Friday, July 26, 2013

I am a teacher. What is your superpower?

On taking over my 4th grade classroom, I found that the students could neither read nor write simple sentences in any language. Most of them were very poor in basic math operations deemed appropriate for their age. They could be quite a handful when they got into their mischievous moods. Later on, I could see a similar lack of knowledge in a lot of students in 7th or 8th standards.

A commonly held perspective goes something like this –
What are these students doing in school? Why aren’t they learning things that are being taught to them? They shouldn’t be coming to school if they can’t learn. Being a student means devotion to education and improvement of one’s self. And this is true for a majority of them in this school. We have an attitude problem in these students. Nowadays, the government is doing so much for them. Education is free in government schools.  Government schools also provide books, bags, stationery, meals and what not. These students don’t want to learn. After all, if they were interested, with hard work and perseverance, they can overcome the barriers of illiterate parents, poor teachers, dysfunctional school and a pedagogically unsupportive environment. I think that most of them are not capable of self-improvement or grasping the prescribed curriculum.

Thankfully, this mindset is beginning to change in the recent times and a lot of people are questioning the status quo of education. The focus is shifting to providing quality education and the onus is being laid on the teacher to improve learning in students and get better results. Still, learning in students is abysmal. Words like creativity and argumentativeness are ideas only discussed in all-India-teacher meets in AC rooms in Delhi.

I had the fortune of participating in a wonderful workshop on Active Math education by Navnirmati this weekend. During this workshop, I met an engineer who has left his core engineering profession to work in the education field. He conducts math workshops with students and teachers. The idea is to propagate activity based math which makes it a flow of ideas linked intricately with each other instead of reducing it to independent chapters which remain abstract concepts coded in numbers in our textbooks. He has been holding workshops for teachers, from elite to low-income schools, for the last 4-5 years. However, he finds that even after the workshop, these methods are not used by the teachers in their classrooms. He was very upset about this.

His perspective –
This is not erudite knowledge. It is freely available for anyone who wants to learn and improve. Even after holding these workshops and making them experience hands-on learning, they still don’t do this in their classrooms. What are they doing in school? They shouldn’t be teaching if they are not motivated enough. Being a teacher implies constantly innovating and striving for improvement. We have an attitude problem in these teachers. I have seen this in teachers across high-income to low-income. After the implementation of the recommendations of the 6th Pay Commission, even the teachers are getting high salaries. It’s common to see them with Blackberrys. I have left my cushy engineering job to improve education. Still, these teachers don’t want to improve. If they were interested, all of our kids would be learning irrespective of other factors. This can also be attributed to the fact that only uninterested and incapable people become teachers. None of them wanted to be a teacher. They became teachers because they couldn’t do something else. Most of them are not even capable of understanding their subjects and implementing these pedagogical methods.

I couldn’t help but smile. There is very little difference between the mindset I mentioned earlier about students and the mindset about the teachers.

I spoke to the teachers in the workshop. For almost all of them, this was their first workshop on professional development. This included teachers who had been teaching for 10-12 years. I had a group partner who had 25 years of teaching experience. Her last training, she recalled, was 15 years ago. She still remembers what it was about.

When I was a fellow with Teach for India, I was lucky to have city-wide training every month. This was in addition to regular classroom observation and one-on-one feedback by my manager, feedback and support by my peers and monthly manager group meetings. A lot of these sessions took us back to remember why we do what we do. They celebrated our work and made us feel good about ourselves. After all of this, I was just an average teacher working tremendously long hours. Despite being in the system, I was outside the system. This was a strong factor which gave me support and motivation.

The teacher is just a human who is a part of the system. She (for convenience, I am going to stick with the pronoun ‘she’ because I think females form the majority of the teachers in our country) has herself studied through the same dysfunctional system. Most of her beliefs regarding education have been built on her experiences as a student and then as a teacher. To change, and in some cases transform, these perspectives built over years, the professional development should be rigorous and of a very high quality. Unfortunately, this is completely absent in India.

As a teacher, she is being supervised by a principal whose knowledge and mindsets are usually even more outdated, if not outrightly incorrect. She has been repeatedly told to prioritize her administrative tasks over her teaching, and admonished if she fails to do so. Her pleas for a smaller class size so that she can focus better on her students are lost to idea of more money. She is given examples of how other schools have 80 students per class which highlight her incapability at managing even 60.

The lesser said about the implementation of the curriculum, the better. The prescribed books are usually ordered by the school without taking her opinion. Schools get a commission on this.  All the students need to answer all the questions at the end of the chapter and fill out even the most redundant tables in the workbook of each subject. The principal might call for them any time and judge all her efforts based on how much the children have written according to the syllabus. If she does an activity or a song in the class, the principal might walk in any time and scold her in front of her students for not maintaining discipline. So much for trying out the activity based fractions that she learnt at the workshop. She would have purchased the materials from her own money because she knew the principal would refuse her the additional expense.

On any given day, a teacher has many other responsibilities apart from teaching - parental figure, clerk, sports coach, PR to name a few. Teaching is a rigorous profession by itself which requires tremendous study, practice and self-improvement. In my social circles, when I mentioned my work, I got respect not because of my profession but because I became a teacher instead of what I was expected to do. My unrelated fancy degree and the sacrifice of lakhs of rupees made me a good teacher by default. I think this was the biggest disrespect to the profession and to hundreds of teachers out there who are there by choice and doing amazing work.

This is how I felt when I was teaching. How many of our teachers feel like this about their profession?
Students from Shree Geeta Vikas Vidyalaya, Govandi


Unknown said...

The power is within, whenever you work not expecting returns; there is an aura which drives motivation and one acheives unsatiable energy. So keep up the supreme power

Anonymous said...

teachers are indeed the superwomen/men. i had just one month stint at an ngo school and i discovered how terribly bad i was in almost all aspects of teaching.