required to work with passion as a teacher and educator are completely different (again, not better or worse) than the KSM required to be a successful engineer. The fact that people saw my switch as an intellectual sacrifice suggests the kinds of intelligence and skills that are valued in society today. Engineering is objective, easily quantifiable and talks the glamorous language of technology, data and numbers; education is subjective, rather qualitative and information generated from educational activities needs to be converted to fit the mould of quantifiable numbers.

This inherent subjectivity in education is what makes working in the sector intellectually challenging. Any curriculum developer or expert will tell you that curricula are living organisms - always in flux and constantly being updated and enhanced. Any assessment creator will tell you how a well-designed multiple choice question takes time to develop if we want to deeply investigate children's underlying misconceptions. Any teacher will tell you that there is no one right method or comprehensive checklist to consider before planning and teaching a lesson - factors such as children's backgrounds, societal norms and culture and the prescribed curriculum all play a role in the way a lesson pans out. This makes teaching intellectually demanding in its own right. Some facets of teaching that I personally found to be mentally engaging are listed below:

  • planning and executing lessons on a daily basis without making it monotonous for either me or my students
  • gently handling the contrasting emotions and personalities that make up a vibrant classroom
  • organising educational field trips and being solely responsible for the safety and well-being of my students while on those trips

Even a quick glance at some of my posts linked above will reveal that teaching isn't child's play.

My 5th standard students designing our class magazine. Executing the entire project with my children from start to finish was a fun and invaluable learning experience.

An extra class session - while they involved both me and my students staying  for 2-3 hours after school, they were extremely rewarding academically and in getting to know my children better.

On a visit to the Science Express at Khadki station in Pune in December 2014. Other staff members accompanied me on this trip in which we took more than 100 students from the school.

Following my teaching experiences, working as a mathematics content developer at Educational Initiatives (EI) showed me the challenge of intelligently using technology to enhance pedagogy and student learning outcomes. As content developers for Mindspark, an online mathematics learning platform, we needed to create learning modules that would be engaging within the limits of our current technological and logistical constraints (for instance, audio and sound was not an option in our content as most children used our product in their school computer labs whose systems were not equipped with speakers). Studying research about how students learn mathematics and drawing on the vast amount of student data that EI has collected over the year was stimulating and insightful in my development as an educator.

Fourth standard children working on Mindspark at Goethals Memorial School in Kurseong (Darjeeling district), West Bengal. I took this photograph on a school visit there in September 2016.

My master's program at graduate school was a window into the theory and philosophy underlying learning, teaching and education. I got to read and discuss literature and research with peers from other countries and faculty members who have spent time pondering these issues while testing out their ideas in the field. Projects, coursework and the academic environment were conducive to my mental growth.

Simply put, there was (and still is) no intellectual sacrifice from my side in working in education. 

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Third, a material / financial sacrifice. I was giving up a potentially lucrative career in engineering to work in a sector where well-paying jobs were few and far between.

From a purely objective standpoint, there is no disputing the fact that I took a pay cut when I committed to working in education. However, calling it a financial sacrifice is based on the implicit assumption that I valued (and needed) the additional money that would have come with an engineering career.

It is said that only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches; in my case, this was true in a rather ironical sense. People thought that I was feeling the financial pinch as they assumed that I wanted a lifestyle centred around expensive cars, glitzy gadgets, big houses and trips to exotic tourist spots - this is quite far from the truth! I have thought carefully about my priorities in life and have a good sense of my needs and goals. This is the simple reason why I don't see a monetary sacrifice in working in education - it pays me well enough to satisfy my material needs while simultaneously looking after the intangibles (a work-life balance that allows other pursuits (like writing this blog!), job satisfaction, impacting children through my work etc.) that money cannot buy.

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Evidently, teaching and working in education have given me a rich set of satisfying experiences - personally, professionally and intellectually - and the posts in this blog are indicators of that fact. This makes attributing the word 'sacrifice' to my career choice an unfair and belittling characterisation of what my work means to me. I have understood a tremendous amount about children and the education system in India in a short span of time but there is still much to learn and explore! To quote a couple of stanzas from A Psalm of Life by H. W. Longfellow (one of my favourite poems when I was in school):

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, 
   Is our destined end or way; 
But to act, that each to-morrow
   Find us farther than to-day.
Let us, then, be up and doing, 
   With a heart for any fate; 
Still achieving, still pursuing, 
   Learn to labour and to wait.


  1. Thank you for sharing this post, Shreyas! The premise rings very close to home.
    I'm curious about what you consider to be the personal "sacrifices"? Though you used the word in your conclusion, the article only breaks down the professional, intellectual and monetary aspects of your choice. I have thought a lot about this for myself - I view my career as providing huge personal fulfilment in a way that is really rare. I don't see any sacrifice. However, the external perception is often that I have given something up, and having to often have those conversations where people expect me to justify my choices one way or another ends up feeling like a sacrifice that I might not otherwise have had to make.
    I'm curious about how you're thinking of the realm of the personal in all this.

    1. Aishwarya,

      Thank you so much for your comment. My reason for not discussing personal sacrifices is that there haven't been any from my side. I love what I do (and have done) and I have experienced so many gains and highs that I don't see any personal sacrifices. As you said, my career too has provided "personal fulfillment in a way that is really rare" and words are not enough to describe that. One needs to have lived it and experienced it for oneself to know the feeling.

      An underlying theme in the piece was that external perceptions of another person's reality are poor indicators of what the individual lives out as his/her daily reality. Yes, I agree that those conversations can get tiresome. However, at those times, I keep reminding myself that I am living life for myself and having my actions judged by people who are looking at it purely from their perspective isn't worth my time. Both parties need to be willing to hear and understand the other's perspective and then take a call on the situation in its totality. What I have personally found problematic is when the other person doesn't seem to make an effort to see my point of view but expects me to understand and agree with his/her point of view because it is the majority world view that should not be critiqued.

      I can see why having those conversations, time after time, might be exhausting and could lead you to thinking that you have indeed made a sacrifice. This is exactly what I want you to question and ask yourself - do YOU perceive or feel that YOU have sacrificed something or not?

  2. Nicely done, Shreyas. Many teachers (especially those in their twenties and early thirties) have heard this word countless times. You've done a brilliant job really breaking it down to what they mean (well meaning individuals, usually), why it's said and why they are irrelevant. Great read for those in education as well as those outside who perceive it in a certain way.

    1. Thank you :-)

      I was discussing this with another friend and we realised that young teachers might be self-motivated and driven to have entered the profession in the first place but then receive these negative messages from people close to them (like their parents, uncles/aunts etc.) which magnifies the impact and sows the seeds of doubt in their minds.

  3. Teaching is one of most intellectual pursuits to me, because above all, it requires a commitment to constant learning. There's laws of motion we learn as students and there's laws of motion we learn to teach. They are not the same.

    Teaching generates wealth- maybe not so much materially but definitely in terms of knowledge, wisdom and respect. Can we say every other profession has them as perks?

    Teaching keeps one grounded. Because one needs to be constantly in touch of why one is doing, what one is doing. Teaching teaches humility and develops a character that can challenge a system.

    It's a profession and a lifestyle. To justify teaching as a choice, is to me, justifying why we need to eat a specific cuisine.

    1. Pratyush,

      You hit the nail on the head with the sentences - "There's laws of motion we learn as students and there's laws of motion we learn to teach. They are not the same." In fact, one of the professors that I worked with during my graduate program does research into this facet of teaching. The first one (laws of motion we learn as students) comes under the category of core content knowledge and is, predictably, a prerequisite for any teacher. This core content knowledge can also be possessed by those not in the teaching profession but who liked and remember their high school and college physics. In that sense, core content knowledge is widespread.

      The second one (laws of motion we learn to teach) comes under the category of pedagogical content knowledge. This means knowing how to teach the content that one knows and is a specialised form of knowledge that teacher training programs aim to impart to teachers. This knowledge is always growing and the teacher add his/her own flavour and style to it as they grow as teachers. Knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach it are two very different things and I appreciate you bringing that out in your comment.

      Teaching does generate wealth - the problem is that the wealth it generates is intangible and often ignored in a materialistic world. Calling them 'perks' shows that you value the importance of knowledge, wisdom and respect but values such as these seem to be reducing in importance if children and young adults wish to 'succeed' in today's world.

  4. Dear Shreyas bhaiya,
    The above article really answer to my questions. The starting two paragraphs are stating my current situation. Since from the beginning of my tenth I was deeply involved in dreaming about being an engineer after that being a fellow like you in some organization and helping kids which do not the quality education they deserve. Because teaching other is one thing I really loved but one the other hand for making my life comfortable I am thinking of engineering. But at the time when I thought I will teach I was questioned by myself that the money spent in it will recover or not. However, after reading your article I found one thing that my Money won't recover instantly but will take time. But the key thing in the article was that money will not buy the happiness from the career we choose. Hence at the end it really tells me that whatever we choose our future there are sacrifices which we have to make.
    Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment. :-)

      I think many children in 11th standard face the challenge of working towards a career that they will love AND which will also pay them well enough to lead a comfortable life. Additionally, you would need to work as an engineer for many years if you want to build a comfortable life for yourself and your family.

      I fully agree that a person has to make some sacrifices no matter which career they choose. For example, a person who works at a high position in a banking or consultancy company will earn a lot of money but will also need to travel and spend long hours in the office working to meet deadlines. This could affect one's health and the time that one can spend with his/her family. Money can definitely bring comforts but it does not guarantee happiness which is what you wrote in your comment as well.

  5. Hey Shreyas,

    You have described a very spirited journey :) A few thoughts..

    I reckon what most people mean by sacrifice in this context is mainly in reference to the potential financial setbacks. I don't think one even needs to justify that it's not a sacrifice because the very definition of sacrifice is subjective. Furthermore, as you said, it actually reflects on the kinda values that the society holds in high esteem. However, it's an understandable societal perception at this stage in India given our baggage of economic backwardness. An average middle class Indian parent wouldn't want to risk the financial prospects of their child by allowing them to pursue certain careers. And this is a general issue faced by not just teaching but Humanities in general. I think schools in India could begin to make a change in this perception by offering competitive salaries. Lady time I checked I was appalled to find how low the baseline of teacher salaries were even in the elite private schools.

    As for those who claim it to be an intellectual sacrifice you should ask them to try teaching a class for one hour! And then ask them to compound it 365x.

    Lastly, on a positive note, many Indians use the word sacrifice with a positive connotation as well. To mean that you have foregone your self interest to pursue a nobler goal. I'm sure many must've commended you for your ''sacrifice" in this sense too.

    1. Yathish,

      Thanks so much for taking time out to comment and share your thoughts. :-)

      Your point about Indian society's baggage of economic backwardness is a good one. After all, many middle class and upper middle class people who are doing well for themselves today have had to struggle financially while growing up. Thus, the fact that society fears the younger generation getting into professions with low financial rewards does seem inevitable. And, yes - as long as salaries of people working in the humanities stays low, this perception is unlikely to change.

      Regarding your last point, I often felt that family and well-wishers were thinking the popular Hindi quote - भगत सिंह तो सभी चाहते हैं लेकिन पड़ोसी के घर में - about my situation! Basically, they thought, "the world needs people to do 'social service' but my near and dear ones shouldn't be the ones to do that." This social service tag comes with its own baggage and is not used in the most positive light. However, I agree with you in that there were some people who thought I was doing good and used the notion of sacrifice in a positive spirit. Still, the essence of my post was that I did think it to be a sacrifice whatsoever because of all that I gained and learned through it.


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