The journey from Raipur to Dharamjaygarh block in Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh on a hot and dry April day seemed endless. The sun was blazing with all its might, announcing the arrival of summer. Leafless trees, a few paddy fields along the banks of the Mahanadi, the longest bridge in Chhattisgarh and dry forests were some of the highlights of our drive to Dharamjaygarh.
The mirage on the expressway appeared real. Despite the heat, our vehicle was comfortably cool. It was past 1 pm and we were hungry, since all of us had eaten breakfast before 8.30 am. My colleagues, who were familiar with the route, had warned me that there wouldn’t be a decent restaurant on the way.
Suddenly, at around 1.30 pm, out of nowhere, we spotted a dhaba. We instantly parked outside the dilapidated eatery with plenty of apprehensions about the quality of food. The bare-bodied cook, sweating profusely due to the intense heat under the tin roof, agreed to prepare some bhindi and yellow dal without spices. He almost met our expectations of minimum oil and no chillies. As a bonus, he also served a dry vegetable-potato preparation and a salad of cucumber and onion. There were several drums filled with water and a young man stood with a steel jug, offering us water to wash our hands since there were no basins.
On the route, there were several government schools where work was going on like normal despite the temperature being around 42 degrees Celsius. Many children were even playing in the sun.
At 4 pm, we entered the lovely premises of the District Institute of Education Training (DIET) at Dharamjaygarh where the DIET principal had invited us to use three rooms for our Teacher Learning Centre. Around 35 teachers had gathered and discussions began around half-past four.
After brief introductions by the teachers (an almost equal proportion of men and women), we asked them why they had come to visit our Teacher Learning Centre after already spending nearly seven hours in school. The summary of their responses was: “The members of the foundation treat us with respect. We get an overall perspective on education and its strong link with society. We now view children and their learning process differently. We understand the purpose of teaching a particular subject. All this has given a meaningful purpose to our work as teachers.” They also said they got useful suggestions on how some difficult elements of subjects could be presented to the children.
They peppered their conversation with talk of playing badminton in the small court that the foundation had created outside the Teacher Learning Centre and how a particular woman teacher could play for a full hour without tiring.
There was significant discussion on a moot question — whether there should be just one teacher teaching all subjects from Classes 1 to 3, or different teachers for languages and maths. While the house was divided, most of them felt that there should be different and specialised teachers to teach these subjects. Many of us recalled how we had just one teacher for the full year teaching all subjects and we did not feel there was any problem with this system. It helped the teacher develop a comprehensive understanding of each child and establish close relations with the children as well as their parents.
However, many other teachers felt that these formative years are the most important learning phases in a child’s development and a lot depends on how they cope with ability in literacy and numeracy for building subsequent understanding. They maintained that the job of teachers is critical and difficult during this phase, given that most children do not have parental support or a learning environment at home.
One of the primary class teachers challenged middle school and high school teachers to come and experience how exhausting the job of a lower primary school teacher is. The typical question asked is — “How do you familiarise a child with numbers or words and sentences in the absence of any prior exposure to literacy or numeracy?”
The problem gets compounded when one teacher has to teach children from several grades together in one room. Multi-grade teaching is the norm in more than 60 percent of government schools today. One of the teachers learnt that I am a member of the Central Advisory Board of Education and asked me why, at policy level, the government is not taking a decision to have a separate classroom for each grade and one teacher for each classroom.
I informed him that this is precisely what the sub-committees appointed for ‘Improving the Quality of Government Schools’ have recommended. Teachers expressed a lot of frustration about the government not solving basic issues and not honouring commitments made in the Right to Education (RTE) Act of having a certain teacher-pupil ratio in every school.
Are these not very genuine issues? That teachers must be treated with respect. That teacher education ought to create an essential perspective of the important role of teachers in child development, of why education is organised into subjects, of the purpose of teaching each subject. That sufficient intellectual challenges ought to be created for teachers to think through in-service teacher training. That we must recognise the criticality of primary school teachers and the difficulties that they face. That we must fully equip them to fulfil their role by not burdening them with multi-grade teaching.
It was so clear to us that the majority of teachers have the willingness and ability to understand the importance of child development and appreciate their role in contributing to such development. Their work is tough and without adequate support, they struggle to contribute. Despite extreme heat or cold, political stability or upheaval, the school is one institution that keeps functioning, braving constant change. If society and the education system would enable teachers through infrastructure, budgets, an encouraging environment and recognition of the challenging situations under which they function, our teachers could do wonders for the children and the nation.
Dileep Ranjekar is CEO of the Azim Premji Foundation