Saving Face: Why Our Pupils Suffer For Our Honour

Posted on September 13, 2010 in Society

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.