Teacher's zeal is key

Teacher's zeal is key

Equity and quality in rural schools is an abstract aspiration. I understood how this plays out in practice years ago when I walked into a primary school in the hamlet of Alluru Vaddarahatti in Ballari district. Alluru's population was almost entirely made up of people from the Scheduled Castes and eked out a hand to mouth existence as agricultural labourers. Most adults were illiterate.

It was in this setting that Head Teacher Lingappa and his colleague ran a school with a simple and direct yardstick of equity and quality: year after year, students completing Class 5 must be prepared so well that they could clear the qualifying exam for admission to Navodaya Residential School and continue studies to Class 12. This might seem a narrow goal, but for children from very disadvantaged backgrounds, admission to Navodaya, Morarji Desai or Rani Channamma Residential Schools is an orbit-shifting opportunity. Ever since, I have consciously looked for such evidence every time I visit government schools.

My travel in 2017 took me to a number of government schools in Surpur block of Yadgir, one of the most disadvantaged districts in the country. In many schools, one observed practices that showed teachers striving to ensure inclusion and equity. The way the children's cabinet is constituted, the manner in which morning assembly is conducted, the opportunities for all students to participate in sports, art and music. One saw it in classrooms as teachers engaged with every child, encouraging the diffident one, even as they challenged the sparky ones.

But, one wants harder evidence. Are the children learning better? I got my answer, as I visited 30 schools and interacted with over 70 teachers who were well regarded by people who worked closely with them. At every school, when the conversation turned to the question of students' learning, teachers would emphasise the efforts to prepare them so that they can attempt the entrance tests for the prestigious Navodaya, Morarji and Rani Chennamma Schools.

Within a block, only around 200 seats are available every year in these schools and, naturally, only a fraction of students who seek admission clear the test. But whether the children clear these exams or not, as a result of the preparation, they are in an excellent position to embark on education in higher classes. That is why teachers believe that their efforts, those extra hours in the evenings and on Sundays, the drill and practice, their personal money that they invest are all worthwhile.

The clinching answer to the question, are children learning better, is that in the past three years, from among the 30 schools I visited, 235 children qualified for admission. It is a remarkable roll call of schools: Gugalagatti, Gedhalamari, Jumalpur Dodda Thanda, Evoor Thanda, Hoovinahalli, Peeranayakana Thanda, Hunasugi Camp, Mudanoor, Karadkal Camp, Kudalagi, Yaligi and more.

Gugalahatti is a small village of 800 people belonging to SC and ST communities. Only 20 homes have toilets, but even these are not used because there is hardly any water. If you ignore its unattractive appearance - a barren, brown school - you will see bright and inquisitive children.

Teachers Basappa and Giriappa invest every minute on them, using methods that work for them - practice with question papers of the previous years for Navodaya, special classes on Saturdays, using Nali-Kali pedagogy to prepare a strong language and comprehension foundation, and so on. It might seem like drill and practice but is crucial under the circumstances. The two teachers say in chorus, "The critical yardstick of the quality of our teaching is how well have we prepared these children for studies up to Class 12 and beyond".

Karadkal Camp is a tiny hamlet, comprising a mix of SC and Muslim population, so remote that senior functionaries rarely visit the school. Shrishaila, here since 2004, runs it with all the freedom that this remoteness provides him. "Children are not empty pots into which I have to pour information. I would rather use worksheets, discuss concepts and let my children build their understanding". He adds, "When people say children learn in a fearless environment, it is not just joyful learning, rather it is the space to work things out by themselves, the freedom to ask questions. That is a reason why my students do well, be it the traditional exam or the Morarji entrance test".

Shrishaila lays emphasis on continuous self-development. As a fresh teacher also doubling up as an acting Head Teacher, he found the Head Teacher training course conducted in 2004 extremely useful. He filed away everything he learnt and adapted these in his school. Serious about self-development opportunities, he can accurately recall each capacity building programme. "My understanding of the nature and pedagogy of social science has been greatly informed by the summer workshop that I attended to build perspective on social science using the content of Map Reading, Hunters and Gatherers".  

And then, young Basavaraj Dalavai's school in PN Thanda. Ten years ago, when Basavaraj came to this tribal hamlet, only two out of 100 children attended school. Today, not one child is absent. Basavaraj is a driven man and has never availed a day's casual leave in the last four years. His efforts show not merely in his students' success in Navodaya or Morarji, but also in the state education department's KSQAO assessment, where PN Thanda is among the best schools in Surpur. Basavaraj said, "I was delighted, but not surprised. There is nothing better or more important than being a primary school teacher in such places. The respect that I get, nothing can ever equal it".  

These illustrations are not only about how some teachers are bringing equity and quality into their classrooms but also about the larger issue of systemic change. It is not some grand shift directed from the top, but selfless efforts on the ground where each small effort represents a significant change in the system.

(The writer is COO, Azim Premji University)

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