The hills of Mount Abu glowed from the setting sun. The single-floor school complex, with the buildings on the edges of a huge rectangular playground, looked straight on to this lovely sight. This was in Abu Road, a town of about 40,000 people, the railhead for Mount Abu. There were 25 teachers engrossed in a problem, in a bare room, all sitting on the floor. Given a length of rope, make the two dimensional closed figure that would have the biggest area. It was a Wednesday, but a holiday because of a local festival.

Figures were made, measured and unmade. There was discussion on how to prove that a circle will have the biggest area. This led to what it means to prove something. Soon, there was a heated debate on whether certain mathematical concepts in the syllabus were too early for children of that age. In the end, the next meeting was scheduled for a Sunday about two weeks later. Many went to the nearby vegetable market on the way home.

These 25 are a part of a larger group of about 80 teachers, who live in and around Abu Road, and work in government schools across villages and towns in that area. It’s a network of teachers, and is an informal group. Some of them are more engaged in the group’s activities and some less. Unsurprisingly, any individual’s engagement also varies, periods of lull following intense engagement, depending on other priorities in her life. The group is called the Teacher Forum. In addition to meeting on holidays or after school hours to discuss specific topics, the group has other activities, e.g., supporting each other on academic issues, week-long workshops during the vacations, developing teaching learning material. They also help teachers outside the forum.

The teachers do all this voluntarily, without any order from the government or any financial incentive. There is indeed nothing official about it. They are all investing their own time and also spending their own money for the commute. There is no political or mobilization agenda to the group, it’s entirely focused on academic matters. While it’s called the Teacher Forum, many head teachers and other education functionaries also participate. All of them are involved voluntarily for their own professional development. They want to do their jobs better.

The Teacher Forum in Abu Road has not developed miraculously of its own. A few people formed the core of it and worked hard to develop it over the past five years. They battled cynicism, suspicion and disinterest. However, as it became clear that there was no agenda other than learning, and that it was a safe space with no possibilities of “official" intervention, more and more teachers joined hands. Over time, local officials have started valuing this informal network, and support it in many ways, taking care that it doesn’t acquire any tinge of becoming official.

The Abu Road Teacher Forum is one among 10 such in the district of Sirohi in Rajasthan. There are more than 800 teachers involved in these forums. This is not a phenomenon unique to that area; we see this across the country, from Uttarakhand to Puducherry. Whenever I talk about these forums with my friends, especially those who are wilfully uninformed and hold deep prejudices against government school teachers, I love making a comparison. I ask them as to how many employees in their organizations will show up regularly on holidays, paying for their own commute, to learn things so that they can do their jobs better, without any external incentive or mandate. They get the picture.

So, why does this happen with teachers? It’s not that teachers are some special group of highly motivated people. The population of teachers very much follows the distribution of the general Indian population on all such individual characteristics and dispositions. Not the complete explanation, but a significant part of it, lies in the inherent nature of a teacher’s role.

At the most basic level, a teacher faces 30 children every day; she gets immediate and visible feedback of her efficacy. It’s unavoidable feedback. It’s like going out to bat in front of a packed stadium every day; who would not want to improve? There is something deeper. Irrespective of why someone became a teacher, once she has children in her charge, an innate sense of responsibility takes over. This is not like any other job. It’s the sense of being responsible deeply for the future and lives of the children. This affects most, other than the completely incorrigible.

While the teacher population is not different from the general population on basic characteristics, the nature of their role plays a key part in propelling them to learn and improve. This is perhaps the strongest lever available for improvement in school education. Decentralized, empowered and flexible mechanisms such as the Teacher Forum engage, energize and develop teachers. It does require patient work on the ground. And it requires including teachers as partners in change, trusted as a part of the solution rather than treated as part of the problem.

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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