Starting and sustaining voluntary teacher forums

Experiences from Tonk, Rajasthan

Field studies in education 7

Teacher training’ is the dominant modality for teacher professional development in India. But research in India and around the world reveals better and more powerful modes of teacher professional development that support collaboration and peer learning among teachers. To create platforms that enable this has been a challenge in the Indian public education system. 

Azim Premji Foundation has been working with the government schooling system of various Indian states to improve quality and equity in education. Supporting teacher professional development is at the core of its work, enabling platforms for collaboration and peer learning where teachers partcipate out of their own volition has been a key aspect in its approach. 

Here, we examine some insights from our experiences in Tonk, Rajasthan.

Teacher professional development in India

The quality of schools is inextricably linked to the quality of teaching and therefore to the capacity of its teachers. Pre-service teacher professional development and in-service continuous development are now considered central to the quality of education. 

But there are problems with teacher capacity in India. Pre-service teacher education programmes are inadequately designed to build the kind of knowledge, skills and disposition that a professional teacher needs. Certification and selection processes for teachers are inadequate and uneven across the country. In several states, schools appoint teachers on different contracts and varied qualifying criteria. And since teaching isn’t a top profession in the country, who joins the profession? 

Problems with teacher trainings programmes

Various strategies for in-service teacher professional development in India have emerged in the last seven decades. Several education commission reports have been published over the years to make policies. However, professional development opportunities available to teachers in the public education system are somewhat limited. This is partially a result of half-hearted implementation but also some fundamental challenges of recognising teaching as a profession. 

Most training is based on ad-hoc criteria, and those programmes that exist are irrelevant. Some are conducted in a centralised cascade approach in which trainers work with large groups of teachers in diverse regions, leading to transmission losses’. 

Collaboration and peer learning

The complete reliance on training for teacher professional development is a problem. A peer learning platform that allows teachers to come together periodically to focus on issues relevant to work and classroom, to share, question, reflect and solve problems collectively, has been demonstrated to be far more effective. 

Voluntary teacher forums

Voluntary teacher forums (VTF) need to address teachers’ needs by promoting a culture of dialogue, trust and work in a holistic approach. These fora require the persistent efforts of individuals and institutions to begin and sustain, and this depends on capable people in these locations who can put in the effort necessary for mobilisation. These platforms in many key locations bring teachers who seek opportunities together, to engage each other on issues relevant to their professional development.

The first VTFs were initiated in the districts of Tonk and Sirohi in Rajasthan in 2009. Over the years, they have grown and evolved and become an important part of the Foundation’s work with teachers. This research is based on semi-structured interviews with 10 individual teachers through focus group discussions across six blocks of Tonk district. The main question around which the analysis centres is What does it take to start and sustain VTFs in any particular location?’

Context of Tonk, Rajasthan

Tonk is located in the north-eastern region of the state of Rajasthan.

Its economy is primarily agriculture-based. As per Census 2011, only 3 % of the total area of Tonk is urban. It has seven blocks: Malpura, Peeplu, Niwai, Tonk, Todaraisingh, Deoli and Uniara. With a population of 1.42 million, it is the 23rd most populous district in Rajasthan. The literacy rate in Tonk is 62.46 % as per Census 2011. It also has amongst the highest male-female literacy gaps in the country with male literacy at 78.27 % and female literacy at 46.01 %.

There are 1554 government elementary schools in Tonk with 7524 teachers and 104,944 students enrolled. 21.3 % of primary and 8.2 % of all schools in the district are single teacher schools; the average number of teacher per school is 2.3 at the primary level and 6.3 overall.

In 2006, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj declared Tonk as one of the country’s 250 most backward districts (out of a total of 640). It is one of the twelve districts in Rajasthan currently receiving funds from the Backward Regions Grant Fund Program (BRGF).

Voluntary teacher forums in session in Tonk

Azim Premji Foundation began its work in Rajasthan in 2005 with its Learning Guarantee Programme (LPG) in which the focus was to try and improve classroom transactions via assessment-led reforms. By 2011, the Foundation moved away from specific time-bound programmes in favour of continuous and systemic engagement. It began to establish an insitutional presence in all geographies where it worked to bring about educational change. 

This shift meant the establishment of several District Institutes, including one in Tonk. The Foundation built a stronger academic team in Tonk and each block had two people with the rest of the team in the district headquarters. Over the years, the team grew to include more than 50 people in the distrct. This also included a block activity centre (BACs) later renamed Learning and Resource Centre (LRCs). These were in locations easily accessible to large groups of teachers. 

The genesis of an idea

The process of setting up a VTF was first initiated in Malpura block in 2009 as a result of accumulated experiences and insights over the years. It was observed that teachers work in isolation and do not have spaces to collaborate with colleagues to discuss their work and challenges faced in the classroom. It was also clear to members working with the teachers and teacher support groups (at district, block and cluster levels) that capacity building was a necessary pre-requisite to bring about a change in teaching-learning methods.

Teachers felt good having a network for themselves. Once they started coming they felt good and started discussion on various topics. All came voluntarily”.

Teachers said training programmes rarely dealt with real issues and were conducted in lecture mode that had little room for teachers’ expressions. These programmes also did not serve a diversity of context and development needs. The Rajashtan government had closed the Cluster Resource Centres (CRCs) which had been an academic support structure. 

Initiating VTFs

Sharing the idea with government resource persons who are members of government teacher support systems, the Foundation identified teachers who did good work, were committed and open and motivated. With extensive school visits, the Foundation spent time building connections. 

A rough concept for the VTFs emerged as follows:

  • The VTF was a teacher’s forum in which teachers themselves would decide when and where to meet, what to discuss and how to move it forward
  • Teachers would meet after school hours and there would be no travel allowances
  • Facilitating and topics were to be driven by teachers
  • A democratic platform without hierarchy between participants. 
  • Located in convenient physical spaces
  • Addressing teacher needs

Each block began similar processes and as trust began to build, this process matured. By 2010, it had been initiated in all the six blocks of Tonk (one in each block). In 2012, the Foundation supported 10 such VTFs out of which 2 were independently started and facilitated by teachers. Malpura and Uniara blocks had two VTFs each.

I attended the first meeting at the request of a teacher-friend. The informal and friendly atmosphere encouraged me to keep coming. I was a master trainer in LGP, so I know whatever work (Azim Premji) Foundation does is good.
- Participant teacher

Teachers began to attend as a result of the credibility of the Azim Premji Foundation and word of mouth, and they attended a few meetings to familiarise themselves with the concept. Many teachers wished to grow and learn, and their initial visits were due to a dissatisfaction with the satus quo and current state of student’s learning and school facilities. 

Teachers wished to deepen their pedagogic skills and advance their content knowledge. This motivation was in part a desire to improve the government educational system. 

If I improve myself – I can help to stop the downfall of the education system.
I want to feel connected to teaching, increase subject knowledge – as student’s learning improves – their motivation also increases”
– Participant teacher

Persistence and patience in sustaining VTFs

Initial meetings saw low turnouts, with less than 10 people in 2010. This affected motivation, but team members understood with extensive discussion that this would take time to establish. They used in-service government trainings to reach out to teachers in large numbers and build credibility. This was possible also because the Foundation had a permanent team based in these locations.

Appropriate, relevant topics

The topics chosen for discussion determined the quality of the transactions and attendance. The topics chosen were pedagogy, innovative teaching practices and classroom related issues. As a result of the direct takeaways, participation in meetings increased.

Though the original intent had been to also have discussions on social issues and other deep seated beliefs and through that encourage teachers to question their beliefs and dispositions, it was felt that these topics needed to be take up more organically, interwoven into other discussions and also after a greater degree of trust and comfort had been developed in the group. Therefore initial meetings focused on classroom practices. Additionally, care was taken not to allow these forums to degenerate into sessions used to vent the teachers’ frustration against the educational bureaucracy or to digress into political discussions.

Teachers decided the topic for every upcoming meeting. Some topics emerged that required greater rigour than available. From this emerged a residential voluntary teacher forum of 2 – 3 day retreats. 

Addressing teacher needs

These topics were also useful in helping teachers solve direct problems in the classroom. Some have to do with specific subject matter like Mathematics or English, more organised teaching methods and strategies implemented in the classroom to benefit students. Some teachers believe these have helped in lower absenteeism. 

Relevant academic expertise

Despite these being peer-learning platforms, they required resource persons for adequate facilitation. This was a challenge, and was solved by inviting relevant facilitators when necessary and the preparation of learning modules by Foundation members. 

Equality and collective ownership

The VTFs were founded upon the principles of equality and inclusiveness, jointly initiated and managed by Foundation members and teachers. The central assumption behind the forum was that there is no absolute expert who can provide solutions and address the needs and challenges of the group; instead members need to work together to seek collective solutions. Therefore the facilitators were careful to ensure that they were one of the group and do not govern the agenda. Whatever concerns and challenges emerged were addressed through discussion and collaborative efforts. This culture and environment that developed in the forums came to be highly valued by the teachers.

Most of all, being given a safe, non-judgmental space where they have a voice that is listened to heard and acknowledged, having their experiences acknowledged and valued in a public forum, has changed their self-concept and enhanced their self-esteem.

As I listen to discussions, I reflect and understand – what I am, what I should I do, what is my responsibility, and how I should work with children. This has helped me get more meaning from my work”

– Participant Teacher

Challenges & Conclusion

There are many challenges ahead. Some questions continue to remain, like the ones around the need for continued mobilisation efforts, encouraging higher female teacher participation and transferring greater ownership of facilitating sessions to participant teachers. 

However, the primary lesson from this experience is that though it may be culturally alien as a concept, and while there may be a whole host of challenges, both logistical and conceptual, given the right opportunities, teachers can and do take charge of their own professional development. Appealing to the intrinsic motivation of teachers, providing an enabling environment, valuing their experiences, giving them choices – all these are significant factors that contribute to the sustenance of VTFs.