Our town wit and favourite schoolteacher Charu Chandraji once penned a one-act play for our annual day on popular demand. The theme was a formal visit by the inspector of schools to a rundown government school in a small, remote town much like ours. As he stands at the door of a class, to his utter horror the urbane inspector sahib hears the teacher tell the class that in our planetary system, day and night and seasonal changes occur as the sun rotates around the earth.
“My good sir,” the inspector sahib thunders, “what rubbish are you teaching these young minds? Don’t you know that it is the earth that moves around the sun and not vice versa?”
“With the kind of work I am expected to put in, and the paltry salary that the education department hands me, my good sir,” retorts the teacher, “how could the earth move around the sun in my class?"
The darkly funny answer swam into my mind as I read about 2,500 basic education schoolteachers in Uttar Pradesh being ordered by the state government (in gross defiance of Supreme Court orders) to evaluate, update and print out the voters’ lists. This means that for the next two weeks, starting 26 July, teachers from hundreds of schools in educationally backward Uttar Pradesh will be neglecting their classes to attend to pre-election work for the government. In Meerut district alone, there are 982 primary and 404 higher basic schools. If the 2,500 teachers there are to be involved in updating the voters’ lists, there will be only 1,500 teachers left to teach in 1,386 schools in the district. This roughly works out to one teacher per school. And since many of the schools are yet to fill all the sanctioned posts of teachers, chances are that once the teachers begin to slog over the voters’ lists, hundreds of schools will have no teachers left and may remain locked up for weeks.
Delhi has 1,744 schools run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The state election commission has ordered that all teachers from these schools must assist in the pre-election work, both before and after school hours. Apart from a loss of valuable teaching hours, many of the teachers have reported harassment during their subsequent house-to-house visits. Women feel so insecure that several of them get their husbands or brothers to take leave of absence to accompany them on these rounds. Teachers who complain about harassment and demand help are said to risk being transferred or suspended.
Being educated and trained in the basics of communication, schoolteachers in rural areas usually enjoy a good rapport with the villagers. For this reason, government teachers in rural and semi-rural areas are often saddled with paper work related to the panchayat and other developmental agencies. This is over and above their daily teaching duties and collecting of foodgrain from block headquarters, cooking and serving midday meals to their wards.
The question of providing quality basic education for all with a large workforce of highly skilled and dedicated teachers has been in the air ever since the March 1990 Jomtien Conference in Thailand.
In New York in 2000, along with some 150 other nations, India signed a pledge to provide universal primary education for all of the country’s children by 2015. Yet the size of India’s large band of teachers has had little overall effect on the quality of education imparted by government-run schools. This is because as yet, teachers themselves have been allowed to exert little or no influence on the policymaking that creates the final content and delivery mechanisms of the “knowledge” they impart. Most workshops for teachers, when they are held, are devised on a purely ad hoc basis. They do not factor in pressures exerted on teachers for performing jobs other than teaching, nor their needs for proper housing and commuting facilities. There is another factor that generates frustration leading to poor teaching. Many teachers in government schools may be highly qualified but they may be holding degrees in subjects they are not teaching. The Sixth All India Education Survey confirms that only 42.12% teachers are teaching the subject they have specialized in. Also, that 26.4% of science teachers and 36.11% math teachers in government schools have no qualifications for teaching these subjects.
There are various ways in which a frustrated, overworked and under-appreciated group of teachers may let loose their hostility and antagonism against the system by punishing their hapless wards within the school walls. Incidents of brutal physical and verbal abuse of the mentally backward and physically handicapped among the students are frequently reported. They have ensured that instead of becoming a social leveller in the poorer communities in backward areas, our education system becomes a powerful bastion of the local casteist and sexist practices, and teaching remains a dull, irrelevant and boring activity for most teachers and their students.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mrinal Pande will be on vacation for a month. The Other Side will resume in September.