One teacher at a time

I wrote a series of articles over the past eight months describing the attributes of good government schools based on my study across four districts in the country. The often-asked question was: “The heroic government schools are inspiring, but can your study provide insights for systemic change?”

My study had a specific purpose: to understand the processes, leadership and culture, the quality of teaching and learning and other such attributes of good schools. The people working closely with government schools on the ground easily identified 15-20% of the schools in their territory as good schools and as one visited a representative sample of these institutions, one could appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of the deeply committed teachers.

Over the last 10 years, as an inexorable migration to private schools has taken place, only the children from the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of our society remain in the government schools. Many come to school on empty stomachs and go back to homes where there is no reading material or environment for learning. It is in such a scenario that these remarkable teachers perform. Largely left to their own devices, it is the individual initiative and commitment of conscientious teachers that makes the good school.

However, to draw from such a study, suggestions to address the question of ‘systemic improvement’ would be presumptuous. I will therefore restrict myself to illustrating the kind of support a Block Education Officer (BEO) can provide to the schools in his or her jurisdiction.

This may seem mundane and operational, but the reality is that whatever be the grand systemic changes envisaged in policies, their effectiveness is determined by how people work on the ground. Thus, any improvement in the manner in which a BEO supports the teachers in his territory represents systemic change. It is these kind of changes on the ground that will help move the discourse from individual heroics to larger change.

The first step is to acknowledge the size and complexity of India’s public school system. A typical Block in a district has around 250 elementary schools and 1,000 teachers. A Block Education Officer (BEO) supervises these schools and the District Education Officer (DEO) would, in turn, have around 2,000 schools in his or her charge. I once spent three days ‘shadowing’ an exemplary BEO to understand his routine, rhythm and demands of office. He did not waste a minute; he ran his jeep to the ground visiting schools, holding meetings and instructing his staff on the mobile. His white shirt was sticky and grimy by noon and he could not have worked harder.

There are a number of sincere officers but many of them suffocate under political pulls and pressures. Even the competent functionaries are unable to focus on their prime objective of providing the best support to teachers and schools. Which is why, schools and teachers wage a lonely uphill battle and positive narratives are stuck in stories of inspiring individuals, instead of an enabling progressive system. My contention is that the first step for this narrative to change is for operating functionaries such as the BEO to provide visible and consistent encouragement and support to the good schools in their territory.

Communication campaign

One of the practical ways in which the BEO can support the schools is to help them effectively communicate their attributes to the community and win their trust and confidence. This initiative can be specifically designed to help the 15-20% government schools who have the moral standing based on their performance. Schools will value such support, for only a few of them are adept at showcasing their quality.

The BEO can develop a communication campaign for these schools around the following key elements:

• Prominently display the school’s commitment to learning outcomes of children. A simple poster like the one by the education department of Karnataka can be a perfect platform to build the community’s confidence in the school.  

• Showcase the school’s performance in independent national or state school quality assessment and highlight the names of children from the school who clear the qualifying exams for Navodaya and Morarji schools. For the community, this is a huge confirmation that children are learning.

•Highlight the all-round achievements in block and district-level competitions in sports, music, arts, debates, essays, poetry, etc. Invite parents to witness the morning assembly and observe the activities and the upkeep of the school.

Parents and community members will perceive the BEO’s support as the ‘system’ backing the energy and commitment of their teachers and respond positively. It will arrest the irrational migration of students from well-run government schools to private schools, many of whom may be worse off on all parameters. Neighbouring government schools will gain belief and hope from this.

Let me give another example of ‘systemic’ support and empathy. The good teachers committed to continuously improving their capabilities are forming progressive voluntary forums where they meet and discuss academic and pedagogic issues. The BEOs can participate actively in these forums and thus signal to the entire community of teachers the value they place on such initiatives.

BEOs can also join the teachers’ WhatsApp groups, which have emerged as a great platform in the last couple of years for teachers to share ideas and material. An encouraging word here and a helpful contribution there in these WhatsApp conversations can do wonders. How can I ever forget one of the teachers tell me plaintively, “if I just receive an SMS saying ‘well-done’ once from our officers, it will double my energy for years?” 

I deliberately chose these illustrations because they are simple, doable actions that do not require bureaucratic sign-offs. Such actions will energise the good schools and create an aspirational ripple among neighbouring schools. It could be a simple means of nudging the ‘systemic improvement’ needle and initiating changes on the ground. The narrative will naturally shift from individual heroics to a broader base. On the ground, even incremental improvement is in reality a huge systemic change.    

(The writer is Chief Operating Officer, Azim Premji University)

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One teacher at a time

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