There’s hope yet: A tale of two teachers

Schooling India: Beyond problems, the possibilities

Two examples that inspire

Phung is a Vietnamese girl. She is fourteen. Her mother died some years ago and her father works in the city, far from their village home. Phung, as happens in poor families so often, is in charge of running the house: cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her two siblings. Phung also goes to school, cycling one and a half hours to get there, along with her younger brother and sister Both Phung and her father believe that education is the only way to progress. Phung’s dream is to become an accountant… But, what does a poor Vietnamese girl’s story have to do with the Indian education system?

Reading about this young girl in a recent column by Nicholas Kristof in the ‘New York Times,’ I was reminded of the hundreds of children I have seen on my travels to India’s village-sides, as a researcher. With satchels on their backs, donning uniforms in various shades of white, and blue or red or green, these children walk or run to school every morning, many of them covering a kilometre or more, braving bad roads and quirky weather. They are bright, chirpy and full of hope. However, study after study tells us that their hopes will not fructify, they are doomed to be disappointed, the system will let them down. But, reading about Phung, I wonder: by constantly carping on the poor condition of the schools, the indifference of the teachers, the uninteresting textbook content and the overall malfunctioning of the education system, are we not destroying the dreams of these children even before they have had a chance to try and realize them?

Should we then turn a blind eye and say that all is hunky dory when it isn’t? Far from it. What is required, though, is a change in the approach of commentators, activists and educational thinkers: from looking at problems with a trained eye, they need to re-learn, to look at possibilities. For, what we need between now, when things are in the doldrums, and the time when our education system will be rejuvenated, is a positive approach to skillfully engineer the change rather than a negative approach that hopes to coerce the change by using strong language intended to shame into submission. As I see it, there could be two ways of doing this. One, efforts could be made to empower the children to go beyond the system, even while they work with its inadequacies; and, two, training and orientation could be provided to teachers to reclaim the powerful hold on the Indian mind that the ‘guru’ once had.  That both these remedial measures are possible has been shown, at least by two enterprising individuals.

Anand Kumar’s ‘Super 30 Ramanujan School of Mathematics,’ Bihar, has proved that students from underprivileged backgrounds can indeed trump their peers from elite schools and coaching institutes. “The most important thing is he [Anand Kumar] didn’t make me only to be an IIT-ian but also made a good human being… Gave me an image…an inspiration to struggle in any condition….. My whole life indebted to him …,” says Anup, in words that call to mind the reminiscences of an older generation about their teachers. Surely, Anand Kumar’s success with students who have come through a purportedly defunct system can be emulated by others? Sceptics could say that Super 30 is only a coaching centre and not a regular school. But what we are highlighting here is the spirit of belief and innovation that drives the venture, making it possible for children of poor farmers and class IV government employees to dream big and realise their dreams.

A similar spirit is seen in the transformation Jyotimani has caused in a small village school in Maangudi,Tamil Nadu. This government middle school has been awarded UNICEF’s gold star for sanitation, having been monitored on ten parameters that evaluate the school’s and the students’ awareness and practice of hygiene.  The school also has a library, a laboratory and a computer lab – none of them mere showpieces. The infrastructure is put to good use, and maintained by the school children themselves, who have formed various “clubs” to share the responsibilities. Every classroom has a television set and its own source of purified water. Every student has an e-mail id and all students in the higher classes use Powerpoint and Pagemaker to do their assignments. They also browse the Net to learn more about what they study in class. Students of this middle school are known to graduate from high school with scores of eighty per cent or more. How did all this become possible?

When Jyotimani took over as headmaster, the school was run-of-the mill, apathy being the defining quality of parents, teachers and students. They were straitjacketing themselves into the government-school image. But Jyotimani had long dreamt of an opportunity to cause fundamental change in the way government schools function, in the way they are perceived. He was out to prove that his school students could match up to the best. And, towards realizing this dream, all he did was to familiarize himself with the various facilities made available by the government so as to fully use them for the benefit of his school. “The government has provided the same opportunities for all schools. We teachers have to make use of them,” he says.

Jyotimani had a powerful dream and the determination to realize it; besides, he not only made optimum use of the available resources, he also introduced creativity in the way he handled everyday issues. For instance, he wanted the students to look good in order that they may feel good. But most of them had only one uniform set, which, for obvious reasons, could not be washed every day. The only way out was to ensure that every child had at least two sets of uniform. But most parents could not afford the second set. Jyotimani found a way to get around this problem. He invited the parents to the school and told them that for the Deepavali festival that year, each and every one had to buy a second set of uniform for their wards instead of the usual clothes. The parents were won over. Jyotimani’s concern for their welfare won him their respect and their cooperation. This was crucial for carrying through his plans for the school.

I have seen shades of Anand Kumar and Jyotimani in many teachers.  Parents, too, are becoming increasingly aware of the potential of education to enhance their upward mobility, socially and economically.  With these kinds of fundamental attitudinal changes, our students can dream big and also realise their dreams, if only we would refrain from dousing their optimism with our eager, but disparaging comments about the system they have to trust. Debates over quality, quantity and costs are no doubt important and essential when it comes to education, but the outcome of these debates should result in better schools for greater numbers, and more judicious financial management. They should not remain merely vocal discussions that reiterate the status quo.

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