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A voice under 35: Class notes from a Bihar school

 

The state has achieved near universal enrollment. The challenge now is to guarantee learning for every child. Start by letting teachers concentrate on academic work –

 

Even in today’s age of technology, teaching in rural areas remains a challenge. Almost all children have access to school. Now the main issue is how to help them learn. Even after four or five years in school, many children are unable to acquire basic skills of reading with understanding, or arithmetic. Why is this? There are many factors that contribute to these challenges. Despite a lot of work by the government, many rural schools still lack basic infrastructure. I teach in an upper primary school in a village in Bihar. We still do not have enough teachers or rooms for the number of children in the school. This hampers the work we do. I am sure there are many other schools like mine. Another, even bigger, challenge is the fact that, in every class, there are children at many different levels of learning. You can see this from Class I to Class VIII. For example, in the same class, there are children who can read a story fluently and understand it, as well as students who struggle to read words, and others who are not familiar with letters. It is impossible for an educator to teach all the children in such a class. Even if we wanted to group children by their level of learning, instead of by their grade, we do not have enough resources to make this happen. As teachers, we have not been trained to effectively handle the wide variations among children in the same class, or teach them for the learning level at which they are. As a result, we are not able to reach all the children we are teaching. To support children in being creative, to make teaching and learning fun, a teacher has to be a facilitator rather than an instructor. But many of our classrooms are not places where such things are happening. This influences our children and their learning. To some extent, it is us teachers and our lack of motivation that are to blame, and to some extent it is the fact that we are stuck in old and established habits and practices. Today, many officials of different levels visit schools. But their visits have nothing to do with teaching or learning. All other topics are discussed — midday meals, construction, different schemes. There are discussions on whether the programmes are running, and on whether they are running on time. Officials leave behind instructions on these matters. But what about whether a child is learning? Was a lesson hard to teach or to understand? Are there difficulties in teaching? No one wants to talk about these things. No one leaves behind any instructions for what should be going on in the classroom or how to make it better. Every parent today wants their child to become highly educated. They blame the school for shortcomings and weaknesses in their children. Schools, in turn, blame parents, who often don’t know or engage with what their children are learning, or what they can do. So, they remain unsatisfied and, often, unhappy. If we were able to meet parents every month and tell them about their child’s progress and about her strengths, parents’ perspectives would change. When parents understand what their children are capable of and see progress, they pay more attention and engage productively. If the school and community were to support each other’s efforts to educate children, then teaching and learning would be more impactful. But the reality in the villages around me is different: When a scheme, especially one with monetary incentives, is introduced, everyone engages with it. However, these same people are not interested in what goes on in the school. In fact, even when children do not attend school regularly, parents do not seem to care. Of course, schools are also to blame for some of this negligent behaviour. We, too, have not made any big or sustained efforts to reach out to the community. We have high expectations from the new government that will come to power in Bihar. We are hoping that it will give education the highest priority. The government should take strong and substantial steps to improve education in such a way that even my school, which is in an interior rural area, will feel the impact. The government should have its ears close to the ground and create mechanisms at that level to support the real work that goes on in schools. In our state, we have seen success in bringing nearly every child to school and ensuring almost universal enrolment, now we need similarly strong efforts to guarantee learning for every child. Give us, the teachers, learning targets to achieve every few months. Review our work frequently. Recognise and reward schools that are able to show progress. Let teachers focus only on academic work. Let all other work be done by others. Working for several years in Pratham has taught me how to engage with children. During this time, I gained a lot of experience with young students, and teaching and learning in a variety of different contexts. I visited several schools and also worked on teacher-training. But at every school I went to, teachers would tell me that children run away after the midday meal and don’t want to learn. Today, I am surprised when I think of what they said. In my school, children don’t leave even after the school day is over. They pull me by the hand and say, “Sir, tell us more”. Honestly, I think we have not made our school environment challenging enough in the true sense for children. We also haven’t managed to create a platform on which children feel like sharing their experiences, expressing themselves, or, indeed, having fun learning. Children come to school with curiosity in their minds and hope in their eyes. They want to talk to us in their own language, in their own voice. They want to show us new things. As a teacher, I must recognise their strengths and capabilities, and organise my teaching accordingly. If I can do this, my students will not see school as a burden, and they will learn willingly and happily.

 

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