Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru devo Maheshwara,
Guru sakshat, param Brahma, tasmai shri guravay namah
(My master is my Brahma, my Vishnu, my Mahesh,
He is the Supreme Brahman (source of knowledge),
I bow down to my master).
This week millions of children return to school in India after the summer break. Vidya Gyan salutes every educator – the guru – who, in India’s ancient traditions, held the highest esteem in society. In fact, the guru symbolises the Trinity (Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh in one) because they guide the disciples away from darkness to light by imparting knowledge. Undeniably, teachers are the backbone of a quality system of teaching and learning, particularly at the primary school level which builds the foundation and is a good predictor of what the future may hold for children.
For decades following independence, many school teachers did not have the ‘credentials’ by today’s standards (a bachelor’s plus a teaching degree such as B.Ed.). They were meagerly paid in those days but commanded utmost respect in the community they worked and lived in. They affected change and instilled good citizenship among the students and community. By contrast, today, teachers are relatively well compensated to match their credentials with a decent standard of living in an urban setting – miles away from the community they work in.
Speaking of my own experiences, the teachers were driven not only to teach but more importantly to ensure that we learned. We were punished when necessary. Unhesitatingly, the teachers reached out to parents when a child was absent, often walking to their home to enquire about their well-being. They were caring, compassionate, committed, and part of the community as gurus. They ignited the torch of learning. In my limited experiences with rural schools, the present-day teachers seem to be losing that tender touch, that level of care about students’ learning. The Trinity image of the guru is becoming a thing of the past. What went wrong? Could it be that today’s teaching, in the larger context, is merely a paid occupation without passion or purpose? Is it the lack of, or the loss of, trust and relationship between the community and educators?
In the good old days, when I was growing up, children from different socio-economic strata studied in the government primary schools, the only schools in rural areas to serve several neighbouring villages. There were hardly any ‘private’ schools in rural areas, being mostly limited to urban centres, catering to a privileged few. That allowed for better integration among children from all castes, creed and socio-economic backgrounds. It promoted peer-to-peer learning and the spirit of mutual giving and sharing. Friendships got cemented between students of many different socio-economic backgrounds.
Today’s government primary schools are ‘segregated’ not by choice but driven by the fact that the economically disadvantaged families have no other place to send their children; these families can’t afford private schools. Going to government schools becomes attractive because the children get free lunch, books, and dresses together with no education costs. The children and parents know of nothing better to look forward to. The poverty and poor educational background of parents lead to lower self-esteem, and thus many are afraid to talk with teachers, and perhaps many teachers don’t even care enough to talk to them. There is also an ever-widening gap between parents and teachers because they barely meet and know each other. Many schools don’t maintain a contact list and thus calling parents is not possible when a child is absent, let alone visiting homes. No doubt, parents must inform the school about their child’s absence, but they are not as responsible. I urge that teachers self-impose a duty to call parents if a child is absent. It will be an expression of care and compassion for the absent child.
Someone needs to initiate the conversation to gain the other’s trust. Perhaps some present-day urban teachers are reluctant to mix with their rural pupils (and parents) because they think that the latter is not well groomed – an invisible and non-quantifiable segregation. If this is true, it must be rooted out; only educators with purpose can make that happen.
The lack of accountability on many fronts is eroding the quality of education and the reputation of the educators. The teachers are routinely asked to do ‘non-teaching’ tasks, leading to a loss of teaching time. Many teachers may be part of scams like ‘rent a teacher’ and thus, inadequately trained for the classroom. It hurts the quality of learning and brings a bad name to the noble profession of teaching. Where is the responsibility and credibility of our educators? It is incumbent on all educators to root out such elements from the teaching force to restore trust and redeem their reputation in society. There is little or no accountability from the local governance (Pradhan) and education officials.
The lack of quality is also driven by an ill-conceived policy of promotion from one grade to the next irrespective of whether the candidate has attained the minimum reading, writing, and other competencies. This is a vicious cycle; teachers may not be teaching, and children may not learning, because of little or no expectations for a serious assessment of learning. Parents falsely hope that children are learning. Nobody is thinking of long-term consequences – an ill-prepared student in a higher grade resorts to unfair means to get through, or simply drops out. Another vicious cycle. Our teaching force must raise their voice against corrupt practices at all levels, not succumb to such practices. They must get deeply engaged with students’ learning to restore their guru-like image.
Many schools have dilapidated buildings, poor facilities, and limited teaching and learning tools. Children sit on the floor/mats, and the overall environment is least conducive to learning. While the government must make things better, the teachers can and should serve as role models and coach parents to be their advocates for better infrastructure. I argue that the teachers need not take a stand against the system, for the fear of retaliation. But what is preventing them from empowering community leaders to keep the pressure on the powers that be? Yes, an important change that teachers must embrace first is their own commitment beyond school hours. In some communities, teachers are perhaps the only well-educated group. Teachers must take the local Pradhan in confidence, but not collude, towards creating a stronger community voice and building trust. I was ashamed and amazed that a headmaster would turn classrooms into poultry farms during summer. Even one such case is far too many in distorting the image of the profession. In Uttar Pradesh, the district officials have an open forum from 9-11 am. I believe that an organised effort to offer a written reminder to officials about the lack of infrastructure/issues will yield positive results.
Our present-day educators are well credentialed and they do deserve the guru like place in the society. It must be a collective effort by all, but the educators must desire it by being an integral part of the change. The educators must care and commit to pupils’ learning, rise above the bad policies, politics, and practices, earn trust and build a community, and be passionate and proud of their profession. Vidya Gyan is pleased to stand with, and for, the educators who are pursuing the purpose of imparting knowledge. Together, let us reimagine all educators as gurus of the 21st century.
A version of this article was previously published here.