'Busy-ness' over Business in our Schools?

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In February this year, The Teacher Foundation organised a series of short seminars for School Principals in 4 TTF centres - Bangalore, Mangalore, Hubli and Hyderabad. Nearly 200 heads from leading city schools attended these seminars. We posed a provocative proposition to principals in each city – that there is far greater focus on 'busy-ness' in schools today, than the actual 'business'(i.e teaching, learning & assessment)!

I wasn't certain how many school principals would actually respond to the challenge – because after all they could be offended or see it as a threat to the status quo they struggle to maintain daily in their schools ! But for long I've felt that the routine of being swept away in a whirl of activities, contests and competitions every academic term, year after year, is a problem that schools need to examine carefully. So far there is little evidence that urban Indian private especially upper-end schools are even considering this an issue.

So at the Principals' Seminars we encouraged heads of schools and members of school managements to examine the “Busy-ness over Business” syndrome from various perspectives. It was gratifying to see that after an initial hesitation, all the school heads participated enthusiastically. However only about 25% of them were actually willing to honestly critique their current practice – the majority of school-heads were more inclined to defend their daily busy-ness as vital and appropriate for managing today's schools.

Let's review what the principals said – and what exactly it means.

Broadly speaking they offered reasons for the 'busy-ness' of schools; acknowledged the negative aspects; some raised pertinent questions; and others suggested practical solutions.

The reasons ranged from blaming media, technology and globalisation to explaining the need to focus on the holistic development of their students – to foster their creative, social and emotional skills. They also admitted that owing to increasing competition amongst schools, especially the newly established ones vying for student enrolments, there is a desperate need to be more 'visible' in the public eye. Competitions and events help schools reassure parents that their children are being provided a progressive education. Principals also emphasised that having a variety of activities – inter-house and inter-schools was indeed necessary to raise school standards and fulfill the aim and philosophy of their school. This seemed to be more rhetoric than any real clarity on what their schools stood for or what they saw as their real role as heads of educational institutions.

However, there was a refreshing openness and honesty when we examined the negatives of this 'busy-ness' One principal ruefully stated that “school functions are given more importance than teaching learning – since they make us more visible ! Teaching-learning is the silent aspect – the public never gets to see it!” Others also revealed that in the tide that overtakes school-terms, values get lost and the child as a human being is forgotten. Moreover teachers' work is left half done - lesson planning gets affected, there is always a rush to finish portions and learning outcomes don't get fulfilled, leading to an overall sense of dissatisfaction. One comment that we heard was that “there is no time to reflect on the class taught and prepare for the next class”.

The questions we captured from the principals tended to oscillate between 2 extremes - from What's the harm in “busy-ness”? and How can students' holistic growth happen without 'busy-ness' ? to “Won't the busy-ness of schools eventually lead to their shutdown - if they don't actually do their business?”

There were a few existentialist questions - “Do school competitions really promote learning?” “Is busy-ness inclusive ?” Is teachers' confidence dropping?”

Some questions were actually cries for help - “How do we handle parental expectations -both reasonable and unreasonable?”Are teachers being guided properly with the upcoming busyness - what strategies are there ? What and where is the concentration – when there is so much wavering? How do we create a rich learning environment without rushing through portions?

Lastly were questions that suggested a lack of clarity amongst principals of what 'busy-ness' is and what a school's business needs to be! For example they raised questions like - Will business help our students be on par with the rest of the schools ? How can we cater to the holistic development of the child if we focus only on business ?If we focus on business aren't we ignoring the talented children?

Such questions are problematic – because to me they convey a very narrow definition of what a school's business is - or at least how majority of senior school educators see it! The exciting trinity of Teaching, Learning and Assessment seem to be reduced to a mechanical covering of portions and evaluating students. In fact a crystal-clear emphasis on teaching-learning processes that are relevant, authentic and engaging would make many of the so-called extra or co-curricular activities that schools fill their term-time with, redundant! This would free-up time for teachers to strive to teach for understanding – providing both depth and breadth of coherent learning experiences for all students.

Finally in our seminar discussions, the attending heads of schools offered some very useful solutions to the “busy-ness” vs business dilemma! But it will require them to have great courage, conviction and vision to create a counter-trend and actually carry out some of the suggested ideas. The solutions included making classrooms more student-centred rather than teacher-centred; training teachers – because their competence and confidence will show the best way forward; integrating all school activities to the curriculum; re-organising the assessment system and hold teachers accountable for their students' learning; having a measurement system other than report cards to demonstrate students' learning to their parents; instituting an independent rating system of schools – on clear quality parameters – based on which parents can decide which school to choose for their child/ren; collaborating with other schools in the neighbourhood to have combined gala events – like sports' day; staggering school events across 2-3 years – rather than cramming them all into one school year.

All these are eminently do-able and I look forward to TTF being the catalyst to steer principals and schools towards a less flurried and more focussed functioning.

A LIFE AFTER SCHOOL – what I used to do after 2pm as a school-teacher

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Class Photo ! A Youthful Me in Maroon

Triiingg ! Ah the long bell! Walking out of my classroom after an enthusiastic but as yet incomplete discussion on the Origin of Life with 45 fourteen year olds, I thought, “Let me put away IX F's books in my locker, can't lug it around Chandni Chowk. Wonder if Sujata is still in the Science Block, hope she's not forgotten...”.

Stepping out of the staff room I bumped into Sujata, my Art Teacher colleague in the corridor and together we strode out into a cool crisp sunny December afternoon in Delhi towards the school bus parking lot. We boarded the school bus going to North Delhi. This was the early and mid-80s – an innocent, more easy-paced era, before the internet and personal computers and mobile phones or even faxes !

We were a pair of young foot loose and fancy free teachers, wholeheartedly immersed in our teaching responsibilities at school – that included editing the school magazine, directing school plays, taking students out on Nature trails in the scorching summer in the Delhi Ridge behind the school. But after 2pm we managed to pack in an equally interesting life.

So this December day we were headed out to Old Delhi – to Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid and lunch at the famed Karim's. We wanted to scour the alleys of the Old City to look for amazing bargains amongst the so-called antiques that are commonly sold on the streets. Karim's wasn't any thing posh – it was tucked in an overcrowded alley on the first floor of a dilapidated looking building. I was then far less finicky about hygiene and ambience and the food was its redeeming feature - authentic Mughlai khana.

We walked tirelessly, bargained unabashedly and returned home, before it got too dark and cold, proudly carrying treasures to give away as gifts or display at home. I still have an engraved copper tumbler and bowl and a brass owl from that day over twenty years ago, prominently placed in my living room today. Our respective parents, were very tolerant of our new-found independence and light-hearted indulgences.

Our afternoons after work were our time to chill out, let our hair down, visit art galleries, go to the latest matinee shows or have extended lunch and coffee sessions at Nirula's, when we discussed school, hobbies and the world at large. Often we'd drop in at the Janpath office of Neelu, a close school mate of mine to chat up with her and brighten what we considered, her grey government office life, with our anecdotes from the classroom. We would often joke with her that the only bright element in her office was the red fire extinguisher!

Looking back on those years – evokes warm pleasant memories. Our traipsing about the city wasn't all frivolous – we chased dreams and made plans – big meticulous plans of saving up and travelling the world. We wanted to see the world before we turned 30! In 1983-84 I went back to being a student in evening school and enrolled for a Diploma in Journalism. I embraced this new phase of studenthood with a clarity of purpose that had been missing during my undergraduate years. It was almost as if that as a teacher I had discovered the joy of learning. In the late summer of 1985 Neelu and I decided to go on a memorable uplifting Himalayan Trek to the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib. This spurred us to be bolder next year and plan a 3-month travelling stint all over Europe and the US inspired by Arthur Frommer's Guide to Europe on 10$ a day. And we did ourselves proud – we travelled in less than 10 $ a day. We stayed in Youth Hostel dorms and used a Eurail Pass to travel across 6 countries in Europe. Single Indian women travelling by night train were a rarity those days and generated friendly curiosity and interesting discussions. Our parents were resigned to letting us go on our 'risky' world travels – but they cheered us on too with pride (their trepidation notwithstanding!)

I always returned from these sojourns enriched by memories, photographs and tales to tell my students. I even earned the sobriquet of having wheels on my heels!

My parallel life after a busy teaching day at school contributed to my own growth and education as a person. I sometimes wonder how my life after school would have been if I had been married, before I became a teacher, like so many of my colleagues. Would my domestic pressures have stifled all the joy, wonder and quest that kept me fired and interested as a school teacher ? Perhaps that's what happens to so many of us!

(I wrote this article for Teacher Plus and it was published in the Teachers' Day issue in September 2009)

BOOK REVIEW : What is Worth Teaching by Krishna Kumar

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What is Worth Teaching ?
by Krishna Kumar
A Book Review
( I wrote this review for Education World in 2000 - I reproduce it on my blog to celebrate the announcement of the award of a Padma Shri for Dr. Krishna Kumar on 26th January 2011)
Why do we teach the way we teach? What is the purpose of what we teach? Could we teach in other ways? As teachers, teacher educators or any one connected with education we rarely get to reflect or understand our work in schools and classrooms within the context of the bigger historical, socio-political setting of the country. It never seems to be part of the training and induction process for the Indian teacher.
But it is a vital aspect and Dr. Krishna Kumar, Professor at the Department of Education (Central Institute of Education) Delhi University provides the Indian educator this valuable insight. His extensive writings and views on Indian education are unique in that they are thoughtful, coherent, incisive comments sans the rhetoric that mars much of Indian writing on education. For those who have never been acquainted with Krishna Kumar’s writings, his book What is Worth Teaching? would be an excellent start. This isn’t a brand new publication nor is it easily found on the shelves of even well-stocked, local book stores, but it is a must-read for any one who is even remotely concerned with education in our country. First published by Orient Longman in 1992, this revised, expanded 1997 edition, is a slim compilation of seven lecture- essays laid out as seven chapters : What is Worth Teaching? Textbooks and Educational Culture, Implications of a Divisive School System, Secularism: its Politics and Pedagogy, Reading in Primary School, Growing up Male, Listening to Gandhi.
In the title essay, What is Worth Teaching? Kumar discusses the ‘problem’ of the curriculum, its dissociation from the child’s immediate social, cultural and physical milieu. He rues the approach we have to curriculum in this country – “the problem of volume of content at any grade level does not originate in the so-called ‘explosion of knowledge’……it originates in the archaic notion of curriculum as a bag of facts and in the equally archaic view of teaching as a successful delivery of known facts. Unless we shed these notions and accept more modern, humanist concepts of curriculum and teaching, we are going to remain stuck as teachers with impossibly large syllabi and fat text-books to cover.”
“A textbook is prescribed for each subject, and the teacher has to teach it, lesson, by lesson, until there are no more lessons left.” The second essay - Textbooks and Educational Culture, explains the historical and socio-political reasons for the over-arching importance given to textbooks in our education system right to the present day. He cites pertinent reasons including the use of English as a compulsory subject in the secondary school, and as a medium of instruction and examination, for the rise and perpetuation of the textbook-culture. Kumar calls for improved teacher training and greater professional self-reliance and autonomy for the teacher in order to ‘thin’ the textbook culture.
In the essay, Implications of a Divisive School System Krishna Kumar argues, that contrary to popular opinion, our education system is backward and narrow. " I call it 'backward' for a widely accepted reason, namely its low capacity to produce or encourage excellence". While his description of the narrow and divisive nature of the Indian Education System is certain to strike a responsive chord amongst many educators, it is also likely to be sidelined - it is currently more fashionable to be writing about quick-fix IT- enabled solutions to the eternal education conundrum. It cannot be disputed however that our divisive school education is indeed responsible in great measure for the increasing inequity and contradictions that typify Indian society.
The problem begins very early on - in the primary school. As Kumar describes in Reading in Primary School, "…the school is not the place where he can 'make sense' of the world. Skills that any child would use to solve new problems have no place in the grade one class. Indeed 'making sense' and 'solving problems' are not on the agenda at all." What seems to be on the agenda is influencing and even subverting the teaching of history and civics in the country by exercising state control on text-book writing. Kumar elucidates this in Secularism: its Politics and Pedagogy.
If these essays don't have happy stories to tell, it is because much ails our education system. And in such a situation it is vital for schools and teachers to play a more assertive and positive role in the lives of their children. In the sixth essay Growing up Male, Kumar suggests such a role for schools, "we need to perceive the school in conflict with the community's code of socialisation .…while the larger social ethos offers stereotyped models of men's and women's roles, the school must insist that adults working in it will not act in stereotyped or stereotyping ways". Another critical intervention on the part of the school would be to ensure that learning for the young child is related to his/her immediate life. To make this happen, Krishna Kumar recommends Mahatma Gandhi's Basic Education model, reworked for present day relevance. He puts forth an integrated curricular design that incorporates Health and Hygiene, Nature and Social Study, Heritage Craft, Toy Craft, Expressive Arts, Reading, Writing and Maths. Despite the obvious merits of such a curriculum grounded in the Indian reality, how many policy makers will consider it worth teaching? And how many teachers will make it worth learning?
Written in an easy narrative style, What is Worth Teaching? takes the reader on a journey through the author's personal inquiry into education and his eloquent articulations on critical issues. While each of these essays may be read separately, they are inter-related too. The common thread running through them is the deep concern about the fractured, contradictory and divisive nature of curriculum and school knowledge in our country and its insidious disempowerment of the teacher.

Maya Menon


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I can still picture her at just 20, fresh from college and teachers’ training with no clear idea of what she wanted to achieve in life. With a lot of anticipation and some trepidation she joined the then 3000–pupil Army Public School in New Delhi to teach standards 6-9. In the first 3 years she dressed only in sarees with elevated footwear to look older and taller than her high-school students. However after her early realisation that life on the other side of the class was going to be very different and not as carefree, she plunged into teaching and school life with enthusiasm and energy. Eight and a half years went by as a science teacher-cum-School Magazine Editor-cum-general dogs-body! in the same school. As surely as her students grew, she did too – teaching , travelling the country and parts of the world and learning.
I guess I gave most of my youthful twenties to teaching. But it was time to move on – marriage and an all-new work opportunity came by. The subsequent hectic seven and a half years outside school and inside a large newspaper organisation, still involved working with schools, teachers and students. But, it also gave me a taste of frenetic corporate as well as journalistic life, accompanied by some indirect brushes with marketing hype and glamour thrown in as a bonus. That should certainly have ensured an effective break with my teaching past – those mounds of corrections, nature trails under the hot Delhi sun, chalk-dust-laden classrooms, board-exam bound classes, books to mark, syllabuses to complete!
But there was all the while an urge to get back into mainstream education. So armed with a master’s degree in Educational Management from Leicester University I embarked on a new career in teacher development. But why on earth did I want to get back into this profession? It’s not glamorous, it’s certainly not very well-paying, it isn’t even a sought-after career.
Is it the memory of a young 11 year-old who on his way to school got into a scrap with one of his mates on the bus and consequently presented me with a battered stalk-less rose at School Assembly, twenty years ago? Is it the recollection of a 14 year-old who in the height of Delhi summer wore her winter woollen skirt, for an important exam, just because she considered it lucky? Or is it the 15 year-old who went on to do medicine and who wrote wonderful poetry being spurred by a book of verse by John Updike, that I had taken to Biology class one day ? Is it that quiet intense 13 year-old who 10 years later turned up at my doorstep as a Naval Pilot with a gift for my then infant daughter? Is it the bright young lawyer who dropped by a few years ago with her fiance, still living up to many of the ideals she had as a student in Std. 9 and 10 ?
It is all these and so many more enriching experiences that left me with a sense of ‘pleasure’, a sense of ‘rightness’. And I realise that I am not exclusive in experiencing this. Many teachers day after day, year after year, the world over, remain in this underpaid profession for precisely the ‘good feelings’ they experience at school, particularly in the classroom ( the feelings that make them look forward to going to school every morning).
Undeniably amidst all the perceived drabness and drudgery of teaching, there is a sunny side, a warm glowing ‘smiley’ side. And I have chosen to stay on that side of my work…..
(I wrote the first version of this piece way back in 1996 ! Other writings that will appear on my blog may be similarly dated - but I would like my blog to be also a repository of articles I have written - sometimes in the distant past)

Welcome to my Blog :-) !

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Hello and thanks for visiting my blog - this is my very first posting !

While this is a personal blog - a collection of thoughts, insights, experiences and ramblings of a 'reluctant teacher' - I hope it will make interesting reading for any one out there who believes in putting their heart and soul into doing something they love - whose work defines their life and whose life defines their work.

Teaching has been my life for over 35 years and the pace doesn't seem to have diminished:-)!