A fourth grade teacher in an innovative school created a class library with original stories written by her students over several weeks. Wonderment, respect and love shone on the eyes of every child each time a story was read aloud. Every morning children greeted her with new ideas for new stories. The class was writing stories around spaceships, grasshoppers and clouds. This group of children had plenty to thank their teacher everyday. They did not have to wait for teacher’s day.
Exceptions apart, what is the reality in the majority of India’s classrooms? Why do we usually remember our teachers with respect only one day in a year? What is the context of our teachers, their problems and aspirations? High ideals aside, teachers are human beings too. They are as much subject to the vagaries of the institutions and social contexts they work with as any other profession. In this article, I wish to highlight a few of the contextual situations that our teachers live and work with.
For all categories of schools, from primary to senior secondary and pre-degree colleges, India has over 60 lakh teachers for about 12 lakh educational institutions. Close to 70 per cent of these teachers work with the elementary years of schooling. Dropout rates in schools are abysmally high — only about seven children complete high school for every 100 enrolled in Class I. Clearly, our training of teachers is not working and neither is our teaching in schools. Barring a small percentage, most of our teachers are disempowered and disengaged practitioners in the classroom. Responsible teaching involves deep engagement with knowledge, the learners, teaching methodologies and assessments for feedback and further learning. At the receiving end of a long vertical hierarchy, the average school teacher in rural and urban areas has negligible training or systemic support to build on any of the necessary components of responsible teaching.
The content and nature of the bulk of the pre-service and in-service training provided to teachers across the country is antiquated, irrelevant and ill-equipped. We often assume that short motivational training programmes will provide the magic for change. We forget that rigour in learning about teaching is a necessary pre-requisite to create relevant teaching-learning experiences in the classroom.
Most teacher training programmes do not prepare the teacher to engage with the learner as a seeker, a doer and a dreamer. Children learn by asking questions, by observing, through reading about adventure and fantasy, by playing games and recording their findings when they engage in project work. As long as teaching is perceived as an activity that is meant to prepare children to take examinations, classroom teaching will continue to be embedded in this archaic world view. If a teacher is uncomfortable with children asking questions in the classroom and if a teacher cannot integrate these questions with the content and the everyday business of teaching, it can be safely assumed that he or she has not been adequately prepared to teach.
Imagine if you were a teacher and you were never expected to look beyond the lessons in the textbook and the marks at the end of the term, how empowered would you feel as a person and as a professional? Little wonder then that teachers are hardly ever seen using libraries or reading books that bring alive the wonders of their subject and the lives of their children. Experiences of teacher recruitment boards tell us that only a minuscule number of teacher candidates have heard of or read books worth mentioning. Most teachers do not even know what constitutes children’s literature. Their familiarity with books that inspire imagination and deep thought from publications such as NBT, CBT, Tulika and Katha is almost non-existent.
The structures of our education system create the culture that we have in our classrooms. The disengaging teacher is a product of our training and the decaying energies of our educational institutions. In the absence of sound educational leadership in schools, teachers flounder about pedagogical methods to be used at different class levels. In countries such as Singapore, China, Canada, Scandinavia and the U.K., educationists regularly revisit national goals in education to establish leading institutions that nurture schools as learning organisations. The discourse in these institutions includes topics as rich as helping teachers progress from being implementers to becoming co-creators of knowledge with their children in the classroom. Institutional spaces are created to minimise gaps that exist in the classrooms through focused training and skills development. The most important part being that the content and nature of training is regularly redefined to match findings from new knowledge and changing times.
In India, in addition to structural limitations, political ill-will and neglect can compound matters for the world of our teachers manifold. In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar, new teachers are neither being recruited nor positions created. Appointments are being made as ad hoc or para-teachers at almost 25 per cent of a regular teacher’s salary. In situations where the state can get away with unethical but seemingly lawful practices, where is the scope to question structural influences?
The real purpose of celebrating Teachers’ Day should be to relocate Dr. Radhakrishnan’s philosophical engagement with the requirements of our children today, to find ways to equip our teachers to at least strive towards those ideals. Political will is required to restore dignity to the teaching profession. India is presently not prepared to participate in a growing knowledge society. The illusory success of the recent economic boom must not create a false sense of confidence. To be able to look to the future with hope we need rigour more than an occasional motivation. We need to closely examine the contexts of those who are looking after our children. Our teachers deserve better.