In 1999, a young farmer named Achappa Gowder joined the education department and was posted to the village of Jumalpur Dodda Thanda, an hour’s drive from the nearest town and 120 km from the district headquarters of Yadgir. A large number of agricultural labourers in the hamlet migrate for several months every year in search of work. Children often go with their parents, thus missing months of school. Gowder came up with an idea that was nothing short of radical. He first got his dilapidated four-room school fixed, its toilets made functional — and then converted two of the four classrooms into residential dormitories for those children whose parents had to migrate. Breakfast and dinner were provided to these children within the school-meal budget; teachers took turns to stay overnight to provide supervision and care. “This was possible only because the parents felt assured of the children’s safety and well-being,” says Gowder.
In a culture that belittles the work of teachers and scoffs at the government school system, where teachers are often overworked and schools under-resourced, what motivates ordinary people like Gowder to do the best they possibly can?
With two decades of experience in the school education sector, S Giridhar of the Azim Premji Foundation visited 110 schools in five districts of India to see what makes a “good” school. Is it school culture, pedagogy, or the beliefs and practices of the teachers — or all of these? How do good teachers balance the pursuits of equity and quality in the classroom? How do they engage in reflective practice, for the child as much as for themselves? How do they use
WhatsApp group conversations to support their lonely work? How does a teacher in Uttarkashi get up every morning at 4 am, cook meals for the family, then take a bus at 6.45 am, followed by an auto, and then a trek up to her remote hillside school, where she is determined that every child should get a chance to shine?
In conversations about school education, the government-school sector is often described as failing, and its teachers disparaged as absent, evil or incompetent. So-called assessments, sometimes themselves based on problematic assumptions, tend to point fingers at what doesn’t work — while what is functioning well or even thriving is conveniently ignored in this narrative of condescension.
The problem of educating India’s children seems vast. By 2021, India will have over 370 million children in the 0-14 year age group. The majority of India’s disadvantaged children come to government schools every morning, often after eating leftovers or on an empty stomach. At the end of the day, with their parents still out at work for daily wages, they return to empty homes with few or no books, chores to be done, sibling care, and little time to study.
And yet, Giridhar returns from his immersive field visits with cause for optimism. Despite all the challenges, good teachers are, indeed, present in government schools and performing their work with sincerity and passion. They plan their lessons carefully; they advocate for better facilities for their students; they also improve their own capacities to teach better. They download new teaching resources from YouTube. They use art and music to enrich the children’s learning. The “bhojan mata” — the school lunch lady — is as much a part of their team as any subject teacher. They spend from their pocket to add fruits to the midday meal. They affirm the prior knowledge that the children bring to the classroom, and they help them make new connections as they learn — “zindagi se jodna” — with the world in which they live.
For the children in these schools, they receive what Gandhi described as the “education of the heart”. Learning is joyful and enquiry-based, in an environment that is free from fear. “News of the Day”, written on the blackboard, is an acknowledgement of their everyday realities. “Shivraj’s father is coming from Dehradun today.” “Pankaj’s great-grandmother is very ill.”
“In helping the student towards freedom, the educator changes his own values also,” said Jiddu Krishnamurti. The beliefs that drive these teachers are simple, poetic and filled with feelings. “Sangharsh karo, and the truth will win,” says one, a former union leader. “Aapko kaisa school chahiye?” another teacher asks the children, bringing their voices into the process of building their school environment. A former electrician-turned-history teacher remarks: “Evidence and enquiry rather than memorisation are important in teaching history.”
When we talk about the scale of the government school system — a million schools, millions of teachers and children — we often forget that we are talking about real children, with real lives, and the real women and men who help them to learn and grow. Giridhar’s book throws light upon this aspect. Improving the system at scale can be done by supporting teachers; improving their working conditions; freeing them from non-teaching work; reforming teacher education; strengthening professional development; building professional networks for them; and, not least of all, identifying and appreciating good practices by dedicated teachers in such beacon schools.
At a time when parents are at home with children because of the coronavirus lockdown, people have started to realise that school is about much more than only lessons. The world over, there is also a growing realisation that public services can function well only when they are resourced well and supported by all. This would also be the right time to appreciate the extraordinary and essential work that government-school teachers do against all odds, in caring for India’s children, keeping them safe, helping them learn, and preparing them for the world.