Wanted: Great Teachers

Little Nirmala

There needs to be a sustainable, quality, affordable training strategy for teachers in India’s low-income schools. It’s one of the holy grails of education, and yet it still couldn’t be more true. 

Affordable private school (APS) teachers are largely untrained and uneducated past intermediate. They rely on rote learning in their classrooms and teach straight from the textbook. Their classes are typically unengaged and monotone. The response to misbehaving students is corporeal punishment by the teacher–hitting with rulers or whatever else is available, sitting on knees, and calling students names. While teacher training service providers do exist, APS often cannot afford the fees. APS owners also fear that their teachers will leave for better jobs if they receive training or improve their English, especially because teacher retention is already a huge problem.Working with APS in Hyderabad these past seven months, my colleagues and I have seen first-hand the poor quality of teachers in our classrooms.

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to visit two schools in Mumbai that reminded me what great education is all about and why India needs a better teacher training solution.

I’d heard about the “atrocious” state of government education in India, but I hadn’t visited a government school myself. In Mumbai, I visited a government school at which my friend is a Teach for India (TFI) Fellow. Teach for India is a fellowship program based on the Teach for America model that is now replicated all over the world and that trains India’s top students to become teachers for two-years in troubled schools.

Teach For India Logo

Teach For India Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At first glance, I was in shock. Here was an enormous, well-maintained building with big halls and big classrooms, much unlike the crumbling, poorly designed, and cramped schools I’ve visited in Hyderabad. When I entered my friend’s classroom, colorful signs decorated the walls, and she seamlessly switched between subjects and assignments while keeping her students engaged and well-behaved. The English skills of her students were impressive, and much higher than the English level of their peers at my school. I watched for two hours, enamored, as my friend dealt with parents, helped students complete assignments, and guided them through writing an essay on problems in their community and how they can solve them. Of note, there was no technology in the classroom. The way she led that class was a testament to her drive, skills, training, and noticeable patience. This was the type of  dynamic teaching I remembered experiencing in my own elementary school years.

I expressed my shock and great impressions of the government school to my friend. She told me that unfortunately, what I saw was only true for TFI classrooms at her school. When she started working with her students two years prior, they were severely below grade level. The infrastructure in the other classrooms isn’t nearly as good as it seems, and the teachers are also untrained and have poor attendance.

Upon her and others recommendation, the next day I visited 3.2.1. Opened only in June 2012, 3.2.1 is a charter school in India. The school is based out of a mostly-vacant government school property in south Mumbai. The school was started by a former Teach for India fellow, and has hired mostly Teach for India fellows or former fellows as the teachers for the nursery-lower kindergarten students. As I spoke with the teachers and then observed their classrooms, I was again amazed and reminded what great teaching meant. The teachers and staff—who value transparency and collaboration and were more than happy to spend their break period chatting with me about their model and methods—also impressed me. In fact, they have a great practice of meeting regularly to review successes and failures in the classrooms and videotaping class sessions to review and improve their teaching style. The teachers focused on classroom behavior and developing critical thinking and creativity skills. They used techniques such as different voices to help students learn and remember words, peers teaching each other, and students helping the teacher. The first-generation students were developing excellent English skills and seemed to enjoy the array of learning activities they were doing. These students’ peers at my school can barely write their ABCs, let alone speak more than a few words in English even when repeating after the teacher, and they are usually bored or sleeping in class.

What do the TFI and 3.2.1 classrooms teach us about teaching in India?

Great education does not require technology. Technology is undoubtedly a huge asset for education and has great potential. In fact, I write about ed-tech a lot on this blog and here. But excellent teachers can and do develop students into great minds and leaders without tablets and virtual classrooms. Technology does not and should not replace the need for great teachers. Much of what I saw the teachers do was classroom management—engaging the students, asking them questions, gently reminding them to behave. Technology, or at least none that exist now for the Indian low-income school context, cannot help students behave and concentrate in the classroom. These teachers were also successful because they each conducted regular home visits to update parents, spent extra time with struggling students, and created a welcoming classroom environment with both energy and patience. Technology cannot replace those things, which require human connection and attention.

How do we bring the teaching methods I saw in those classrooms to all teachers? It’s fantastic that TFI fellows can make a difference in their classrooms for those two years. I have nothing but the utmost respect for TFI teachers, and teachers in general, for they have one of the most difficult jobs out there. But is it worth putting all that effort and training for the educated and talented TFI fellows when there are thousands of other teachers that could really use that training? I’m not the first or last to ask this question. TFI fellows do work with other teachers at their schools, but I struggle to find the real sustainability in that model.

The lack of a sustainable, quality, affordable training strategy for India’s non-TFI teachers continues to concern me. I know that The Teacher Foundation is one great organization working on this issue, but there needs to be more. While countries like the US also struggle with quality teacher training, there are several great organizations that use both in-person trainings and technology to achieve this goal, and their models could be replicated in India. APS school owners will also require a mindset change to allow for teacher training, otherwise organizations can create a model where teachers agree to stay with a school after training.

Ultimately, my visit to the schools in Mumbai reminded me of a basic concept that I’d forgotten after spending too many hours in the rote-learning classrooms of APS. Great education is more than just about generating learning outcomes. It’s the whole learning environment. And that learning environment cannot be accomplished without great teachers.

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