One morning in Gulbarga, Mahadev and Jagannath insisted that we visit a school with them. This village wasn’t far from the city, about 7km from the outskirts.

When we go to a school in a car, we usually park some distance away. A car can be a matter of great curiosity amongst the kids, and cause a disturbance, which we try to avoid. As we reached the village, the students were still on their way to school. Two of them met us and asked us where we wanted to go. On learning that we were headed for their school, they took charge and led us. They seemed unusually confident for 12-year-olds, and also seemed unusually cheerful for kids on their way to school.

The building of the school was even more unusual. Having been to hundreds of government schools, I had never seen one like that before. It was constructed on columns, raising it above the ground level, as though on stilts. One could almost walk under the school. It was a series of classrooms, side by side, with all doors opening to a common narrow verandah, from where steps led to the ground level. The two children handed us over to one of their teachers, who took us to the head teacher’s office.

It was a small room. Soon the head teacher Prameela Bai and all the other teachers, Asha Hegde, Indumati, Jyoti and Sunanda trooped in. The students had been given some assignments, and they wanted to chat with us. As we were adjusting to the cramped seating, which had no place for another person, Shobha strode in. Some people have a presence. She remained standing at the door with a half-smile, and said that she was the anganwadi worker, and not a teacher.

Someone corrected her, saying that she was the anganwadi teacher; she brushed it aside. In the government employee hierarchy an anganwadi worker is way below school teachers, let alone the head teacher. Shobha’s demeanour and the response of the teachers to her did not conform in any way to that hierarchy. She was clearly an integral part of that team. Then, Prameela Bai said Shobha was the founder of the school, and with that she began narrating its story.

Eight years ago the government primary school was started in the village. The school was started by Asha Hegde who remained the sole teacher for the first three years. At the same time an anganwadi was also started, and Shobha was recruited as the anganwadi worker; she was from the same village. The two shared a makeshift temporary structure. They also became partners in all struggles, small and big.

The village panchayat was to allocate land for the school, which it kept putting off. No one would admit it, but this disinterest seemed to be driven by deep-rooted sociopolitical processes. Caste was dominant in local politics, and the school was largely attended by children of the local tribal community. It was what is called in that area a thanda school i.e. a school set up near the tribal habitation.

The blow-by-blow account of those first few years can be a natural screenplay for a Shyam Benegal film. If I could, I would cast Smita Patil as Shobha and Nutan as Asha. The two women battled for three years, Shobha leading the charge, marshalling whatever she could. In the end the panchayat relented and gave them land. But the land that they gave was directly in a water channel, which would flood in the monsoon. They took what they got, and then worked within the education department for a design of a school to tackle the torrential water flow in the monsoon. That is how the school on stilts came about. Simple but effective design, the heavy water flow just passes beneath the school. After the school building came up, the student numbers grew, Prameela Bai was appointed as the head teacher and more teachers joined.

We spent some time in the classes, witnessing interesting pedagogical practices and engaged children. It was a functioning and happy school. At the heart of it seemed a rare deep camaraderie that was there amongst the teachers.

Three side conversations give glimpses. Prameela Bai told me “I do nothing much, my teachers are excellent." Asha’s affection and respect for Shobha was evident, she was also very clear it was the head teacher who made everything click. While we were leaving, Shobha said, “I was 8th pass, Asha got me to do 10th, then 12th and then a degree; she made me what I am."

A school’s purpose is educational, but it is fundamentally a social institution. So, any school has to overcome multiple internal and external social challenges to function. This is another reason why the role of a teacher is so complex, which we non-teachers often fail to recognize.

There are thousands of schools such as the one in Sharana Sirasagi Thanda with their own quiet stories, which when listened to, tell tales of everyday heroism.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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