Children take after their parents. It is equally true that children in a residential school usually take after their teachers.
It is no surprise that teaching in a residential school is a ‘full-time job’. It requires tremendous self-discipline, patience and that ‘child-centric’ attitude which the famous educator AS Neill termed ‘love as approval’. Truly, teaching, is a calling, not a profession.
I have been fortunate enough to meet two headmasters whose devotion to their calling makes me wish that I was a student who could enrol in their school and benefit from their presence.
The schools are located in the remote Thuamul Rampur block of the Kalahandi district in Odisha. The region is notorious for its floods (as I write, Thuamul Rampur is flooded), abject poverty, and lack of even the most basic facilities. The region has also been ‘immortalised’ by the story of the distraught Dana Majhi, a tribal farmer, carrying the body of his dead wife on his shoulder and walking over 10 kilometres on foot. This incident even hit the national headlines in 2016.
The schools carry on their work despite crippling problems. To begin with, there are no landline telephones in this area and there is never any mobile connectivity. This means that one cannot even call for an ambulance in case of an emergency. Power cuts stretch for days at a time. Transport facilities are rudimentary. Infrastructural facilities also leave much to be desired.
Due the remoteness of the location, procuring a sufficiently qualified teaching or even maintenance staff is an uphill task. Despite all this, these two schools are providing invaluable education to hundreds of students every year. They also stand as living testimonies to how an individual can positively influence one’s surroundings.
Both schools are residential and cater to the tribal communities of this region, who comprise nearly 70% of the population. They are mostly first-generation learners.
One of these schools is a government school – the other, private. One of the schools is for girls only – the other is a co-educational school. One is a high school; the other has classes till the middle school level.
However, both these schools have headmasters who are stalwarts in the field of education – each having over 20 years of experience each in teaching and running schools. It is no surprise that both schools are overflowing with trophies won by students in academic, sports and cultural events. It is to the headmasters’ credit that their schools are such wonderful places of education!
Locally known as Kanya Ashram, the 38-year-old Government (SSD) Girls’ High School, Gopalpur, had nearly sunk into oblivion when Amarendranath Sahu took charge in 2013.
It can never be easy being in charge of a residential school of over 500 girls. However, Sahu, who says that he had no intention of becoming a teacher but took it up only on his father’s advice, does the job well. He has a natural sense of authority and a bearing that commands respect.
A local man with degrees from Government Autonomous College, Bhawanipatna and Sambalpur University, Sahu got down to the job with determination. In his first year at the school, he set up a computer lab with the help of the Department of Education and the local MP, who donated five computers. This computer lab is now a state-of-the-art facility, with a separate generator.
Under his able leadership, the enrolment has increased from 320 in 2013 to 510 now. It has also an enviable 100% pass record in the class 10 exams for the last three years – a feat so extraordinary that Department of Education has awarded the school. As he is concerned for the students’ welfare, Sahu organises career counselling sessions for high school students twice every month – once by teachers and once by a guest speaker.
In an area where literacy among women of the Scheduled Tribes is less than 20%, Sahu says that the best ‘compliments’ his school have received are the arguments he has had with parents who come from far-off locations. These are people who ignore schools near their villages, and instead admit their daughters to this school – and no other! Sometimes, he has to turn people away when there aren’t any vacancies.
His dream now is to build enough toilets inside the campus and make it open defecation free (ODF).
Less than three kilometres away, Arabinda Swain, headmaster of Gram Vikas Shiksha Niketan, is pleased about having achieved the ODF goal after constructing a block of bath-cum-toilets for girls recently.
A guru in the truest, purest sense of the word, Swain is a quiet and unassuming man. However, he is legendary in these parts for doing whatever it takes for the wellbeing of his students.
For instance, last year, when more than 60% of the students in his school had malaria, he refused to send anyone home – knowing full well that many parents would not be able to afford food and medicines. Furthermore, malaria would have spread to all those villages. “I’m not a doctor,” he says un-selfconsciously, “but I can put a loving hand on the child’s head and tell him that we’re here for him.”
A compassionate listener and always with a smile and a word of advice, Swain is affectionately called ‘Head Sir’ by everyone on the campus. His school is, in every way, a reflection of his positive personality. The campus is a happy place.
His students are little bundles of joy. Unfailingly polite and well-behaved, creative and hardworking – their sense of discipline and self-assurance belie their youth. Everyone is fruitfully busy. Students and teachers work together in everything – be it growing broccoli in the vegetable garden or unclogging blocked drain pipes.
Together, the students of both schools are now approaching the community for activities such as surveys and health awareness drives. Giving back to the community is something both headmasters support enthusiastically. One hopes that these schools will continue to set a great example for other schools in the years to come!
The two schools have been covered by Siddarth Daga and Dr Steward Gracian, SBI Youth for India fellows working with the NGO Gram Vikas.