We must not underestimate the power of individuals to take initiative and improve our school systems
We walked in to the government primary school at Nagala, 15km from Rudrapur in Uttarakhand, at 8.30am. There was no one to receive us. We entered the first class room that we saw. There were 43 children. They were all engrossed in their work. There was no teacher in the class.
As Anant and I entered, the children looked at us curiously and started an excited conversation, from their art-work to reciting their favorite poem and story, and many things in between. In the last 10 minutes, I sat down in their midst, on the floor, as Anant recited a poem at their request.
The class retained the difficult balance between noise and silence; abuzz with curiosity and excitement. There was a minor scuffle between two children, which was sorted out very quickly by the intervention of their neighbors.
Then we told them that we had to go. Nothing could have prepared me for their reaction. The kids jumped on me, as I sat on the floor. It was a heap of children on top of me. Like a football team's celebration after a stunning goal. They didn't want me to go.
They let me go after innumerable arguments; the one that seemed to convince them was that my daughter and son would be awaiting me in Bangalore. Those last 5 minutes were a loud fracas. It caught the attention of the teacher, wherever he was, and so he had come to the class. He was standing at the door, watching with amusement.
That's how I first met Pradeep Pande. Soon I met the other teachers in the school, Ravi Mohan and Vinay Prabha. The principal of the school, Manju Bisht, was away on a short training. Together, this group runs this remarkable school.
The nature of the school is reflected partially in my experience there. The children are confident and curious. They are "self-disciplined" in the most positive sense of that word. They learn and do good work, often on their own. And they are happy. It's the kind of situation that we would like to see in all our (government and private) schools, but most often don't.
This school has the same constraints and frugal resources as the million other government schools. Its children come from the same disadvantaged, underprivileged groups. What then is the force propelling the mystery of the school at Nagala, which makes it so different?
We walked through the school. We saw the kitchen with a novel design for the chulahs, which packs the firewood outside the kitchen, leaving more space for movement and fewer fumes inside. This redesign was within the budget for the kitchen. When the government budget gave them money for two classrooms a few years ago, they persuaded the block officials to let them make a hall instead. It needs imagination and initiative, to get these seemingly small changes done in the government system.
It needed more than that, to do some of the other things that they have done in the school. They persuaded a local businessman to sponsor the salary of an additional teacher for a year. We saw the waterlogged backyard, across which the village community had built a raised brick path to reach the toilets. A construction contractor gave them the material for the steel gate to the school.
They described some of their academic issues and pedagogical methods. These were as creative and as practical as all their other actions. They are thoughtful, sensitive and sensible teachers—what we hope to see in all our classrooms. Their abilities and tenacity were really at the heart of the remarkable classroom that we had encountered earlier—which was learning without a teacher. They had devised the system and the culture, so each class could run for some time on its own, because between three teachers they had to handle 300-odd children.
The answer to the mystery of the school at Nagala is in plain sight. It's the group that runs the school. It works in the same government school system, but the constraints and apathy of the system has never stopped the group. It persistently looks for spaces for maneuver within the system. It seeks and gets support within the government and the community.
We need continuing and massive systemic improvements in education, but we must not underestimate the importance and power of individuals taking initiative and changing things, within the space they have. I feel that we too often and too easily pass on everything to the "system", abdicating our responsibility in making change happen.
Kailash, one of my colleagues, one day found Pande shivering with high fever, under a blanket in the school office, the classes merrily going on without teachers. When asked, why was he in the school in that state, he said: "If I am here, the classes go on, so I might as well lie down here, instead of at home".
We need to reform the education system. But we also need to find and encourage the spirited ones. They make all the difference.