Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Teaching in isolation

All professions that require deep expertise depend substantially on peer support and networks for development

Vijaya teaches in a school that has one other teacher and 65 students. Every one of her days is a whirl. When you have so many children around, uncontrollable spirits take over. In the classroom and outside, you lurch from minor to major crisis and flow from small to big joys, while trying to keep it going. She loves all this, she loves her job. But she feels isolated.

The other teacher is cordial with her. While they run the school together well, they never really converse. In the school they have no time, every minute taken up by the demanding tempo. And with an hour’s commute back home, they are both in a hurry to leave as the school ends.

Her educational background is in the humanities. Even now, after 15 years of teaching, she struggles in teaching math, which she has to, in the primary classes. When she became a teacher as a 23-year-old, everything was a struggle. She remembers being intimidated. Her school’s head-teacher was an aloof man, the school had two other teachers. Each of them was caught in the whirl of the school. She knew she needed help from an experienced teacher, but there was no opportunity. The two other teachers would try, but it would all be in the passing. She survived by her tenacity, and learning on her own. Many others survive this phase by becoming indifferent forever.

Once she reaches home, it’s her family and the social obligations of her small town. There is no space and place for her teacher self, which is packed off till the next morning. She is happy with this as with her job. But she continually feels the void of any real contact with another teacher. She wishes for an unhindered conversation about teaching and learning, for opportunities to share, and for help from another who has dealt with what she does every day. As a teacher, she feels isolated.

There is nothing unusual about the story of Vijaya. Most teachers face the same isolation, irrespective of the kind of school, the place or their gender. It arises from the nature of the teachers’ role in the current structure of schools and our school system. Teachers are responsible for managing everything, every day at the school; they are really in the whirl. And this happens within a culture of disempowerment. So, the teacher is caught in the pincer of activities, neither feeling empowered to break through it, nor having systemically designed possibilities for any contact with her peers. Disempowerment and isolation are closely related.

This deeply ironical situation of isolation in the most social of roles is a phenomenon noticed across many countries. In our country, it is exacerbated by the existence of a large number of very small schools with one to three teachers, and also by the geographical spread of schools, which hardens physical isolation.

All professions that require deep expertise depend substantially on peer support and networks, for help when required, for professional development and even for governing their field. Consider how doctors and lawyers support their peers both informally and formally (through the Medical and Bar Councils), and govern their fields. We continue to pay lip service to the importance of teachers, but in reality do not recognize teaching as a profession similarly requiring deep expertise. This is one key reason for the overall culture of disempowerment that teachers live in, including the lack of even a thought for possibilities of genuine peer interaction.

Let’s leave aside the fundamental issue of the teaching profession requiring deep expertise and creative imagination, and so requiring empowerment. Even cursory observation shows that teachers will be enormously helped by professional support from peers. Instead of creating possibilities for this, the school system feeds their isolation. Many teachers learn to embrace this isolation as a coping mechanism with the demands of her role, but most feel the deep need to break away from it.

Vijaya told me her story one evening in the very small town in Karnataka where she lives. We were waiting for a meeting of the local “Teacher Forum" to begin, which she had joined recently. The forum meets one evening every week. They discuss specific issues of teaching and learning, and participation is voluntary. The support is not limited to the meetings. For Vijaya and others, this is helping cut through their isolation, and to get help for their teaching. Developing the forum has required all the perseverance and hard work of any kind of mobilization on the ground, by a small group of people. Sustaining it also requires energy. I have seen such forums across the country, with varying degrees of life.

There could be other ways of reducing the isolation of teachers. At their core, all such steps will require empowering and trusting teachers. This is against the grain of our current educational structures and culture. While we must battle for these macro changes, the on-the-ground efforts that I see are what make me hopeful.

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

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