Getting the right education administrators
Authoritarianism in an education system is particularly problematic because it negates the very values of autonomy
The Yamuna flows fast and pristine there, between the steeply rising mountains. The mood in the neat quadrangle of the school on its banks was upbeat. The children seemed happy and were engaged. Some children were sitting and writing, and some were singing songs. Two six-year-old boys were singing along while writing numbers on a blackboard. They were in flow. Equally involved in the math and the singing; switching songs without a pause in their number-writing. The children were doing all this on their own, without any instruction from the teacher.
The teacher was sitting with us, narrating her experience in that government primary school over the past 14 years. She realized early as a teacher that a fear-free culture was the foundation of running a good school. Developing such a culture was hard. The school, by its very image, was threatening to children. Other teachers equated absence of fear with a culture of indiscipline. But she worked on it, and the results are what we were witnessing.
A few weeks after she was transferred to the school in 2003, a senior government official visited the school. In the presence of the students, he upbraided the teacher. He showed no concern for her dignity. She tried to explain to him that she had been in the school only a few weeks, and that she agreed with him that everything needed improvement. He wouldn’t listen to her. She went home that evening and cried, and cried.
No senior official has visited her school since. She welled up as she remembered that day. And then she smiled again. She said that it didn’t matter, the children are happy and learning, and that is enough. She has overcome that experience, though the scars remain. Not everyone is like her. And she was lucky that a similar experience did not recur.
That official, and many like him, secure in their positions of power, often feel no need to pause or understand before passing judgement. And often cross boundaries of decency with little concern. Those who expect subservience in turn display it to those higher up. These attitudes and behaviour are seen often in our vast hierarchies, both public and private. In the education system, it is particularly problematic because it negates the very values of autonomy and doubt that good education needs to promote.
While authoritarianism is common in our education system, each administrative level has its own particular malady as well. The two maladies multiply, eventually affecting the teachers and the children. The officials who are untouched by these maladies perform their roles with dedication and imagination. The difference that this makes in schools is visible.
The defining malady of the front-line education management, at the cluster and block level, is that of “role confusion”. The larger system pulls them—between being academic support people, inspectors, and general purpose handymen. Multiply this by their sense of power over schools, and you can imagine what it can do to teachers.
In the middle management, which consists of the block and district leadership, the defining malady is of being “political pawns”. It is this level that is responsible for many of the regulatory and resource decisions. Some are enthusiastic actors for personal gains, while some acquiesce in the great game that keeps our grimy political economy humming.
The senior management at the state level is afflicted with a sense of “hollowness”. What they will say and do has deep implications, but many don’t say or do much, awaiting the word of the top management.
The top management usually consists of a few IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers, in the roles of secretaries and commissioners. They are generalists moving from one department to another, often in a few months. They don’t start with an adequate understanding of education, don’t have the patience to develop any, and are distant from the schools. Disconnected from education, they still act with complete confidence. Disconnected confidence multiplied by a sense of absolute power—one can imagine the consequences.
I routinely come across highly effective officials across levels. This includes the range, from cluster-level officials to principal secretaries. These are competent people, with deep integrity and high self-awareness. They keep the maladies at bay. They have a positive multiplier effect. They also demonstrate that the system cannot overwhelm a determined individual.
However, too many officials are indeed afflicted. In comparison, a larger proportion of teachers strive to perform their roles at least adequately, and a significant number are truly inspiring. This is perhaps unsurprising. It is difficult for most teachers, working as they do in the world of children, to be unresponsive to the demands of the role or lose their humanity entirely. The same is not true of the administration system. Officials are distanced from the reality of children and communities. Power often becomes a privilege, exacerbating the other issues.
Cultural changes required in the system on all these, even when attempted, are slow-burn processes. Improving the training of administrators will help. Some states are already trying. This is not a panacea but every positive change counts, since the multiplier effect of administrators is large.
Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads the sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/othersphere