Schools and sand dunes
Film-makers and scientists thrive on intellectual and social connectedness.
Teachers need this in equal measure
It was the first time I walked on sand dunes. The winter evening sun
converted the sand to gold. He was wearing a craggy closed-neck coat which
had thick black and white vertical stripes in the weave. We had walked half
a kilometre (km) into the dunes. He pointed in one direction, "two
kilometres that way there is a school", then another direction for another
school 3km away. "The four of us are responsible for 600 schools," he said.
Some schools are in places where they can take their bikes, for others they
leave the bike on the road and walk, such as the two he pointed out across
There is no winter evening sun through the year. There is the heat and the
sand storms. Through this they reach the schools, it is their job. This is
the education block resource team of Chautan in Barmer district of
Rajasthan. They are there to support the schools of the block. His face
shows the effect of trying to connect 600 schools through the sand and heat.
It also shows how alone each of these schools is, and how isolated the
teachers may feel.
A teacher from one school said, "There is God, and then there is me, that's
it." He was not being dramatic; his reality is that he has to fend for
himself completely. Clean and maintain the school, handle 30-40 students in
every way, deal with the community, manage the mid-day meals, fill up
reports, manage vaccination camps, respond to the officers and the list is
much longer. Two other teachers were not fatalistic. They said: "We can live
here crying, or we can live here laughing." They are all on their own.
Many of them live in the schools, since there is no place to rent in the
village and it is not possible to walk a few kilometres every day in that
terrain from elsewhere. In Jaipur, they call this region kalapaani for
Barmer is a pretty hard place to be in. Every aspect of the district
emphasizes the isolation of teachers, although their reality is not
Fifty kilometres outside Bangalore, just off National Highway 4, I walked
into a school. No one had visited them in a year. The teacher had been to
the block office for supplies; he had virtually no real connection with the
There are demands on the teachers and the block education authorities to
file administrative reports very often. However, interactions between
different parts of the system are rare let alone a genuine connection on
their real work-education. This is the story across India.
The task of organizing good education for even a single child is perhaps one
of the most challenging things that a person can face. The reality of being
a teacher and doing this for 30-40 students makes this exponentially harder.
This role becomes even more complex in India, given our diversity and
The design of our schooling system with schools within a kilometre of each
habitation has solved the problem of access, but has added further
complexity. It forces teachers to handle children across age groups
together. It has also contributed to the isolation of teachers and other
education functionaries. The Barmer example makes this stark: teachers in
remote sand dunes, on their own.
But, let this not suggest that the issue of isolation exists only in the
so-called hard places. This is the reality everywhere for our teachers even
in the heart of our cities too.
This is because physical disconnectedness is only a part of the problem. The
core issue is that our large, bureaucratized, education system does not
recognize the importance of intellectual and social connectedness of a
teacher for her ability to perform her role. This arises partly from the
mechanizing, deindividualizing tendencies that are common to most large
organizational systems. Unlike industries, which thrive on scale, schools
need to be smaller networks, connected to communities with substantial
autonomy for teachers and school leaders.
Even more the problem arises from the doubtful assumptions about a teacher's
role, which ignore its complex and creative nature. Complex, creative
professions such as film-making or being a scientist thrive on intellectual
and social connectedness; we think of this as natural. Such connectedness is
equally crucial for teachers. It is just that we don't think of the teachers'
role as being similarly demanding and challenging, when in reality this is
very much so.
I have seen repeatedly that it doesn't take much to enable this
connectedness. It is often about someone playing a facilitating role to
bring together a group of teachers. It does require persistence and
thoughtfulness. The block (and cluster) level resources are ideally placed
to do this, but they are thinly spread, and themselves in need of some help
to build their capacity to play this kind of a role.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability
initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology
and education. Comments are welcome at othersphere@.... To read
Anurag Behar's previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere-