Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Education in the land of extremes

Across the country, we have teachers at both extremes; they all need support to become better, not derision and neglect.

That February in 2012 at dusk, one of those sparkling and crisp kinds that you find only in the mountains, we found a room with a rent of 300, the heater was an additional 350. Our bones had been frozen in the afternoon meeting at the Lohaghat Block Resource Centre (BRC), so we took the heaters unhesitatingly. It’s the coldest night I can remember. It felt as though the cold was being collected and poured into our rooms. It was certainly not Scandinavian temperatures, but just the construction of the place, and poor heating. We survived the night. Obsessive that I am, I went to run at 6.30am. It was cold, but nothing special; clearly that hotel has been designed as a cold storage.

I went back to the same BRC last month in May. It was almost hot. The stink from unclean toilets was incongruent with the creativity of the meeting room. Every inch of the walls was painted with something educationally significant. It was not the usual homilies (Education is the greatest treasure), rolled out from the state capital, unthinkingly on to the walls of schools, but stuff that someone had thought about.

The pièce de résistance was the ceiling painted like the Sistine Chapel. It was an intricate depiction of the solar system, all across the 20ft by 30ft. The large lamp at the centre was the sun. It took me a while to understand what the grid lines were doing there on the solar system. It was a depiction of the time-space continuum; the distortion of the lines, to depict gravity is what makes it clear. What a wonder that is, Einstein’s time-space continuum on a ceiling in Lohaghat, co-existing with the unsurprising stink from toilets.

The meeting itself carried on with this theme of co-existence, of delightful surprises and unsurprising banality. It was a discussion with government school teachers, who are a part of the local voluntary forum. These are basically informal teacher learning networks, which meet outside working hours, to develop their own capacities. I have written earlier about these forums, and how in our work we find this spirit of self-improvement and commitment to better education, across the country.

That evening in Lohaghat, the meeting had 20 teachers. Let’s take the banal and deplorable first.

One man was insistent that a little bit of fear in children was necessary for learning. He saw that as justification for a little corporal punishment. He found support in one other teacher, who helpfully pointed out that a little bit of corporal punishment must be a little bit, and not of the kind that leaves marks on the child’s body. They agreed on that.

There was another lady who claimed that any one of us could go to her school and test for ourselves that all children from grade 2 onwards can read and write. One of the other teachers wanted to know how she made it happen.

She explained she started with letters and then words and then they could write and read. No one could understand how this universally ineffective method worked in her case, and another teacher asked her this pointedly. She just invited us even more loudly to come and test out her students.

One of them went on a long monologue of how the fathers of most children in the villages were alcoholics. The believer in corporal punishment agreed with him.

A young teacher protested. He said he found no more drunks in villages than in towns. He had come to the meeting to learn how to teach. He believed that if the children were not learning, it was because of his own limitations; but if this was all these sessions amounted to, he would stop coming. That cracked the hesitation, and out came the interesting stuff.

One of them expressed surprise at the claim that fear helped in teaching. He had his method to make children comfortable in the school. He starts each day playing the harmonium and singing with the students, especially with the grade one kids. Another teacher talked about how in her experience learning language happens much better through whole sentences and words. That children need to understand and relate to the meaning, and that letter recognition can follow. She went into some detail of what she does in her classes.

The corporal punishment duo had drifted into a side conversation. One of the senior teachers was an accomplished diplomat. Without belittling the duo, he nailed the illegality, ineffectiveness and inhumaneness of corporal punishment. At the end, I walked out with the young teacher. He said he will come back for the next meeting. He liked the discussion on language.

A land of extremes. Isn’t that the phrase we use all too readily about our country? In Lohaghat (and across the country) you have teachers at both ends. They all need support to become better, not derision and neglect.

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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