Teachers at Uttarakhand model schools go the extra mile to bring quality education to children from poor families

"This is not a sarkari naukri. We wrote a qualifying exam and came here because we see this as an opportunity to create the best school in the block," said Mukesh Nautiyal, the maths teacher at the Government Model Primary school, in Chinyali Block of Uttarkashi district. Echoing this, Jaiveer, a Sanskrit teacher in another model school in neighbouring Dunda Block said, "We believe we can prepare these disadvantaged children adequately for a rapidly changing and demanding society. Here, we will realise the dream with which we joined the teaching profession." Mukesh and Jaiveer are not exceptions. They are representative of the teachers in model schools or Adarsh Vidyalayas as they are called.

The concept of creating a model school in each of the 6,000 blocks of the country was announced a few years ago. It was meant to be an equivalent of a Kendriya Vidyalaya, in terms of facilities, pupil-teacher ratio and quality of education. One can argue that 6,000 model schools in a country of a million schools is just tokenism and will not contribute to an improvement in the existing system. It is a powerful argument but is a subject for a separate discussion. In this essay, I will only share my observations and experiences from my visits to four model schools in Uttarkashi district. At each of these schools, it is the team of teachers who are making a huge difference. The implementation of the concept of model schools varies across states and even across districts within a state, so it will be incorrect to derive any generalisations.

In 2015, the Uttarakhand education department decided to create one model primary school (for classes 1 to 5) and one model upper primary school (for classes 6 to 8) in every block of the 13 districts of Uttarakhand. They did this not by creating new schools but by selecting an existing schools. The selection criteria varied – a school could be chosen if it served a very disadvantaged village or if it was already known to be a good school. Having selected the schools, Uttarkashi district was earnest in ensuring these schools would be resourced with sufficient teachers and with a teacher for every subject. The district administration invited applications from interested teachers within each block and selection of teachers was on the basis of a written test. The applicants whose age ranged from early 20s to mid-50s, were motivated by the opportunity to teach in a model school which would have good facilities, a good pupil-teacher ratio, and which offered a real chance to make a difference. In 2017, when we visited these schools, they were in their second year of existence as model schools. Can one see change in just two years? Yes indeed, as was the case at these four model schools. Since I have already described some teachers of one of these schools in an earlier essay, I will take you on a whistle-stop tour of the other three model schools.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Two years ago, Badethi School was just like any other village primary school, with 38 children in five classes, while the other children studied in neighbouring private schools. When Badethi was selected as a model school, applications were invited to select teachers through a test of their subject knowledge. That is how the head teacher, Sanjay Kuksal and the five teachers, Mukesh Nautiyal (Maths), Meena Bhat (English), Bindu Gosain (Science) and Murari Ram (EVS) joined the Adarsh Prathmik Vidyalaya, Badethi in 2016. Sushila Rawat, the Hindi teacher was already teaching here. As this band of teachers came together, they seemed to be filled with purpose and energy. Head teacher Kuksal and his colleagues had sworn to a common solemn covenant: ‘Hame kuch karke dikhana hai’ (We have to show our worth.) There were no half measures. For the first time in years of visiting rural schools, I saw all the teachers wearing a uniform! Mukesh Nautiyal, the most outspoken among them, said. “I disliked the idea initially. Then I thought, if it conveys that we are proud to belong to this school and our mission is to make Badethi excellent, what is wrong with it?” No teacher at Badethi has availed even a day’s casual leave in the last two years. Within a few months, every teacher had gone door to door, to every home in the village to communicate how their school was being transformed. Nautiyal tells us, “Our junoon (spirit) touched a chord in the community and they reciprocated with their trust. From 38 children in 2015, enrolment shot up to 109 children in 2017. In fact, parents pulled out 60 children studying in private schools and enrolled them in Adarsh Vidyalaya Badethi.’

Reposing trust is a virtuous process. The teachers now decided to contribute around Rs 7000 each to buy fans for the classrooms and conduct an outstanding Annual Day Function. On 15 March 2017, the community of Badethi saw an annual day of a kind they had never experienced before. The daily morning assembly has become an important element of the day’s schedule, with the children taking responsibility for design and execution. Head teacher Kuksal has taken the role of front-ending communications with the community, organising good parent-teacher meetings and raise funds for the school. The other teachers focus their energies on children’s learning and all–round development. Maths teacher Mukesh Nautiyal exemplifies this. Following is a peek into his classroom as he introduces the subject of place value.

Nautiyal begins his session on place value by asking the students to give examples of single, double and triple digit numbers to reiterate the difference between a digit and a number. As he does this, he pulls out from his wallet, a couple of notes of different denominations to explain the concept in the context of money. And then seamlessly for some time, the discussion turns to the picture of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian currency. There follows a short discussion about Gandhi, about India and her independence and what Gandhi stood for. Suddenly, it is not a Maths class but a general awareness class. The class then gets into discussing the colours on the rupee note. When he thinks the children can now construct four digit numbers, he asks children to announce their roll numbers and with these numbers, construct double and triple digit numbers and odd and even numbers. With this information coming eagerly from every child, he helps them construct a variety of four digit numbers. As he does this he keeps placing the roll numbers under the place value of units, tens, hundreds and thousands. While some students are still struggling to absorb this, he engages those who have already grasped the concept to start placing the roll numbers in a manner that the biggest number can be formed. The energy in the class is sustained, and there is a shared excitement between the teacher and students about discovering a new concept. Some of the quicker children start playing a game using different means to construct new numbers. As the class winds down, Mukesh reminds the children of an exercise he had given them the previous week – of jotting down everything in the daily life of a child that has something or the other to do with mathematics. Obviously his blackboard does not have enough space for everything that the children want to narrate. With a laugh, he asks them to ease off and explains that he wanted them to appreciate how Maths is around us, every minute of our life. Nautiyal says, “Every child can learn provided we invest time. I love the subject, so even if I have to teach for 10 hours after school, I won’t get tired.’

Bang in the middle of Barkot town in the Yamuna Valley, surrounded by many private schools, is Adarsh Primary School. Its story is quite similar to Barethi. Its teachers are as fired up to create an excellent school. In less than two years enrolment has gone up from 51 to 96, as the parents have already recognized what this school can do for their children. Sarita, the head teacher is in her mid-forties but her colleagues, Vinod Methani (Maths), Yashpal Singh (English) and Punita Rana (Hindi), are much younger. Sarita observed that private schools had an advantage in enrolment because, unlike government schools, they admitted children at age 3 and 4, to their nursery and KG classes. Once a child enters KG or nursery at a private school, it becomes difficult for a government school to get that child in its rolls. Sarita surmounted the problem in her own way. She has told all her students, that they can bring their siblings who are 3 or 4 years old to the school. These children, sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, develop a bond with the school. Sarita believes this strategy is what will ensure strong enrolment numbers, year after year, for Adarsh primary school, Barkot.

Already, within a year, the quality of the morning assembly at her school is widely recognised. Sarita has organised the children into three houses who have the responsibility to ensure that everyone participates in the various activities. Apart from the routine prayer and pledge, children read out the headlines from newspapers followed by 5 to 6 questions on topics of general interest. Each day, the assembly introduces a poem and around 10 English words or phrases to the children. Sarita is convinced that the assembly is one of the best spaces for learning, building confidence and to ensure equal opportunity for every child to exhibit his or her talent. With Yashpal, Vinod and Punita in her team, she knows that the children’s learning will be of high quality. The teachers have regular team meetings to review the progress of every child. Like most conscientious schools, Adarsh Vidyalaya Barkot also invests time after school to provide additional support and guidance to identified children. Their teamwork is reflected in the quality of the portfolios where they record the progress of the children. There are detailed comments in each child’s portfolio, which demonstrate a deep understanding of the child’s learning. Sarita runs the team with a light but sure touch. Yashpal and Vinod are young, idealistic, bridling at social inequities and she steers them so that they combine realism and idealism without losing their burning desire to provide quality education to disadvantaged children. These are early days but the signs are promising. These are the teachers who will make Adarsh Primary School, Barkot. The children are too young to realise their fortune but years later will look back at their education here with gratitude.

And now to model school of Veerpur Kuraha. But here, instead of narrating their achievements which are as striking as the other model schools we visited, a different facet is worth highlighting. This facet is about the spirit of inclusion and foresight of the school. Veerpur Kuraha model school serves one of the more backward villages in the Ganga Valley. It is an old school, established in 1962, but enrolment had dwindled to 40 children. Impoverished parents coughed up Rs 1000 every month to send their children to private schools because they had no faith in their government school. In 2016, Ajay Nautiyal, Chandan Singh, Jaiveer Agarwal, Rekha Aswal and Sunita Rana came together. By April 2017, parents of 27 children had pulled them out from the private schools and enrolled them at Veerpur Kuraha. Learning levels have gone up visibly, some children have even gone right up to the state finals in the Math Wizard program. It is a buzzing school.

But the teachers are acutely aware they have the advantage of being better endowed than other schools. This is starkly clear to them because the upper primary school situated right next to them has very limited space and few facilities. In a splendid spirit of inclusivity, the teachers of Veerpur Model Primary School now conduct their morning assembly along with the Upper Primary school in their compound. The model school has drums and harmonium and they share these with the upper primary school. Ajay and his colleagues have levelled the rectangular courtyard in their school so that the students of upper primary can use this for their sports such as kho-kho and kabaddi. Ajay, who excelled in hockey, and football in his student days also coaches the children of the upper primary for their sports competitions. He sees this as a means of creating interest in sports among the children of his model school. Ajay says, “If one takes an initiative, one will find plenty of autonomy within the system.” Jaiveer adds, “There is also a collateral benefit through such collaboration. Through these joint activities, our children get used to the upper primary school and it will help their transition to class 6.” Never has the community felt so proud of their school. The parents are deeply touched by this because many of them are illiterate and eke out a livelihood as daily wage labourers. Jaiveer says, ‘It hurts us that these poor people spend Rs 1000 on private school education. If our school is excellent, these parents will send their children here and a huge economic burden is lifted off their shoulders’.

The size and complexity of the public school system in our vast country is well known. Each region has its unique context and environment. Across our rural districts, as private schools mushroom, the most vulnerable, socio-economically disadvantaged children are the ones who study in government schools. The challenges are unique to each district. In a place like Uttarkashi, terrain and climate are a logistical challenge for children and teachers; in the plains of Udhamsinghnagar, a high pupil-teacher ratio in large schools is an issue. Yadgir in northeast Karnataka grapples with problems of irregular attendance because parents migrate in search of livelihood. Sirohi in southern Rajasthan has a significant tribal population of Gharasias, Bhils and others, with their own dialect and teachers have to learn to use a mix of Marwari, local dialect and Hindi to initiate any discussion in the classroom. It is in such a scenario that our rural school teachers perform their task, answerable only to their conscience.

The author is the chief operating officer of the Azim Premji University. He can be reached at giri@azimpremjifoundation.org

Updated Date: Feb 09, 2018 16:20 PM

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