From Flying Planes to Shaping Lives of Children- JAPJI CHEEMA

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She has experienced the thrill and craziness of being a pilot- flying to new destinations and meeting new people! Now steadily and firmly grounded- a stark contrast to her earlier profession- she is currently spearheading a premier school in Chandigarh- which is incidentally among the rare schools running IB Primary Years Programme in the region. Meet the Administrator of First Steps IB World School- Japji Cheema-for whom leading an educational institute and nurturing her son is the newest adventure of life!

What has been the most adventurous role of your life so far- being a pilot, a mother or leading an education institute? And why?
Real adventure to me is teaching and educating my children (who study in my school) to aim for the skies! I think the most fulfilling role for me has been being a mother to my son- Prithvi. Parenting teaches you a lot- particularly patience and a constant focus on shaping a life. This also helps me a lot professionally, because I feel more empathetic to the needs of the children of my school. Hence there isn’t a single dull moment at home or even at school!
I also believe that adventure changes with age. When I did not have my son in my life, flying was the most adventurous thing. The continuous pressure, the extremely haphazard lifestyle and the joy of meeting so many new people and visiting so many new places was extremely fulfilling.
I thank god for all the opportunities he has provided me in life, however there is nothing more adventurous and satisfying than being a mother to my little bundle of joy!

You have been a dynamic pilot by profession. What brought you to education field and what are your future plans? 
Destiny! I got into managing the school after the untimely demise of my father.  Since me and my sister were both based outside of Chandigarh, one of us had to come back and carry forward my father’s dream, which was “Our School”. So we took that decision and I shifted my base to Chandigarh to be associated with the school full-time. It has been one of the most fulfilling decisions I have ever made and not even for a day, I have either looked back or regretted moving back.

Now that you are heading the school that provides IB and Cambridge education to children in city, what is the current focus and future plan?
From a future perspective along with our endeavor of providing quality education, we are also exploring opportunities of expanding our infrastructure. We are also evaluating how we can use modern age technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning to impart even higher standards of education and also have our children focus on using the right elements of technology. We are also partnering with leading institutions in the world in fields of dramatics, debates, music to get our students certified. Along with focusing on the overall growth of our students, we are working continuously to arrange best-in-class learning sessions for our teachers and focus on their holistic development and growth as well. I am confident that with the support of the district administration, school staff, parents and students we would meet all our plans and I am happy that First Steps is already on its way to become the leading school of tricity.

A cause that is close to your heart and you would like to work upon. 
I feel sad when I see young girls from humble backgrounds doing menial jobs whereas they should be spending time at educational institutions. It’s been my endeavor and a common vision at First Steps to focus on educating the girl child and making them self-sufficient and self-reliant. Under our admissions through Right to Education we try and admit as many girls as possible so that they get quality education and can be taught life skills. A girl has to fulfil multiple roles in life, as a mother, a partner, a professional and more than that someone who sets the agenda for an entire family. I firmly believe that we need to teach our boys to respect women and we also have to focus on educating our girls on how to survive and thrive in a so called “male dominated” society.

Describe your personality and any areas you wish to improve upon. 
Brave! This is the term that closely defines me. I cherish this value that my father instilled in me- being fearless and brave!
I would like to enhance my skill in delegating tasks at work more. As the Chairperson of the school, I am working on enhancing my effectiveness as a leader since there are multiple roles to play.

One activity that helps you relax and unwind.
Flying! It gives you wings. The thrust, the force and the majestic views from the sky takes all your worries away! It gives me so much independence and it’s a great time to retrospect. Especially now when I have given up professional flying and I just fly to keep the passion alive. I love it even more. Also, lately I had the good fortune to experiment with snorkeling and that experience was totally mesmerizing. I wish I could do more of it.

Back to your professional life, do you feel parents in the region understand and appreciate modern teaching methodologies? What has been your experience? 
My experience of running the school and aligning the way we educate with modern teaching methodologies and following what IB prescribes us to do have been phenomenal! I feel parents conceptually understand the nuances of modern teaching methodologies however when the same is applied in everyday teaching there are some questions that arise from a parents perspective. For example, we believe in the concept of voice choice and ownership which focuses on making a young mind take ownership of what they have to complete and also stay truthful to it. However, parents at times miss to see the key opportunity in it. They still feel that after all the money spent on education if the student has to decide what they wish to do then what is the value of a teacher putting in the effort for that program! Well, these points don’t suggest that parents are averse to the idea but since old school methods (which the parents went through) were more structured and a routine was followed, therefore questions about the new formats are normal. The change in owning your own path of study is something where more education and awareness is needed for the parents to be comfortable with.

How do you look at the current scenario of school education in the region?
I strongly and personally believe that our tricity (Chandigarh region) is one of the finest when it comes to education. I myself take pride in completing my education from Chandigarh! My school days have given me the best memories and life-lessons that stayed with me till date and I will cherish them forever.
But if we talk about today’s scenario, I believe the standard of education in the tricity is still there but the enthusiasm for innovating modern day techniques is still lacking. Most of the leading schools in the tricity which are affiliated with the two leading central boards are not experimenting enough to prepare the students to thrive in today’s evolving world. The current curriculum has a lot of merit but the innovation is lacking. However, at First Steps we take pride in following the approach of “voice choice and ownership” where the students decide the lines of enquiry on which we focus their entire term.


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