“DON’T look at the textbook. Talk to me.” In a newly built classroom in Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya, Sector 3, Rohini, Janmejay Sharma has his students slightly puzzled. Not with his questions — Why should we learn history? How do you think humans started farming? — but with his insistence that the students, who he has divided into groups of Pink, Green and Blue, consult among themselves and speak, and that they need not stand up to have their say.
Sharma is one of 200 “mentors” — an elite cadre of Delhi government teachers — working to improve learning in 1,000 schools under the Directorate of Education, with 16 lakh students. They comprise an interesting experiment in the Aam Aadmi Party government’s larger plan to revamp government schools.
On Tuesday, Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia published an open letter to Delhi’s teachers, in the form of full-page newspaper advertisements, congratulating them for the “wonderful performance of Class XII students in government schools” but also pointing to “the biggest stumbling blocks”.
They included, he wrote, teachers in one school using abusive language, employing corporal punishment and sending students on menial errands like fetching tea. Three teachers were penalised in another school for being habitually late, he wrote.
The Delhi government says that while in the first year of its rule, the focus was on infrastructure issues, it has now set its sights on training teachers to get children to learn.
“Many teachers know how to teach, but they do not know how to make children learn. The mentor teachers will help plug this gap between teaching and learning. These are teachers who, if their class has 40 students, are capable of teaching a subject in 40 different ways,” Sisodia told The Indian Express.
Chosen after two rounds of tests, the mentor-teachers go through several training workshops, in association with NGOs such as Pratham. Their job, in this academic year that started April, is to seed practices of innovative and child-centric teaching.
In the first phase, the mentor teachers were sent out — in groups of two to five — to various schools: to take two classes and observe other teachers take classes, as well as to conduct baseline tests that measured the aptitude of students in Hindi, English, maths and social science.
From July, each mentor will be entrusted with five-six schools. They will train other teachers, as well make suggestions on syllabus, pedagogy or school administration. The emphasis is on activities and interaction, rather than a one-way transmission of knowledge.
In a room in Dwarka recently, 29 mentors regrouped to share their experience, where Priyanka Singh, who teaches Hindi, showed a video of excited children writing on strips of yellow paper. Their assignment was to write a poem and draw a picture on the words in the text: baarish, mela, jalebi, etc.
Each of these videos were shared on WhatsApp groups — an attempt to crowdsource a pool of innovation that all teachers can tap into. Natural science teacher Bipin Bihari, for instance, brought in colourful kites to teach a class about air and wind; another taught the concept of force through a tug-of-war between a pair of girls.
Many of the teachers dent the stereotype of the uncaring, sarkari, absentee teacher and Sisodia believes that their commitment is “crucial”. “Until now, we have been injecting information. We test children on what they don’t know, instead of dealing with what they know. So that ends up destroying their confidence,” said Dharminder Dagar, who was deputed as a mentor teacher to a Dwarka government school.
Dagar spoke of four students in his class who could not read. “I told them, from now on, I will let only you read in class. I will help you. For about 14 days, I did that. By the end of it, they were reading, maybe not very fluently, but without fear,” he said.
It is unlikely, however, that it is going to be that easy to change entrenched practices. There are about 40,000 government teachers in Delhi, and about 20,000-odd posts to be filled. “There are schools in the East and North East districts, where about 80-90 posts of teachers are vacant. What can mentors do?” said C P Singh, president of the Government School Teachers’ Association of Delhi.
Suman Lata, maths teacher at Government Co-Ed Senior Secondary School, Dwarka, Sector 6, for example, was appreciative of the methods used in her class by the mentors — teaching them odd, even numbers though games or geometric shapes by lining up children as triangles or circles. But she said the problem of children with widely different abilities remains. “In a class of 60, if we focus only on the 10-15 children who are lagging behind, won’t we be neglecting the talented ones?” she said.
A mentor teacher, who did not wish to be named, said that the most common problem they face — students who have come to Class VI but can’t read, write, or do basic math — will not go away without fixing the rot in the 1,700 MCD schools, where a large number of children (about 7 lakh) spend their early years.
Sisodia’s high-profile initiatives such as sending teachers to Oxford and Cambridge and IIMs have also come in for criticism. “It is nothing but a waste of money. The government should decentralise teacher training practices,” said Ambarish Rai, convenor of the Right To Education (RTE) forum.
Sisodia admitted that the mentors are too few and, most likely, will be met with opposition. “There will be resistance, for sure. But there will be some teachers who will be encouraged. Those who don’t respond, we will fix accountability, though I don’t have a sure-shot formula,” he said.