As a ‘Teach for India’ fellow, I have witnessed first-hand the immense challenges associated with teaching in a resource-poor environment, having taught two 2nd grade classrooms in a low-income community in Pune. My students came from poor backgrounds. Parents of my students earned a living in various ways, with both males and (more frequently) females contributing to the household. Their livelihoods ranged from daily-wage workers, house cleaners and auto-rickshaw drivers to tailors, roadside tobacco stall owners, janitors, security guards and drivers. The average monthly income for my classroom, based on data gathered from parent surveys, was of the order of INR 5000/ ($100 a month). On top of this, all the families had at least six members living in a 100-200sq ft. shanty.
I was surprised to discover that the factors I considered barriers to student education when I interviewed for my ‘Teach for India’ fellowship were no longer what I think prevents students from succeeding. Initially, I thought the barriers included low levels of student achievement and lack of initiative among students, overworked and unmotivated school staff, particularly due to low salaries, and a lack of infrastructure.
Today, I believe that these are not barriers, but are biases that I had before even entering the classroom. Two years down the line, my perspective has changed immensely.
My students were 2-3 years behind their peers from private schools. Initially, they did not take an interest in the classroom. But why would they, when their previous teacher had been brutally beating them in order to force them to learn and write something that they could not even comprehend. I was teaching in an English Medium School and I had students who could not recognize the letters of English alphabet. It took me some time to get my students invested in education and get to know each one of them.
After 4 months, I stopped receiving incomplete homework and the classroom attendance soared from 60% to more than 95%. During the course of the fellowship, I learned that the girls in my classroom woke up at four or five AM, cleaned the entire house, and then studied for an hour to complete their homework; often they could not complete it because of lack of electricity at night. Two boys who had been consistently failing for the past two years were amongst the top at the end of the fellowship. I taught 62 students, and 11 students cleared 2nd grade entrance examination for admission to the best school in Pune. They received fully funded scholarships to see them through high school. The rest of the students gained an average of 2 years of academic growth in a single academic year, something I could not have imagined at the start of the year.
Tracking data on daily and monthly basis was immensely helpful to analyze the progress students were achieving in the classroom. It formed the basis of the long-term planning. As soon as I checked the exam papers, I would sit for hours and put the data in a big excel sheet. The result would show me exactly what to do. I knew what topics to re-teach, and got a better understanding of my students’ learning levels.
I realized the role teachers/parents play in a child’s life. Our actions create a lifelong impression on young minds. Kids coming from impoverished backgrounds are equally brilliant as their high-income counterparts. What they lack is opportunity and guidance.
Teachers are not lacking in motivation, but instead face limited capabilities. They lack autonomy and proper training to handle large classrooms (40-80 students is the norm in low-income schools). After 1-2 years of persistence, some teachers tend to lose their faith and resort to more traditional teaching methodologies. I realized that I had to put in 16 hours a day to plan for 26 students and work consistently to support students that were most behind.
Training systems must be sufficiently robust so that the teachers are prepared to meet these challenges. To improve our education systems we need to give teachers the respect that the profession deserves. We should make the selection process stringent to make it attractive to applicants. Our training modules need to empower teachers to cater to a classroom consisting of multiple levels of student learning.
Initially, I thought lack of infrastructure, including libraries, computers, etc., was a key impediment to improving educational outcomes in India. I see now that these are not the greatest needs. Infrastructure is helpful, but a Principal with a vision and teachers with an ongoing commitment towards the children’s education make all the difference. It is surprising to learn that girls in villages drop out after primary school because of a lack of separate toilets, not because the parents do not want to educate the girl child. So, some minimum resources are required such as neat classrooms, clean separate toilets for boys and girls, and playgrounds.
The most important learning from my experience has been that there is a gamut of challenges in the social sector, and the impacts of our work are not readily apparent. We need patience and time to see long-term change. We need to be empathetic and understand the perspectives of others. Looking back after graduation, I realize I could not have imagined the extent to which I would undergo such personal transformation with regard to discipline, humility and assuming responsibility. I am thankful for the experience and carry the lessons forward in my daily work.
About Sanjay Mittal: Sanjay is working with FSG in India. Prior to this, he completed a two year fellowship with ‘Teach for India’. He was a member of the inaugural cohort of ‘Teach for India’ and during the fellowship he taught two 2nd grade classrooms in a low-income school in Pune. He has a Bachelor in Engineering from IIT Delhi.