Building Schools by Building Bonds with the Community*
Teachers transforming schools: Stories from Uttarakhand
By: S Giridhar
Government Primary School, Ravindra Nagar, Rudrapur Block, Udham Singh Nagar District, Pantnagar, Uttarakhand
‘You are unnecessarily interfering and inviting trouble for yourself by pulling these boys back into school when we are using them for our work,’ the local don warned the Head Teacher when he tried to enrol the young boys who were running errands for the gang lords.
Rudrapur is more urban than many other district headquarters. It has in the recent years, become an industrial hub because of the SIDCUL Industrial area in Pantnagar where a number of leading companies have set up factories. As a result, a number of semi-skilled and skilled workmen and labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa have found employment here and made Rudrapur their home. Ravindra Nagar in Rudrapur is a basti which is home to much of this industrial workforce. And as it always happens in such cases, such a ‘mohalla’ is also the livelihood and home for the daily ‘dehadi’ workers – the tea/momos/pakoda vendors. The seamy underside of a mohalla is also integral to Ravindra Nagar, with drinking, gambling, drugs and the undercurrent of small-town violence and bullying.
This background is essential to understand the context and work of the Government Primary School, Ravindra Nagar. The challenges that this school faces are quite different but the goal is the same – to provide quality education to every child. The school is not very old, established in 2008 with an enrolment of around 100 children and two teachers, one of whom was a Shiksha Mitra (para-teacher). Shortly‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’ after the school was established, Kirti Nidhi Sharma (KNS) was appointed to this school. He came from a background that included administration in a management college and a medical college. He was well qualified with an MA (Sociology) and B. Ed. and he recognized the very grim conditions and the challenges. As the acting Head Teacher, he tried his best to make the school reasonably functional. The enrolment went up to 156 in 2011 but it was also clear that a number of boys in the primary school age group were not enrolled; that they were supplementing their family income by going to work and worse, were involved in petty crimes, assisting local gang lords (and a lady don who is still active today).
KNS knew his limitations, while he was a good administrator and a sincere teacher, he did not have the necessary courage to demand more facilities for the school or nor could he count on the support of the community. He realized that the school needed a courageous leader. It so happened, that at one of the district-level meetings, he heard of and met Krishna Kumar Sharma (KKS), a teacher from Gadarpur, who seemed like an antithesis of himself in many ways – forthright, in your face, unafraid and shrewd. KKS had always been this way; ever since he joined the education department in 1993, he had never hesitated to ask questions. ‘Sangharsh karo and truth will win’ he says, somewhat dramatically. After spending the years 2007-13 in a primary school in Gadarpur, he was transferred to a small school and overlooked for promotion. He challenged this and won a promotion to Ravindra Nagar as Head Teacher. KNS was overjoyed that KKS had joined his school. The authorities thought they had ‘punished’ KKS by transferring him from his Gadarpur base to Rudrapur and that he would be inconvenienced and chastised but they did not know that KNS had invited him to Ravindra Nagar. With a wink, KK Sharma tells us, ‘Lekin, unko nahin pata ki mera ghar Rudrapur mein hai. Aur upar se promotion bhi mil gaya’.
Once in Ravindra Nagar, both the teachers took stock of the school and KKS knew the challenge he had on hand, called for guts and innovation, which he thrived on. First, he decided to mobilise resources and people to upgrade the facilities at the school. He identified large-hearted industrial benefactors and got them to build a strong compound wall, which would prevent the school from being inundated during floods with the river gushing into the school dangerously; toilets and a kitchen. He also communicated a bold, clear statement to everyone, ‘Children who come to this school should not worry whether there are adequate teachers or infrastructure. Nor should they worry about being first generation learners. Their goal is to come here to learn and it is our responsibility to ensure that every child gets a good education’.
KKS and KNS made rounds of the basti combing for unenrolled children to bring them to school. At one point, they were threatened by the local gang lords to stop this but KKS managed to convince them. KKS then began running regular street theatre in the basti to create awareness about the evils of drugs, liquor and domestic violence. How else could he convey that school was serious business? In his typical style, he talked to parents and said he would only admit those children whose parents were serious; others could go to the neighbouring government schools. In a subtle way, he had shifted the ground rules – from cajoling parents to send children to his school, he was telling them there was no place in his school for their children if the parents were not serious. Inside the school, both KKS and KNS were totally considerate to the children, keenly aware of the very difficult domestic circumstances they came from. Meanwhile, KKS had also got another Shiksha Mitra, Rajkumari regularised as an assistant teacher and another teacher, Geeta on deputation from a nearby school. The enrolment by 2017 had risen to 187 with 110 girls and 77 boys. KKS says, ‘There are still a number of boys who are working as child labours and I have to draw them in.’
The focus inside the school is on learning and both the Sharmas are clear that come what may, they will not succumb to the malaise of mugging and rote learning among their students. ‘I admit that in the traditional exams o‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’ur children may only get average results because these exams test how well they have memorised and reproduced. We want our children to develop conceptual understanding and express that in their own words.’ He adds, ‘Our children must ask questions; if they don’t, it means we are not teaching them well; it means our schooling process is failing.’
The teachers maintain a painstakingly detailed portfolio of every child’s learning. Going through these reports, it is clear that the teachers have a real challenge in ensuring that every child is learning. The assessment in the portfolio also reflects the honesty of the teachers’ assessment. These are not portfolios meant to impress others. KNS says, ‘The average attendance is around 75%. During festival and wedding seasons, it drops even more as the children go for long periods to their native place.’ KKS adds, ‘They must learn to like studies; they must like to read books and develop a curiosity. What do we want? We are realistic, we want these children to develop enough interest to continue their studies. I want the girls to continue their education. So, both of us personally take these children to the upper primary schools and get them admitted in Class VI.’
KKS has a very interesting association with the Azim Premji Foundation. When the Foundation first began work in Udham Singh Nagar during the days of the Learning Guarantee Program, KKS was the President of the Bajpur Block Teachers’ Union. He had doubts about the intentions of the Foundation. After he moved to Gadarpur in 2007, he saw the manner in which the program was introducing assessment reform and he was converted. He felt that he had been unnecessarily biased and resigned from the teachers’ union to get completely involved with the work associated with the program. The Block Education Officer (BEO) of Gadarpur at that time was a gentleman named Bharadwaj, whom KKS considered as his mentor. Together, they started an initiative to make the Block Resource Centre a vibrant hub for academic discussions among the teachers.
‘In those days there was no WhatsApp, so we would phone teachers and they began coming,’ recalls KKS. All meetings were done after school hours and KKS says, ‘The teachers’ union opposed this. Even after Anup Datta, the ABRC and the BEO, Bharadwaj got transferred, we kept this going.’ Much later, when the Voluntary Teachers Forum (VTF) began in Gadarpur, KKS became an active member participating regularly and leading the discussions on topics of his interest. ‘The VTF has taken root,’ he says, and adds, ‘Many teachers have begun assembling in the Teaching Learning Centres (TLC) close to their residences. This is a good initiative that encourages more participation. We have good attendance. We have also started a program called Inse Miliye where we ask teachers who are considered good, to share their experiences.’
KKS has also attended both the summer and the winter workshops on ‘Language’ and acknowledges the value that a facilitator like Kamlesh Joshi of the Azim Premji Foundation brought to these workshops. His colleague, KNS attended the School Leadership Program and the English Language Teaching Workshop at the Foundation’s Dineshpur facilities. When the Azim Premji Foundation District Institute, Udham Singh Nagar, decided to bring out a compilation on language learning, based on articles contributed by teachers, KKS was at the forefront of the initiative. ‘Koshish Jaari Hai,’ according to him, gives voice to the work and identity of a good teacher. The two teachers have had such an association that it was KNS’s father, a retired principal and Sanskrit teacher, who released ‘Koshish Jaari Hai’ at a function held by the Azim Premji Foundation District Institute. Both the teachers regularly contribute around Rs. 2000 each, every month, from their salaries for some material or the other that children require at the school. When we mention this, both brush it aside as something of little consequence and say, ‘This is nothing. Just look at the much larger contributions of the generous well-wishers like the doctor at the local hospital. That is the kind of contribution that you must recognize.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’
Government Model Primary School, Shivlalpur Dallu, Kashipur Block, Udham Singh Nagar District, Uttarakhand
‘Aapko kaisa vidyalaya chaahiye?’
Some schools are performing well solely because of the dynamism and competence of their head teachers. The head teachers’ imprint can be seen in every facet of these schools’ operation and existence. There are also a few schools that are superior because of coherent and consistent systemic inputs and support, which invariably are because of some exceptional individual or group of teachers coming together to create a fine institution. The vulnerability of such schools is obvious. If the leader or teacher(s) leaves the school, there is every chance that it can collapse into mediocrity. This caveat is important to note because this case study of the Model Primary School at Shivlalpur Dallu as a vibrant, thriving school is based entirely on the vision and work of its head teacher.
Harish Chandrasingh Rawat, a native of Almora, joined the Education Department in 1996, after completing his Intermediate and certification in Physical Education. After the initial six years in the Bageshwar district, Harish worked at the Barkhedapande Primary School till 2013, which was a very large school – typical of Udham Singh Nagar schools – with 650 children. People from the Azim Premji Foundation cannot easily forget Barkhedapande Primary School because it was one of the schools that participated in the Learning Guarantee Program. As a participating school, it went through an evaluation that included written and oral assessment of the children’s learning. The oral tests for these 650 children, meant that the district authorities and the Foundation had to commission multiple teams of evaluators to conduct these assessments. Harish came into contact with the Foundation then and was also a member of a team of evaluators that went to various schools in the Block to conduct these assessments.
In 2013, Harish was transferred to Shivlalpur Dallu as the Head Teacher. This school was much smaller with 70 children and two teachers. The first thing that he did upon taking charge was to strengthen the School Management Committee (SMC) by briefing them about their responsibilities and making them aware of their crucial role in the improvement and effectiveness of the school. Having motivated the teachers, Harish then convened a meeting of all the parents and community members and explained to them the goals of the school and how he could realise these with their support. ‘Only when parents, teachers and children come together, can a school run well,’ is his simple dictum.
His next step was to make the morning assembly a distinctly superior and useful exercise. ‘Assembly is something that is very visible, it sets the tone in many ways for things that happen inside a school,’ explains Harish. He made children take responsibility and encouraged parents to observe the assembly. He believes just these two initiatives were enough to make some parents shift their children from private schools to his primary school. By 2014, there were 128 students enrolled. Meanwhile, the need for additional teachers was acute. The department had an odd rule that posted more teachers in disadvantaged areas called ‘durgam’, even if the Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) was already favourable and posted fewer teachers in what was perceived to be favourable or ‘sugam’ areas, even if there was a dire need for teachers there. But the department is also flexible in its operations and sends teachers on need-based deputation from ‘durgam’ to ‘sugam’ schools. That is how two teachers joined Harish’s school in 2014-15.
‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’In 2014, Harish decided to conduct an Annual Day function at the school for the first time. It was the 20th year of the school’s existence and Harish decided that it would be a theme-based event around the wild animals of Uttarakhand, with the Corbett National Park as the centre of the theme. The idea was to involve all the children, to have them study and create projects. The children created models of a lion’s den, a bear’s lair, a gaushala, a hill and even a running river and displayed these in what was an educational mela. Harish gave children the opportunity to set up food stalls to enjoy the experience of entrepreneurship. Very consciously, he too put up a stall to be one among them. It was an event that required funds. Harish contributed Rs 10,000 from his own pocket and his colleagues also chipped in with some funds. The teachers told us, ‘We provide a good life for our children because we are teachers at this school. If we spend a little money on these children who may not be well off, we are not doing anything special or out of our way.’
Harish whose contacts with Azim Premji Foundation had remained strong ever since the days of the Learning Guarantee Program, added, ‘Sanjay Yadav and Harendra Bisht of the Foundation helped us plan and execute the entire event. They had experience from Bal-Shodh Melas and brought that to our Annual Day.’ Harish says the event unleashed such a lot of goodwill and positive energy among the community that the school has never looked back since. The school repeated a grand Annual Day function in 2015; the theme this time was different, they managed the stage and lights differently, and invited a local industrialist as a chief guest. The ground was packed with members of the community.
As his confidence grew, Harish reached out to parents to ask them, ‘Aapko kaisa vidyalaya chaahiye?’ The parents said they wanted their children to dress like the ‘convent schools’ students and for the school to be clean. Now, the Education Department provides funds for uniforms of only the children from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes community and the girls. So, Harish contacted the principal of the neighbouring Guru Nanak College and obtained funds that enabled him to provide uniforms for every child. ‘I am very transparent and share everything with officials as well as the community. When trust is established, it enables me to take the initiative. We had only two classrooms and I could go and demand support from the Gram Pradhan and my Block functionaries.’ The Block resource person came forward to shift some funds to enable the construction of an additional classroom while the Gram Pradhan agreed to construct toilets. The Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) funds also came in handy and Harish got the playground levelled and created a garden too.
In 2015, the Shivlalpur Dallu government school was selected as a ‘Model School’ and immediately, two additional teachers were appointed – Harish now had teachers for Maths and English which the school needed. When it was admission time in 2017, Harish was delighted to see that 40 more children from private schools were shifted to his school by their parents. The school now has 168 children. Two private schools in the vicinity of Shivlalpur Dallu have since closed down. Insufficient classrooms are still an issue as there are only three rooms but Harish and his four colleagues recently pooled in Rs 60,000 from their own pockets to construct a tin-roofed annexure that can serve as the fourth classroom.
The teachers and the Head Teacher know the learning levels of every child in great detail. They also share this information amongst themselves, so if one were to talk to the English teacher, she would also know the child’s ability or difficulty in Maths. The individual child-wise portfolio and progress reports are maintained with care. These are shared with parents in the monthly Parent-Teacher Meeting, which is a serious affair with an entire day devoted to it. Teachers show the parents the samples of their children’s work, subject-wise test response papers, project papers and their artwork.
In the morning assembly, apart from the everyday prayer, group song, storytelling and poetry recitation, the school has added a five-minute drama/play to provide the children with an opportunity to express their creativity. Different groups of children take turns to participate in these events. Every teacher is present in school without fail before the start of the assembly. Since it is a Model School, it has been provided with a whiteboard, aluminium topped dining tables for the mid-day meals, a harmonium, drums and sports equipment including dumbbells and lezim sets. As a result of these provisions, the teachers are able to organise better activities and include music, PT and games in their timetables. The children of the school in the past two years have won at Cluster and Block level competitions and gone to the District finals in sprints (sports), painting, poetry and storytelling.
Harish was acutely aware that children in private schools had the means and opportunity to go on excursions while his children had no such opportunity. He and his colleagues decided they would contribute some funds and took the children of Class V on an educational tour of the Nainital district. The children saw a dam, a barrage, a water mill and understood the basic principles of hydroelectric power generation. They climbed a hill to visit one of the oldest temples in the district. Harish has a huge sense of fulfilment from this initiative. ‘Our school has been selected as a Model school, not because of the existing infrastructure or facilities, which everyone knows are inadequate. They must have heard about our work from some of the senior functionaries who have visited our school.’
Harish lays a lot of emphasis on visibility. He believes the self-esteem of the children and their parents is as important as the quality of learning and educational experiences. So, he has an ID card, a belt and a tie for every child, just as the private schools do. He also believes that he must continuously engage with the community, not taking their relationship for granted. Recently, at a community meeting, he ran a Chinese whisper game among parents starting with the innocuous sentence, ‘Maine kela khaya’. When the round ended, the last person said something that was totally different. Harish did this to drive home the point that information gets distorted and it is wise not to rely on second-hand information. ‘Come and check directly with me about anything pertaining to the school,’ he said to the parents.
The narrative so far may give an impression that Harish concentrates on school administration and relationships. But far from it, he is also deeply invested in teaching – not only does he teach EVS, he also stays current on the subject, both in terms of content as well as pedagogy. He is an active member of the Kashipur Voluntary Teachers Forum (VTF) and leads discussions at the meetings. He has been co-opted into the district’s capacity-building workshops on EVS and is currently developing a resource book on the subject that will be of immense help to teachers in the district.
In all this, Harish has also found the time to complete his BA and MA degrees by correspondence, which is an indication of his commitment to educating himself along with all his other pressing priorities. He is now 50 years old and looks forward to strengthening the Government Model Primary School, Shivlalpur Dallu during the remaining years of his service. His own children are settled well with an older son employed as an engineer in Delhi, a younger son studying Hotel Management, an older daughter married, and a younger one, a qualified nurse employed in a Kashipur hospital. This Head Teacher is a person of enormous energy and passion. It is inevitable that a visitor to the school will not end up spending more time than they have intended because Harish, the Head Teacher will show so many facets of the school’s operations, each that contribute to its quality and along with his colleagues will share the individual child-wise portfolios that make such a compelling read. At the core of this Head Teacher’s success is his clear vision of a vibrant school that provides holistic learning experiences that are valuable to children.
Adarsh Primary School, Barkot, Naugaon Block, Uttarkashi District, Uttarakhand
‘…(the Head Teacher told) all students that they could bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school.’
Bang in the middle of Barkot town, surrounded by many private schools is the Adarsh Primary School. Two years ago, it had just 51 children, which is not surprising, considering that parents were opting for private schools. It was around this time that the school was chosen to be an Adarsh Vidyalaya. The reason why this school was selected from among the numerous other primary schools of the Naugaon Block is not clear but the next step was to allocate a sufficient number of subject-wise teachers, which is how the Head Teacher, Sarita joined in 2015, and a year later, three more teachers were appointed to the school.
Sarita, the Head Teacher began her career in 1998 at a remote village school in the Mori Block. After four years there, she moved to the Sukhan Primary School in Naugaon Block where she taught till 2015. Her new colleagues are much younger. Vinod Methani (M.Sc. Mathematics and B.Ed) had joined the department in 2012; Yashpal Singh (MA in English and B.Ed) has been teaching only for the past three years and Punita Rana who teaches Hindi, has joined the school in 2016. All three of them wrote the test, qualified and got the ‘coveted’ appointment to the Adarsh Primary School. The school has good facilities – adequate number of rooms, a longish open courtyard for assembly and games, a neat corridor for dining, an audio set and so on.
Sarita is a clear leader and sets the direction for the efforts. Her first task as the Head Teacher was to communicate to the community that the school was now a designated model school with adequate resources and teachers for every subject, including English. She had to attract the parents back to the school. It meant frequent meetings with them; inviting them to not just see the school and its facilities but to also interact with her young and bright colleagues so they could see how these new teachers were engaging deeply with the children because of which the children were learning well. These efforts were well-directed. The community could observe that the school was indeed vibrant and convinced, they began sending their children to this school. By July 2017, the enrolment had jumped from 51 to 96, with many children being pulled out from private schools to be enrolled here.
Sarita also realized that the private schools had an advantage in enrolment because they took in children at ages three and four in nursery and KG classes, which government schools do not. Once a child enters KG or nursery in a private school, it becomes difficult for a government school to get that the child from there on its rolls. Sarita decided to overcome this problem by telling all the students that they can bring their three to four-year-old siblings to the school. These children sit with the older children, observe, assimilate and join in. They also participate in the daily assembly and in the games and in this manner, they develop a smooth bond with the school. Sarita believes this strategy is what will ensure the year on year strong enrolment numbers for the Adarsh Primary School, Barkot.
Another of her priority became the morning assembly. Within a year, the quality of morning assembly at Model School, Barkot is being widely recognised. Sarita has organized the children into three houses and each house is responsible for conducting the assembly for two days a week. The children of these houses have the responsibility to ensure that all the children get turns to participate in the various activities. These activities are, Prarthana (prayer), Pledge, Samooha Gaan (group songs), reading of the news and major headlines of the day, followed by five to six questions on topics of general interest. Each day, the assembly has children exposed to around ten English words or phrases and to poetry. The National Anthem concludes the assembly. Sarita is convinced that the assembly is one of the best spaces for learning, building confidence and to demonstrate that every child gets an equal opportunity to exhibit his or her talent.
With Yashpal, Vinod and Punita in her team, she knows that the children’s learning will be of high quality. There is a regular meeting among all these teachers to obtain a shared understanding of all the children and their levels of learning. Like in most conscientious schools, this school also invests a couple of hours after school to provide additional support and guidance to children identified. The teachers are very well organized. For instance, they have kept Saturday as the day for the weekly updating of the profile and progress reports of all the children. That is also the day they sit together to plan for the coming week. Teamwork is a given; Sarita runs this with a light touch. Yashpal and Vinod are young and idealistic, and her gentle steering enables them to see where they need to combine realism and idealism without ever losing that burning desire for providing quality education to the disadvantaged children. The result of such teamwork and organized planning and working is reflected in the quality of the portfolios that they maintain to record the progress of the children and which they share with the parents in the monthly meetings. There are detailed comments in each child’s portfolio, which demonstrate a deep understanding of the child’s learning and implies that the implementation of continuous and comprehensive evaluation in the school is a very natural and integral part of the teaching process in the school.
Yashpal and Vinod are eager and regular participants at the Azim Premji Foundation’s Teacher Learning Centre and Voluntary Teacher Forums. The Foundation’s vision of education that can contribute to a just and equitable society, resonates with these young men. They see the discussion forums and workshops as platforms to both express their views and to absorb the wisdom of teachers with more experience. With the energy of the young, both Vinod and Yashpal actively contribute to the workshops organized by the Foundation. They are active on the WhatsApp group created by the teachers of the block. These are early days for the school but all the good signs are visible. It is these teachers who will make the Adarsh Primary School, Barkot a model school and though the children may be too young to realise their good fortune now years later, they will look back at their education in this school with gratitude.
*These essays are part of a forthcoming book (2019).
S Giridhar, COO, Azim Premji University