4 min read.Updated: 30 Jan 2019, 10:32 PM ISTAnurag Behar
Trust can become an important factor, and a catalyst in improving learning outcomes
The thick sal forest had only one large clearing in miles, which housed the school. The school had closed for the day, but some children were lingering around, playing in the yard in the winter afternoon’s fading sunlight. Through the iron grille of the window, I could see right up to the edge of the misty playground where the wall of trees began. Kiran Deo Singh was narrating his life as a teacher. As he went from his college days, to his first year in a school, and then to how he found an anchor as an elderly retired teacher, all the lingering children left, disappearing into the wall of trees.
A boy and a girl, probably 8 and 6, visibly siblings, returned to the playground from the forest. They came running into the room. Singh gave them the glucose biscuit packet that he had opened for me, and asked them why they had come back. The girl was eating three biscuits at once. The boy replied: “Abba door desh me hain, aaj raat ko nahi aayenge (father has gone to some distant place, he won’t return tonight)." They went out and started singing loudly just outside the room. Singh continued the story of his life.
In a few minutes, we finished the conversation, ready to leave. The children were still playing outside. I asked him about them. The story of Afzal and Anjum is unremarkably common, but for them it is their life. Their mother passed away, and their father is a daily wage labourer. He is a caring father, but has to go where work takes him. Once in a while it is so far that he can’t reach home the same night. Their extended family lives in another village. The neighbours are fine people and help within their meagre means. However, the children prefer going with Singh to his house on such days.
“So will you take them home with you?" I asked. He replied in the affirmative, while locking the doors. “How many times does this happen?" One lock was giving trouble, so with some delay he replied: “Once in a while." I got into my car, while Anjum and Afzal were squabbling about who will sit right behind Singh on the bike. They came to some agreement and left, as we too left.
The cold was biting even at noon, held to the ground by the thick forest. It was another school, in another clearing, two days later. The dull sunlight outside was better than the inside of the dark freezing rooms. It was a large gathering of about 50 people sitting in a circle, on durries, on the ground. There were teachers, principals and other education officials from across that area. I had reached a bit late and a place was kept for me next to the officer, who was clearly the boss. I noticed Singh, with his heavyweight boxers’ height and build, at the far end of the circle.
Without looking at anyone else, the officer started speaking to me. He rattled off his heroic efforts in this remote district. After 10 minutes he turned to the group and gave them a five-minute rapid-fire speech on their duties and told them how those who wouldn’t improve their schools would be taken to task. Then he left. After his departure the meeting came to life.
The discussion was without artifice. Quickly dividing the group was one matter, with opposing beliefs—all children can learn versus not all children can learn. The second group, which was in majority, explained their belief by saying the children of the poor just don’t have the capacity to learn. The other side said that it was all about trust; if you believed that all children can learn, then they will. They had a punchy back-up argument. They took the example of the officer who had departed. If he were to trust that they would do a good job, most of them would do much better than they were doing today. That was a statement that none of them would refute.
These are all oft-used arguments in groups of teachers. Like the others, this discussion, too, tapered to a stalemate. Some found validation, a few may have even moved a bit, but it hadn’t really changed anything. Till Singh spoke up.
“Pyaar to karke dekho," he said. Try loving them. If you love them you will know that there is no difference between children. If you love them, all challenges will be trivial. If you love them, it will change you, and that is why they will blossom. This was a different battlefield. Not even the most hardened cynic was able to argue that children should not be loved. They may not do it, but they knew not how to oppose this. Some had a glow of insight on their faces, a few from gaining that insight, some others from hearing Singh articulate so clearly what they knew.
I was saying farewell to Singh when I asked him about Afzal and Anjum. They were still at his home. Singh spoke to their father the day we had met. He was getting five more days of work at twice the standard wage rate, but the place was so far that he couldn’t commute daily. So Singh told him to stay there, work and earn, while the children would stay with him. How many times does this happen, I asked. Once in a while, he said. “Mere hee bachche hain"—they are like my children.
My father is 80 today. He has dedicated his life to education, about which he once said, “the heart of the matter in education is that it is a matter of the heart". He could have said that about life. I wish more people would listen to him or Singh, “Pyaar to karke dekho."
Anurag Behar is CEO, Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.