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Saving Face: Why Our Pupils Suffer For Our Honour

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By Sachin Jain:

A little girl shivers with malaria in the late afternoon at school. Her teacher won’t send her home. Instead she beats the little girl with a wooden ruler to make her stop ‘deliberately shaking’ her hands. An 8-year-old boy in a municipal school in Mumbai passes out from hunger after the recess. His father has forbidden him from eating the khichdi (a nutritious mid-day meal of porridge) that is distributed for free as a mid-day meal by the Government.  A 2nd grade teacher, now 14 years into her job, makes her students copy 10 random pages of their English text book every day. However, not a word of English will be spoken or listened to by her students in the entire academic year.

What is common in these three examples? Children in India suffering at the hands of a callous system, you would probably say. Indeed, but investigate a little deeper, and a pattern emerges — a malaise that has devastated our children in the past, and has ominous portents for our future as a nation. In the first example, the teacher refused to acknowledge the illness of her pupil. If she did, it would have meant facing her total absence of knowledge on how to deal with medical emergencies, as well as exposing her unwillingness to go the extra mile in arranging for the student to receive medical attention. Allowing his son to eat the mid-day meal would mean letting the world know that this out-of-work father cannot make ends meet. Trying to teach basic phonics or reading to her 2nd graders would mean revealing the shocking truth for the 2nd grade teacher — that the teacher’s own English proficiency is at pre-kindergarten level. In each case, confronting the problem would involve those responsible for the students’ well-being to lose face. It is this very fear of losing face that has made our education system a minefield of insensitivity and lost opportunities.

Teachers have always been venerated in Indian culture. Often placed on a pedestal, they have been likened to Gods in our mythological narratives. This has made teaching a noble (at least in theory) profession. However this very anointment of honour has induced a smugness and callousness that allows some teachers to get away with the most heinous of excesses. Corporal punishment, intimidation of parents, doctoring of marks, rampant absenteeism, playing hooky from class while dawdling in the staffroom and a wrenchingly abysmal quality of teaching, are some of those ills that plague our public primary education system.

So herein lies the paradox: A historically and culturally-sanctioned notion of respect and veneration for our gurus of yore, pre-empts expectations of accountability from our teachers in modern, contemporary India. We hesitate to make teachers responsible for pupil learning outcomes among their children because we are loath to de-sanctify their exalted status in our culture. Doctors ought not to get away with negligence. An engineer shouldn’t be able to escape his responsibility for building a bridge that collapses before it is even completed. Then why do educators who create shocking academic achievement gaps, leading to high drop-out percentages in the public education system go scot-free?

Our public primary education system caters to our most vulnerable children coming from what are considered the lowest strata of our highly power-distanced society. In an unfortunate double-whammy, these pupils are far, far likelier to spend many years with teachers who may disregard their basic duties, as compared to their more wealthy counterparts who go to private unaided schools. With every additional year that a vulnerable child spends in the ‘care’ of incompetent teachers, the achievement gap just widens further. Like a rubber-band that finally snaps on being stretched too far, this achievement gap stretches so wide — 4th grade students testing at pre-kindergarten levels. i.e. 5 years behind – that the child ‘snaps’ — by dropping out of school or being forced to leave due to societal and economic pressures. This is why half the children enrolled at the beginning of primary school do not make it past grade 5 in our country.

Question is, what can we do about it? As teachers and headmasters, we must see ourselves as truly responsible for the learning outcomes of pupils. For too long have some primary educators employed the fig-leaf of rote-learning to conceal the shameful fact that they are unable, unwilling or just too plain lazy to make pupils understand fundamental concepts in Math and language. The absence of mastery over these basic concepts cripples our children in later years. For example, if reading fluency is not developed at primary levels, large, complicated passages in social studies become like a tsunami that the pupil sinks in. The winds of change have already begun to blow: the latest continuous comprehensive evaluation systems place an emphasis on learning through activities and a welcoming school environment, rather than the tyranny of final examinations. The day when the mindset of every public school teacher changes from that of an administrator to that of a change leader, will we do justice to the 600 million young minds hungering for knowledge and learning in our country today. Till then, we have the shame of the under-education, unemployment and under-achievement of our future generations on our hands. The choice is ours.

[Editor’s Note: Teach for India is one such initiative that is taking real time action to equip the ones who need education – with the best possible knowledge, by leverage our strength. One of the few campaigns that engages the youth and innovative in re-building the society — from the grass root level. A must join.]

Sachin Jain is an engineer and a teacher at a municipal primary school in Mumbai. He is from the 1st cohort of Teach for India , a private national initiative to attain educational equity, where outstanding young professionals commit to teaching full-time for two years in under-resourced local schools in India

Image via the Teach for India website.

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  1. Vijay

    Expectations of accountability being pre-empted on account of historical and cultural sanctions!!!! So very well put Sachin… This is one of the most ‘heartfelt’ articles ever to hit a website I presume! God Speed to your desires to make a tangible difference to the lives of lesser fortunate ones…. God Bless….

  2. Heeru

    How right you are Sachin, we do have the shame of the underachievers as well as the unemployed, i am so proud to know you as being the Wind of Change.

    How important it is for one and all to bring about a change in attitude and understanding of the things around us.

    Education truly doesn’t start and stop at the primary level but it is a continuous process from childhood to adulthood. Your article only pushes me further to help and support the winds of change.

  3. Rohan

    I read the article and I admire the heartfelt yet articulate depiction of problems crippling our education system.

    In my view, looking at the service model of education, police, public utilities or governance bodies there is a striking commonality – i.e., the customers/beneficiaries of the service are not the one’s compensating the respective agency for it directly. In education this is more so with public/state schools. Moreover, there is no measure of quality of service being rendered.

    Come to think of it there are several business which are similar in the sense that service delivery and revenues are source are different, media is case in point. Service consumption is at large however revenue is from advertisers. However pertinent difference lies in the measure of quality of service being monitored. While TRP may have its own flaws it still links service delivery to revenue and where in lies the key to success / self sustenance / competitiveness of the model.

    Though it may sound dramatic, I think services conventionally thought of as social services should rather be looked at business. Education, run professionally as a business, has much more potential of success. Issues like sensitive / accountable teachers are all a subset and should align them selves once the larger delivery/ revenue model is set right.

  4. Anubhav

    Brilliant article Sachin! I mean, it really goes into the roots of our problem in the education system. I feel that often the importance of primary schooling is neglected, especially KG, 1st grade, but people have to realize that the foundations are laid there, and that a child can only build his knowledge if this has been laid properly, especially when it comes to languages e.g. English has you have mentioned. The effects of an improper early primary education can be seen, be it because of bad teaching or lack of support at home, in your class too I feel. Then a sort of backlog builds till it becomes too difficult to continue. But the problem with teachers at that level exists also because many of them take it because they need a job, and not because they are actually interested in teaching. It’s a really complex problem, and it can’t be solved immediately but will take many years, I guess involving proper training of teachers and a change in the education system, though here progress is at least being made. And organizations like Teach for India are important in this progress. It is an important issue, and I’m very happy that your article has been published, especially since you know this first hand. My experience with your class has really taught me the importance of education, especially as a means of reducing poverty and conflict.

  5. Prashant

    I wanted to add that this problem not only affects those from low-income backgrounds but also those that go to better schools. When I studied in India in a wealthy boarding school, I remember not understanding the value of Math or Science, rather memorizing theories for exams. It’s only when I started studying for my “O” levels (UK high school certification) that I really could see practical questions being asked of me, forcing me to understand why a theory is important. The whole system places too much emphasis on theories and memorization, that has little value once you leave school. Even though India produces thousands and thousands of Engineers everyday, only a handful (maybe the ones from IIT and a few top schools) are really competent.

  6. Nirmal

    Very good article Sachin. I do agree that the elevating the teachers to the status of God and hence absolving them of any accountability or responsibility is one extreme that we take the role of the teachers too. I am glad that rather than suggesting that we mimic Western models of teaching you have put the question out there for a collaborative discussion on what can possibly address this situation?

    One thing I always found sad about learning is that Teachers snubbed questions from students if they did not know the answers to them. Some how being a teacher is synonymous to being Omniscient. I wish my teachers directed me on where to begin the quest for an answer and acted as a coach rather than curb my curiosity. Is there anyway we can take the burden of Omniscience off our teachers and make them coaches and partners in learning rather than aspiring masters of subject matter?

    I often hear (and some respondents have pointed out here) that blindly repeating something N number of times is useless, rather a student should be encouraged to ask questions. I personally see some merit in repetition and this belief stems from the understanding of the apprentice-journeyman-master model and partly having gone through it myself. Prior to questioning a process/concept at their face value, it helps going through it a number of times before it becomes second nature. And then you are struck with the Eureka moment of why the process/concept was developed the way it was, building respect and appreciation of the work done before you. As a journey man your questioning aspires to take that thinking further and humbly and hopefully improve upon the process. Without repetition at the apprentice level, one tends to prematurely question the wisdom and efforts of those before them which often builds arrogance and disrespect for predecessors.

    Just a few thoughts I felt like sharing 🙂

  7. Navinder

    Great thoughts, Sachin.

    Teaching, besides sharing your knowledge as a teacher, is also about mentoring and tempering the nubile, impressionable minds of the students who are a captive audience because their parents trust that sending them under your care is the best thing to do.

    So, teachers, hold the trust, and do your job well!

  8. FV

    I do agree with what you are saying, and I would also think of many more instances. The choice is also whether we want a process based model or an outcome based model. Although I strongly believe that both are extremely important, I know that outcomes is an easier choice in many cases- and so also is dishonesty.

    This problem exists in private schools too.

  9. Sanjeev Bolia

    Right from Independence, India has made a conscious attempt to bridge divides of caste, gender, religion and economic status. This Act is a reaffirmation of Parliament’s commitment to invest in all our children’s education. The Right to Education Act will is not just a symbolic gesturebut will be backed up by budgets and education infrastructure investments and will improve access to education to every Indian. Check:

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