Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers: Read an excerpt from S Giridhar's book on committed, resilient educators
One of the many core beliefs and pedagogical practices observed by S Giridhar in Indian rural government schools was that the teachers try to make the learning experience interesting for each child and respect the existing knowledge they bring to the classroom, using it to build new knowledge.
It is important to note that these teachers try and make up for any inadequacies in their subject knowledge through hard work.
When one talks to teachers about the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms, they may often talk about learning achievements and scholastic abilities around subjects.
Many of these teachers have created a vibrant and functional library in their schools and appreciate the books and technical expertise offered by organisations such as Room to Read.
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.
Government schools are truly public schools — they serve everyone and everywhere — including the most disadvantaged in the most deprived areas. For nearly two decades, S Giridhar has been crisscrossing the country in the course of his work with the Azim Premji Foundation, travelling to remote corners and observing the public education system. In these years, he has met hundreds of government school teachers profoundly committed to improving the lives of the children in their care. These are teachers who defy all constraints because of a burning belief that every child can learn.
Giridhar is the Chief Operating Officer of Azim Premji University. He has for many years now, been writing regularly, drawing from his rich experiences and observations on the ground. Giridhar's other passion is cricket and he has co-authored acclaimed titles such as Midwicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar and From Mumbai to Durban: India's Greatest Tests.
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers has emerged from Giridhar's in-depth study of these inspirational teachers and the ecosystem they function in Innovative and creative, dogged and resourceful, firm and kind-the government school teacher wears many a hat. This book is a tribute to their commitment and resilience.
The following excerpt from S Giridhar's book Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers: The Heroes of Real India has been reproduced with permission from the publisher, Westland Publications.
EQUITY AND QUALITY: THEY BEGIN IN THE CLASSROOM
Equity and quality in rural schools is an abstract aspiration. I understood how this plays out in practice years ago when I walked into a primary school in the hamlet of Alluru Vaddarahatti in the Ballari district of Karnataka. Alluru’s population was almost entirely made up of people from the ST community; most adults were illiterate and eked out meagre livelihoods as agricultural labourers. In such a setting, the headteacher and his colleague ran a school with a simple and straight yardstick of equity and quality. The two teachers, year after year, prepared every child so well that when the children passed out of the school, each was competent and determined to complete Class 12. This might seem a narrow goal but for children from very disadvantaged backgrounds, completing high school is an orbit-shifting opportunity.
That is why in my current study of good schools, I consciously looked for such evidence in classrooms. Is the last child included? Is the effort on the last child as much as it is on the others? This was the affirmation I sought. In most of the schools I visited, I saw teachers completely involved with their children, trying to engage every child; challenging the quick ones and supporting those struggling. It was clear to me that the children in these schools were learning better from the manner in which they were following the topic in the classroom; responding to or asking questions; the way in which they were interacting with each other; in their ability to read and write texts independently; the manner in which they were attempting maths problems or trying to explain scientific phenomena.
Why are children learning better in these schools? What are the belief systems of these teachers that are reflected in their classrooms?
If I summarise the core beliefs and pedagogic practices that we saw in these classrooms, the foremost would be the teachers’ belief that ‘every child can learn; the responsibility is ours.’ These teachers try to make the learning experience interesting for each child and respect the existing knowledge they bring to the classroom, using it to build new knowledge. These teachers believe that children develop understanding when they are encouraged to ask questions, are inquisitive, and express themselves without fear. We are the masters of the syllabus, the textbooks and the timetable, not the other way around, teacher after teacher told us. These teachers help children connect concepts with the world around them. The learning of language, maths and science occurs seamlessly together and the boundaries between these subjects often disappear. These teachers recognise the fact that a good grasp on language supports the understanding of mathematical concepts and scientific phenomena.
It is important to note that these teachers try and make up for any inadequacies in their subject knowledge through hard work — painstakingly preparing lesson plans and a variety of worksheets in anticipation of the children’s learning responses; and creating activities, materials and experiments to facilitate learning. An integral and distinctive part of their pedagogy is the manner in which they strive to implement the CCE in true spirit. Many go beyond prescribed formats to record rich observations in individual child portfolios. These are shared with parents in PTMs and among the teachers themselves to plan additional support for identified children. Such support includes personal attention in the classroom, extra classes and customised worksheets.
When one talks to teachers about the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms, they may often talk about learning achievements and scholastic abilities around subjects. That might mislead us into thinking that they may not have a larger appreciation of the aims of education. Quite the contrary. I observed in many of their processes and practices, a deep appreciation of what they do for the all-round development of a child. These teachers understand that every child has some talent and it is their responsibility to create opportunities for them to express and cultivate it. They believe that good education is not limited to academics but should enable children to develop socially-responsible behaviour and learn to be kind and helpful.
Many of these teachers have created a vibrant and functional library in their schools and appreciate the books and technical expertise offered by organisations such as Room to Read. The teachers encourage children to not only borrow and read books but to also narrate what they have read in their own words, in the morning assembly. Teachers believe this develops children’s power of expression in addition to widening their worldview. Many schools do not have the luxury of a separate room for the library, so they house it within one of the classrooms. In much the same vein, the morning assembly too is regarded as an important platform that helps children develop the confidence to express themselves in public and to present their talents. Illustratively, a vibrant morning assembly includes storytelling, mastery of multiplication tables, introduction to new English words and phrases, public speaking, questions on general knowledge and current affairs, and music.
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 schools and teachers keep track of what their alumni are doing. A few have the names and records of every old student. Some also have a record of how well their students have performed in Board examinations. For us, an indication of the teachers’ relationship with the students is the manner in which the alumni participate and contribute to the Annual Day, Independence Day and other school events.
I must end this introduction by sharing an illustration of the impact of such pedagogy and classroom processes on children’s learning. For the children from very disadvantaged backgrounds, admission to the government’s Navodaya, Morarji, Adarsh or Rani Channamma schools is a life-changing opportunity. During our school visits, when conversations turned to the question of students’ learning, teachers would invariably talk about the preparations for these entrance tests in their schools. Within a block, only around two hundred seats are available every year in these schools so only a fraction of the students who seek admission, get it. But as a result of this diligent preparation, the children are in an excellent position to pursue education in the higher classes. From among the thirty schools that I visited in Surpur, two hundred and thirty-five children had qualified for admissions to these schools in the last three years. (see graph below) It is a remarkable testimony to the teachers’ efforts and irrefutable evidence of the children’s learning.
All images courtesy of the publisher, Westland Publications
Read an excerpt from It's Also About Mynah, Rucha Chitrodia's contemporary take on adulting in a big city
It's Also About Mynah is a coming-of-age narrative that unfolds through the eponymous Mynah's experiences of living in the old mill district of Mumbai and of the hard truths about 'adulting' that she must learn along the way.
Books of the week: From Vinod Kumar Shukla's A Silent Place to Farah Bashir's Rumours of Spring, our picks
Our weekly roundup of books that should be on your radar.
In Beloved Beasts, Michelle Nijhuis shows that history can help contextualise and guide modern conservation
Through the eyes and actions of individuals, Beloved Beasts portrays the evolution of the surprisingly young field from a pursuit almost solely of the privileged Western elite to “a movement that is shaped by many people, many places, and many species.”