Help children break them

Glass ceilings the poor face

We all know that students from poor homes face many layers of glass ceilings in their lives. We also know that the only bridge that will help them cross over to a future of possibilities and hope from a culture of deprivation and despair is meaningful education. By meaningful education, I don’t mean only a robust curriculum, great infrastructure and excellent exposure, all of which are important, but children from the slums need more. This meaningful education does not mean just good grades in examinations, but also the process that gives students the ability to deal with all the negatives around them and the skill to resolve conflicts with dignity and survive.

Poor children need to be surrounded with caring teachers who will not settle for mediocrity. These teachers have high expectations from the children, and do not accept excuses for why children from the slums cannot learn. These teachers do not feel sorry for their students. Instead they provide them an environment that is supportive but demanding and push the students to learn. I have seen it possible not only in the Parikrma schools we run, but also in the government schools that we support.

I was therefore disappointed to read the World Bank 2018 report that recommends a separate syllabus for poor children. I agree that we need to consider different examination timings and even consider different academic calendars, because some of the students have to migrate to the villages to help their parents during the harvesting season. But that we should design a different curriculum because they cannot cope with the regular curriculum is unacceptable.

Such reports only foster the myths about expecting poor achievement levels from students of low socio-economic background. It is true that the first-generation learners come to school totally unprepared. And, in most cases, the parents cannot understand or are unwilling to provide any support. These poor children come into schools where the teachers are qualified but do not have the skills and the will to do a little extra for them. They work in a demotivating environment where initiative is not appreciated, and the teachers’ association plays a powerful role that many a times affects good governance.

The vital ingredient that poor children lack are dinner-table conversations amongst parents and friends that the privileged children are exposed to. Instead, poor children from the slums have to deal with the drunken brawls of their often alcoholic fathers, which sometimes makes school homework impossible and leaves deep scars that cannot be forgotten. Added to that are debilitating influences from their peer groups that are school dropouts but make handsome money through unsavoury jobs. Girls are in the most difficult situations, where going to school cutting across gangs of unemployed youth becomes unsafe. They then have to resist their whole family against being married off at age 14. One mother asked me if I would take responsibility when her girl gets raped because I wanted her to attend college. I understand many rapes happen in the slums and go unreported.

Children who come from generations of poverty still dream, have hopes, and want to achieve. As educators, we must help them cut through their glass ceilings. We can do it through small changes in the school, which will influence the system in the long run.

- We need to create a trusting and caring environment in school. Dozens of CCTV cameras cannot do what a sensitive principal with a team of caring teachers can.

- Teachers need to build relationships with the children and try and understand them.

- Teachers need to show respect and dignity to parents, whatever their condition may be. The children observe how their teacher speaks to their parents and begins to trust them.

- Teachers need to listen to the students and acknowledge that each child has a distinct identity.

- Engage all children in learning, and this can happen if teachers know each child’s interest.

- Teachers need to treat the child with respect. Difficult and disruptive students have told me that all they wanted was to be spoken to with respect, even when being chastised.

- Move away from obsessive assessments and concentrate on student learning.

- Hire social workers to create a bridge between the school and the slums.

- Provide a budget for a school psychologist who is trained to listen and pick up early signals of depression and self-destruction.

- Create student-centred and culturally-sensitive lessons.

- Introduce a culture of reading. This will get the students engaged and becomes the best substitution when teachers are absent.

- Encourage story-telling for every subject in every class. Children learn best with stories and play.

Low expectations, ineffective instruction, inconsistent institutional practices and disinterested teachers must be removed from the schools for the poor. At Parikrma, we have seen the extent of possibilities and promise that lies in the slums. We have basked in the pride of seeing children from the slums become software engineers, doctors and lawyers with the desire to contribute.

In a country where 2,613 of 4,041 towns are slums and more than 70 million people live in them, we cannot ignore the human potential that is getting wasted. We talk about how 65% of our youth who graduate from colleges are not employable because of our failed education system. It is an even greater failure to have 84 million children not go to school at all.

And yet, there is hope. I see so many private organisations trying to minimise the risks. I see corporates sincerely giving 2% as CSR to help. The government is now trying to take some significant steps to bring in quality in education. My concern is that while patience is a virtue that I admire, as a nation, we cannot wait too long for change. Every day in a child’s life is significant and much will be lost if we don’t act fast.

(The writer is Founder-CEO, Parikrma Humanity Foundation)

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