(This piece was first published in Teacher Plus.)
“Teachers care for their students and they know that their work is one of the few things that can really help improve the lives of these kids. Isn’t it just natural that most teachers would feel the urge to do as much as they can? Not all teachers may do it all the time or even most of the time — but this potent force is in there and assimilating all teachers — leaving aside very few,” writes S. Giridhar in his book Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers: The Heroes of Real India. Running into 275 pages and illustrated with beautiful sketches by Adwait Pawar, this volume is a tribute to the hard work, resilience and ingenuity of government school teachers in far flung corners of India. It was published by Westland in late 2019.
What made the author choose this subject for his book? He was one of the earliest members of the Azim Premji Foundation, a not-for profit organizsation that works with the elementary education system in rural government schools by setting up district institutes in field locations across Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Puducherry. He currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University in Bangalore. His experiences from the field make up the bulk of this book. They are narrated in vivid detail, and aim to ‘correct’ the unflattering impressions of government schools perpetuated by media reports. Is he guilty of romanticizing the work happening in these schools? That is for you to decide after you read the book.
“That people on the ground can identify one out of every four to five government schools as a good school is an eye-opening statistic at a time when the news in popular media is usually about a dysfunctional public school system. The odd mishap in midday meals, the truant schools teacher who runs a grocery shop or who misspells the days of the week are more newsworthy than the stories of teachers who are doing stellar work in anonymity,” he remarks with a sense of frustration because his conversations with them offered intimate insights into their lives. He observed their work at close quarters, and tried to understand their perspectives on education. They talked about pedagogy, children and learning, and their own professional development.
How did he pick the schools for his research and decide which teachers to write about? Between March 2017 and November 2018, he visited 110 schools in Uttarkashi and Udham Singh Nagar in Uttarakhand, Sirohi and Tonk in Rajasthan, and Yadgir in Karnataka. These were shortlisted from a pool of approximately six hundred 600 schools listed by colleagues in the field institutes. They had been asked to pick from each block a set of 30 schools that, in their judgement, were ‘good’ and where a teacher or head teacher was doing exemplary work. The author made copious notes during his visit to each of the schools, where he interacted with teachers as well as students.
He felt anxious and uncertain when he started out with the school visits. What if many of these schools and teachers did not really turn out to be good, leave alone exceptional? This question caught hold of his mind, and his anticipation got mixed with apprehension. He writes, “As I visited the schools, I found that in over 75 per cent of the cases, the teachers were indeed special…What connects the stories from Hemmadagi in Karnataka to Gangani in Uttarakhand is the proud refrain of the teachers, ‘Idhu bari sarkari kelsa alla’ or ‘Yeh sarkari naukri nahin hai,’ (this is not just a government job) thereby conveying the true meaning of government service in the trenches.”
If you are a government school teacher, how does reading this make you feel? If you teach at a private school, what feelings does this bring up for you? Have you ever thought of fellow teachers as unsung heroes? S. Giridhar finds heroism in the everyday life choices made by government school teachers faced with multiple challenges. This includes travelling long distances in places without adequate public transport or roads, visiting homes to persuade parents to send their children to school, recognizing the unavailability of reading material outside of school, grappling with irregular student attendance due to parental migration in search of livelihoods, and communicating with children from tribal families who are more comfortable with languages other than the medium of instruction.
According to the author, the head teacher of a government school performs a role akin to that of the CEO of a private institution. They have to win the trust of the community they serve, and this is possible only through sustained efforts to build a meaningful relationship with them. They need to communicate the school’s vision and goals to the parents, assure them that their children will be safe and well, and also encourage the parents to attend school events and stay updated with the progress of their children. Since government schools are under-resourced, and also face tough competition from private schools, the head teachers have to think on their feet and be creative.
“Rural government schools have the odds stacked against them. The most socio-economically disadvantaged children go to these schools. Around 50 per cent of these children are first generation learners whose parents are daily-wage earners. It is in these circumstances that government school head teachers have to demonstrate that their schools are good; that the children are well cared for; and, are learning well,” writes S. Giridhar, who thinks that the bogey of teacher absenteeism in government schools breeds prejudice against them, and makes the public unsympathetic towards the stellar work they do amidst trying circumstances. He provides a wealth of anecdotal information to champion the contributions of these teachers.
Krishna Kumar Sharma teaches at the Government Primary School in Ravindra Nagar. It is in the Rudrapur Block of Udham Singh Nagar District in Uttarakhand. He mobilized people and resources from “large-hearted industrial benefactors,” to build a compound wall preventing the school from being flooded with river water. Achappa Gowder teaches at the Government Higher Primary School in Jumalpur Dodda Thanda. It is located in the Surpur Block of Yadgir District in Karnataka. He refused to accept the low quality uniforms organized by the Block Education Officer through established suppliers. He got the funds transferred to the school account, bought superior quality cloth, found a good tailor and got the uniforms stitched for students.
Madhulika Thapliyal teaches at the Primary School in Gamdidgaon. It is in the Bhatwari Block of Uttarkashi District in Uttarakhand. She uses a blackboard in the courtyard to nurture bonds of care and concern between the students. They are invited to write the ‘News of the Day’, which includes events of importance for the village folk. Here are two examples: ‘Shivraj’s father is coming from Dehradun today’ and ‘Pankaj’s great-grandmother is very ill’. Govind Prajapat teaches at the Government Primary School in Rawta. It is the Deoli Block of Tonk District in Rajasthan. He approached a furniture maker in his village to chop leftover teak pieces into small wooden blocks that are now used by students to count, add, subtract, multiply and also learn about patterns, shapes and construction.
What are the other ways in which government school teachers go beyond their formal job description to support their students? S. Giridhar writes, “At almost every school, the teachers contribute money from their own pockets for stationery, books, worksheets, teaching material, even for uniforms and the upkeep of school facilities. If we probe this, they are embarrassed and brush it aside as a matter of little consequence.” Many of them participate in
Voluntary Teacher Forums, which have been formed to encourage teachers to raise and discuss academic and pedagogic issues. While only 15–20 per cent of teachers may regularly attend VTFs, we are told that a much larger number are members of their local block or district WhatsApp groups. There are subject-specific groups in which they discuss issues and offer solutions to one another.
This book celebrates the achievements of the underdog. It provides hope in an environment that is filled with disheartening news. It shows that teachers are enterprising and resourceful; they rise beyond the constraints imposed on them and shine even in a system that is plagued by mediocrity and lethargy. They are fueled by their commitment to their vocation, and a genuine interest in the well-being of their students. They realize that education can offer social mobility to students who are shackled by social hierarchies. Therefore, they soldier on even when they are disempowered through poor working conditions, an inspectorial culture, and unseemly demands on their time.