We need a functioning system for the average teacher, because the fate of our education will always be determined by the average teacher
In many a twilight have I sat with government schoolteachers, discussing education. Discussion over, they gather their bags and lunch boxes, having come straight from school, and head home. Some ride back on two-wheelers, some take the bus. Their homes are often 10-20km away, not an easy commute in rural and small-town India. Next morning they will open their schools, often another 10-20km from their homes, and get back to work: teaching with passion, managing with care and dealing with the vagaries of life, with determination.
These are teachers doing a good job, within every constraint that our government school system has. We have found these good teachers in every block (a typical district has three-six "blocks") that we have worked in, across 17 states. Many of them are not just good, they are exceptional.
In the same blocks, we have also dealt with teachers, who come drunk to school or don’t come at all, and some entrepreneurial ones who "outsource" their teaching job to another person at 30% their salary and themselves run a business.
Between the drunk and the good teacher is the average teacher. She teaches, because that’s her job. Accepting of her milieu, and of the difficult nature of her work, she neither demonstrates a spark, nor shirks what she thinks she has to do. The large majority of our teachers are the average teacher.
This is natural and not surprising. If you draw six million people from the population of India, for any purpose (in this case as teachers), you are bound to get the extremes of some good and some bad, but the large majority will be the average.
In this context let’s get one issue out of the way: government schoolteachers are reasonably well paid-they are in the middle of the upper half of the income distribution of salaried people in their communities. The government teacher’s job is the standard "good and secure" government job, and is in itself no reason to draw disproportionate number of competent or incompetent people from the population. Here I am not going to talk about para-teachers, which is a big issue in some states; nor about low teacher salaries in large number of private schools.
Let’s return to the issue of the good, average and bad (in reality this is a continuum-not neat categories) teacher.
The issue really is about how our system helps, manages and deals with the average teacher. At a very basic level this involves education of teachers- both before and after they become teachers. It involves academic and other kinds of support to teachers. It also involves managing and motivating teachers-both in the context of the school and the larger system. Let’s look very briefly at these three aspects, on why our current system not just fails, but is a cause for the good becoming average, and the average becoming bad.
Our teacher education system is in a shambles. We have over 6,000 colleges running bachelor of education and diploma in education programs. Informed estimates suggest that 80% of these colleges are near defunct. They have archaic curricula and inadequate faculty. In fact, a large number of these exist only on paper: they charge a fee, conduct an exam and award a degree-they are actually not functioning colleges. In addition, the design of the overall teacher education system is in itself disconnected from reality.
Once the teachers join the government system, they are supposed to go through 20 days of "in service" training every year, which happens, if at all, only in name.
Most states have a support system for teachers; they are the "cluster and block level resource" people and the District Institute of Education and Training. The people here are drawn from the same pool of teachers, with no help for them to deal with their new roles as academic experts. The ground-level reality is that they are academic support people only in name; they are largely used for administrative purposes.
The less said about the management and motivation of teachers, the better. The hard reality is that the system treats them as lowest level functionaries of a bureaucratic system. As one of my friends who works with government teachers every day says "they are treated liked dirt, and they feel like dirt".
The fact is that we have designed a suboptimal system for teacher education, management and support. We are unable to make even that function, and then we blame the teachers. This is like blaming the soldiers for defeat in a war, to which they were sent untrained, logistically unsupported and deeply demotivated.
Improving the functioning of this system does not necessarily require more money, although that will help. It’s largely a matter of will, of sensitivity and of concerted action. Progressive government officials recognize this, and some of them act. However, action in a few places is grossly inadequate; we need a nationwide upheaval in the teacher system.
We need a functioning system for the average teacher, because the fate of our education will always be determined by the average teacher.