The ABCs of Education

The classroom is a cemented structure, decent enough, but the setting indicates a slum or a rural village. There are no benches. The kids aged 4-6 years old are mostly unkempt, a couple of them in tattered clothes, their knees grazed with white plaster from the walls. They sit cross-legged on the floor balancing their slates and pieces of chalk pencils. Across from them, the teacher spells out the days of the week, names of fruits, etc. on the blackboard and the children neatly copy them down on their slate boards word for word. Sounds familiar? The scenario I am describing is that of a Youtube video which went viral a few months ago. 

I vaguely recall that when the video went public, a huge sect of viewers wholeheartedly engaged themselves in bashing the education system or the specific ‘teacher’ in question. Community based racism reared its ugly face yet again in stating that such events would only occur in places like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Some highly educated NRI individuals working white collar jobs scoffed at the way education was being conducted in India, thanking their stars that they had gotten out in time. The media, as has become the norm now, went about decapitating the efforts of the ‘teachers’ who despite their own failings, was up there, trying to show someone else the right way. As can be seen in the video, the media succeeds in making mincemeat of both the ‘teachers’. The effects of the video stayed with me for a long time, as I went about googling NGOs like TeachIndia, Teach For India, The Teach India Project etc that helped with empowering the underprivileged youth with education, providing them a chance at a decent life ahead. But I’ll shamelessly admit, that like any other passionate project where I have dived in with full enthusiasm, this one too got shelved aside due to the other myriad day to day responsibilities between handling work outside and within the home. I have long since learned that jumping in, holding my breath is not going to work. Instead testing the waters and easing myself in probably will. More than a year has passed since the video made the rounds on national television and social networking sites. Nothing has changed. My conscience continues to niggle at me. The budding list of questions within my head continues to grow. And with a renewed enthusiasm, albeit, slow and steady, having gained quite a bit of volunteering experience abroad, I explore the possibilities again. Amidst all of it, I ask; 1. Can we really blame the ‘teachers’ for imparting wrong education? What they’ve learnt is what they continue to teach. And what the tiny tots learn is what will get passed along later. A classic example of a vicious circle. Point is, how do you break it? 2. Per the State Government of Maharashtra mandate, a teacher spends the first two years as a ‘temporary’ where the pay is simply decided by the school, not by the government pay scales. Agreed, that there might be a minimum wage ruling, but on an average a high school teacher earns Rs. 4000 per month for the first two months. In the course of these two years if for any reason, he/she needs to quit the job and join elsewhere, the two year term gets reset. Once the two years are up, pay scales improve substantially. But for those two years or more, how is a school teacher expected to get by on such measly payments? The Indian society today is still largely a patriarchal society, where the primary bread earner is a man. Is it a surprise then that we do not see many men as school teachers? Man or woman, how would one be expected to run a household on Rs. 4000 a month? Shouldn’t the education department be looking into this? 3. The Teach for India initiative enlists young educated people as volunteer teachers, for a term of two years. Though I applaud the initiative, I wish there was a flexible term option too. Yes, the continuous change in teachers might tend to confuse children but then this would at least encourage more interested people to pitch in and might benefit in the long run. On similar lines are the CSR initiatives run by organizations where even full time employed individuals can do their bit, all for a good cause. Initiatives like online teaching for rural kids through Skype or other video conferencing are yet to take off in a big way but there are honest individuals trying their best in those areas as well. Progress is slow yet steady. The web can be a host of information but it can get overwhelming too. Where would we find the specifics about such programs? 4. As much as the media prides itself on coverage of such social issues, aren’t we entitled to follow ups? So, they chanced upon this school, there are many others like this one, even in urban cities. This school was shoved into the limelight but what happened next? Did it help? Did the situation improve? The much talked about show Satyamev Jayate took off to a dashing start, putting the spotlight on quite a few ‘accountability’ holders, demanding answers. There were promises of follow ups and to a certain extent, they were attempted too. But how does one keep up the momentum?

A cartoon downplays the Right to Education Act
Image source:

5. As opposed to the ill-thought of ‘Air hostess training program’ for tribal girls which turned out be a complete disaster considering that they did not meet the criteria or even know spoken English, the RTE act was a very well meant, deserving initiative. We will need many such more in our quest. But how does one go around convincing children that education will help them in the long run? What about the ones like house-help or beggars on the street who do it for three square meals a day? Can you blame them for wanting short term benefits that quench their hunger today than long term ones? Just like community hours are assigned to juvenile delinquents in the US, I wish volunteering a certain number of hours annually is made a mandate to every citizen. After all, giving back to the community that set the base for where you are today, shouldn’t be that difficult should it? I am sure it would be a very humbling experience. Sometimes I wish I can just forget all of this and adopt the famous ‘Chalta Hai’ attitude. Life would be way easier. But that’s the thing, I can’t. I would love to hear your views!