Confidence in Collegiality

Teachers have to proactively seek the participation of parents in the functioning and improvement of the school. Parents too need to support teachers and head-teachers and understand their problems and respond in humane ways. This two-way street is what teachers like Thanendra nurture as pathways to improving quality.

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Teacher: Thanendra Sahu
School: Government Primary School (GPS), Achoti, Chhattisgarh

The School Setting

The Government Primary School (GPS), Achoti is located in the Kurud block, district Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh. It is 47 kilometres from the State capital of Raipur and is surrounded by Abhanpur block in the North, Magarlod and Dhamtari in the South, and Patan in the West. The local language is Chhattisgarhi. Achoti has a total population of 1,940 (Census, 2011). There are 300 families in this village. The village has an anganwadi.

The school was built in 1956. The campus includes a playground, four classrooms and the Head Teacher’s office-cum-staff room. The school houses classes I to V and has a Head Teacher (male) and two other teachers (male and female). There are about 60 students in the school and a majority of them come from the same village. On completing their primary level, children move to the high school within the same village. The medium of instruction is Chhattisgarhi and Hindi. English is taught from class I onwards.

Thanendra Sahu is a teacher here and through his entire narration, he acknowledged the support of Mr B R Dhruv, the Head Teacher; and the collegiality of Mrs Rekha, the language teacher, as a source of inspiration for his work. His work needs to be located and understood within the framework of how cooperation and trust amongst teachers and the Head, and collaboration with the community enable teachers to influence children’s learning and development.

The teacher’s profile

Thanendra Sahu teaches mathematics and language in primary classes. He did his early schooling in Magarlod Block, Dhamtari and narrates how in his middle school years, he was always punished by teachers. When he was in class X, he moved to Kurud and was inspired by his teachers, who were very kind to him, to become a teacher. His first appointment as a teacher was at the current school in 2008. At that time, there were two other teachers and approximately 130 students in the school which was being run in a dilapidated building with no boundary walls. The school had no toilet facilities or electricity. There were very few chairs and only tall stools to sit on. The salary too was not attractive. So completely demotivated, he expressed disappointment about his workplace to his father. His father had handled similar situations successfully in his own job postings and he told his son, Now that you have gone there, improve the conditions’. This marked the beginning of Thanendra’s journey as a teacher with a conviction that he would make a difference to the lives of children through his work in the school. He completed his teacher certification while in service.

Initial years at the

Initial years at the school

In his early days as a teacher, Thanendra spent almost 8 to 10 hours in the school. He played with the children and walked to their houses before leaving for home. In a few days of being at the school, he observed that children ate their mid-day meals under a tree or near the boundary wall or the tap, holding their plates in their hands. He proposed to the teachers that they buy mats for the children to sit and eat together. The teachers agreed. Children loved the idea of eating together. This gave him confidence and a sense of agency to bring about other changes in the school. Efforts such as these that brought the teachers, children and the community together are highlighted in the following sections.

Reviving cultural activities for children

In interactions with community members and parents, Thanendra heard that the school had been famous two decades ago for hosting cultural programs, sports and games. He and his colleagues revived the cultural programs at the school. Children’s participation in these programs gave evidence to the parents that children were learning something other than academics. For the majority of the parents, schooling was about attending classes, getting marks and progressing to higher classes. However, the cultural programs have motivated them to take a greater interest in the functioning of the school and they have begun visiting the school regularly. This helped reclaim the conviction of the parents and community in the work of the teachers.

School infrastructure

One evening in 2016, Thanendra heard his daughter and her friends talk amongst themselves, My school is so big, my school has cartoons, elephants….’. Thanendra wondered, What must children in my school be telling their friends? My school is broken, it doesn’t have trees, benches, chairs, fans, pictures…”?’ This incident was a turning point for him, and he began to reflect deeper on some of the aspects of the school that needed to be developed.

Teachers collectively thought that a colourfully painted classroom would be a worthy initiative and shared the expenditure of Rs 40,000 amongst themselves! Thanendra purchased all the paints from the market. A parent, a painter by occupation, agreed initially to the usual costs of labour because he thought the painting was being done with government funding. But when he found out that it was the teachers’ initiative, he volunteered to do the painting for a very reduced amount. This was the first time Thanendra saw the conviction of the parents in the working of the school.

Children felt proud to see their classrooms bright and beautiful. A teacher who had got promoted and moved elsewhere contributed money towards laying water pipelines and taps for drinking water and for the washrooms. Thanendra remarked with pride, Now I think that our children would be saying, my school has this, my school has that…” when they talk to their friends.’

A peep into Thandendra’s classroom

Thanendra walked into the class asking, What shall we do today?’ giving the choice to the children. They all went over the rhyme, Lamba, dhaadi wala.’ His love for children was evident from the way he took them through the rhyme; each action forming clearly to match the words. He gave equal opportunity to all the children to participate, no response went unnoticed. He created many learning opportunities – learning of new words, beginning letter/​sound, forming words by joining letters and so on. Thanendra kindled children’s curiosity by asking questions, making them relate to things around them, inviting them to imagine – what if there were no trees, no water, no moon? Children were completely immersed in the conversation.

He differentiated the tasks to suit the two class levels that he was handling within the same classroom (classes I‑II). While the older ones copied words and pictures put up on the blackboard, he went around the class extending support to the younger ones; he also encouraged peer learning. Children seemed familiar with his ways; the ones who finished moved on to help the younger ones to read or ensure that they finished their work. Thanendra knew each one of them in terms of their strengths and weaknesses and found ways of encouraging and supporting them by moving around the class while they were at work. He believed in giving children the space to learn and grow. Thanendra feels that if schools can show some compassion and understand the emotional needs of children, they can achieve many things.

Experimenting with Pedagogy: A rewarding exercise in language learning

Teachers at the school recognized that many of the students could not write answers to questions on their own and instead copied the question itself in the place of answers. So, they initiated a special Hindi language learning program. Students were divided into three groups. Each teacher took a group. One group engaged with poems and stories, the second group with the application of words and sentences, and the third group included children who did not know how to read and write in Hindi. The children progressed well. But the project had to be terminated suddenly as the teachers had to work on some other government orders on examinations. Children could not be assessed in a systematic way. However, one day, a child who belonged to the group which did not know how to read Hindi, all of a sudden, read a written statement in the class. The teachers were surprised and excited to see him read. They gained conviction in their efforts in language development. They decided to revamp the program with a focus on reading and writing. Three major steps were taken to strengthen children’s language learning.

First, the school purchased a television set and teachers began to show the students YouTube stories, alphabet rhymes, animal life stories, songs and so on. There were videos related to their school subjects as well. The videos were selected to match the texts and the children’s knowledge increased tremendously. Children began expressing themselves far better. Their vocabulary increased. Viewing and listening led children to write from their imagination. Writing progressed from a description of a cow has two horns, four legs…’ to I have a cow…I have named the cow …’. Students began asking teachers questions. Teachers began to alter their ways of teaching. Children were given more opportunities to work with teaching-learning materials on their own. This process helped teachers recognize the importance of giving space to children’s ways of thinking and learning.

The second initiative was the introduction of three-lined notebooks for writing. Some parents agreed to buy these notebooks. The teachers purchased these for those who could not. Children’s handwriting, as well as interest in writing, improved tremendously. However, while sitting on the floor, children kept their notebooks on their bags to write. The uneven surface of the bag was not good for handwriting. This challenge led to the third initiative. A friend of the Head of the School Development Monitoring Committee (SDMC) agreed to contribute Rs 50,000 to buy benches and tables. Children of classes I and II got small tables to place their notebooks on, while the older children got benches and tables.

The setting up of a children’s library, Muskaan by Suhail Abdul Hameed, an Associate Fellow of the Azim Premji Foundation, aided in expanding children’s reading habits. Thanendra and Suhail set up the library in one of the buildings. Books with more pictures and less text were placed on the lower shelves for the students of classes I and II. Students began to use the library during their free time and sometimes borrowed books to take home. Class V students managed the library. According to Thanendra, such efforts underscore the criticality of early reading and writing in sustaining children’s interest in school experiences. Thus, the learning program initiated by the teachers appears to have had multiple positive consequences – from improvement in writing, reading and communication, to the expansion of infrastructure.

Retaining children in the school

Dropping out of primary schooling is rare at Achoti. However, children move out of government schools to join private schools. There are a small number of private schools around Achoti. Parental aspiration for English medium schools has led to the exit of children from government schools. Thanendra, with great disappointment, remarked that parents of children in classes I and II at his school forget that children who are in the private schools have gone through two-three years of pre-schooling before coming to class I. They know the alphabet, and numbers, and can recite poems even before they enter class I. When parents see that the children of class I in the private schools know these, they think that teaching has not been happening properly in the government schools. Parents fail to take into consideration that it is the first year of their child in the school, while the other children have already been in school for three years (Nursery and KG I‑II).

Not having English as the medium is one of the important reasons for dwindling enrolment in the school, according to Thanendra. There are only 64 students in the school now. If the number drops any further, then one teacher would be posted out of this school, going by the government stipulations of pupil-teacher ratio. Given this critical juncture that they are in, Thanendra and his colleagues have decided to go door-to-door to convince parents. They intend to make some pamphlets and a photo album that showcases the work in the school, improvements, academic progress of children etc., to assure the parents of the quality of learning in the school.

The school also has children with disabilities. A few years back, they had a child with a mental disability who was refused by other schools. The child spoke nothing, drooled, and often hit other children. After being at the school for a while, he began to express his needs and started participating in sports and other activities. He did not go far with his lessons but stayed at this school up to class V. Another child at the school who had dwarfism was extremely shy and stayed away from other children. Participation in a cultural program made a huge difference to him and he opened up with other children.

A supportive community

The school cultural program of 2010 saw the beginnings of community involvement. In 2017, the school had a wooden stage built with the help of the Head of the SDMC. Many others appreciated the schools’ work and made monetary contributions. Many parents began to visit the school regularly. Thanendra encourages mothers to participate in the SMC meetings and express themselves openly. Mothers share challenges with regard to their child’s study habits, refusal to do homework, unsatisfactory marks, concerns about eating habits and so on. Some mothers in the village have studied up to class VIII or X and can read and write. So, Thanendra has begun to specify the homework for a particular day in the children’s notebook, which has led to some parents paying attention to it. Teachers have to proactively seek the participation of parents in the functioning and improvement of the school. Parents too need to support teachers and head teachers and understand their problems and respond in humane ways. This two-way street is what teachers like Thanendra nurture as pathways to improving quality.

Professional learning and development

Looking back, Thanendra thinks his early days in teaching were routinized with telling’ what was in the textbooks, giving a few examples, ticking’ correct answers in the notebooks and giving repetition’ tasks as homework.

In 2015, he was posted at a different school, where there were no other teachers. While he was working on a magazine for the school, he got a lot of ideas from discussions with the Azim Premji Foundation members. He continued to attend workshops organized by the Foundation and developed alternative ways of thinking about teaching and learning through stories, songs etc. Thanendra was keenly involved in organizing a Bal Mela at his school. He intends to digitalize the photographs of the school programs. He maintains diaries, lesson plans and worksheets and continuously improves them. Teacher Rekha and Thanendra have together developed a number of teaching-learning materials in English.

A vision for the school

Thanendra aspires that his school will become an English medium school so that the children of the village can remain in it without paying extra fees. He wants all his school students to complete higher education. He is also planning for an alumni reunion. Many of the alumni are in good positions as professors, officers, musicians and so on. He wishes to make the school look attractive before the reunion so that the alumni feel proud of the progress of their school. The teachers also plan to develop a kitchen garden and they hope their alumni would support the initiative.

Concluding remarks

Public schools carry the lofty task of ensuring quality in education. Quality in academic offerings is critical for the development of any school. Teachers and head teachers in public schools, need to work together with a deep sense of trust, synergy and cooperation. Only when schools function as a cohesive and cooperative unit will they be able to attend to some of the goals of an inclusive society.

The collegiality that Thanendra exudes is immense. For him, having colleagues whom he can trust is one of the central ingredients of his work as a teacher. He also draws inspiration from the support of community members who have developed conviction in his work. His hope that children will achieve heights in their life adds to his care and compassion for them. Although efforts to attract children to public schools remain a challenge in his village with the rising parental aspirations for English medium schools, Thanendra exudes immense hope in reclaiming the space of public education through his work. His narrative is an exemplar of confidence in colleagues, children and community converging towards a commitment to teaching for an inclusive school and society.

Acknowledgements

The interaction with Thanendra Sahu, mathematics teacher took place at the Government Primary School, Achoti. Abdul Kalam, member of Field Institute, Azim Premji Foundation and Suhail Abdul Hameed, Associate Fellow, Azim Premji Foundation, Rajashree and Aruna, faculty members at the Azim Premji University interacted with the teacher. I thank Mrs Rekha, the language teacher and Head Teacher, Mr Dhruv and the children of the school for their conversations. I thank Mayank Misra, Azim Premji Foundation, for facilitating this visit. We thank Thanendra Sahu for sharing his professional journey with us. Thanks to Garima Gupta, II-year MA Education student, Azim Premji University for transcribing the recorded conversations.

Author

Rajashree Srinivasan, Faculty, Azim Premji University