A Peep into the State of Affairs in the School
When Ms. Bisht joined the Gadgaon primary government school as the head teacher, the school was in a bad condition because it lacked basic amenities and in the last couple of years, there had been a drop in children’s enrolment. Her past experience of already having served as a primary teacher made her sense the apathy of community members towards the Gadgaon public school. The parents objected that teachers do not spend sufficient time teaching in classrooms instead they give more importance to the regular maintenance of the school register and other official records to keep the block education officer well informed about the overall functioning of the school. There is again little importance given to learning English in the public school, a language without which children are likely to be at a disadvantage in today’s job market. Children are also denied access to pedagogic materials and story books because they are most of the time locked up in cupboards for fear of being damaged or lost. The school also lacked basic infrastructure facilities such as separate toilets for boys and girls, absence of benches and provision for drinking water.
On the whole, given the state of affairs in the school, many parents were forced to consider other alternatives even if that meant they had to start paying yearly school fees and make their children commute greater distance to access a better quality school. The parents realised if children are given quality education today, they can change their fate around into a better tomorrow. But then, there were children from the same community whose parents did not have the means to support private education, so they had no other choice than send their children to the Gadgaon primary school. Ms. Bisht recognised the gravity of the situation and sensed that she was all alone in her endeavour to transform the school because parents whose children were already studying in the school would possibly not want to forego their daily wage and instead contribute towards improving the school infrastructure.
Paving the Way for others to Follow
Ms. Bisht’s steadfast conviction to transform the school environment made her stay back after classes so that she could keep the premise and classrooms tidy for the following day. Her past experience of already having worked with the community reminded her that it was the school leader’s duty to pave the way for others to follow. She also learned about the School Management Committee (SMC) of the Gadgon primary school which was dysfunctional for many years because the previous HM never really encouraged them to be an active part of the school processes. Why was there at all any need to have a SMC in the first place ? The committee was formed to primarily pool whatever little monetary contributions parents could afford to meet a certain percentage of the salary of the para teacher or the Balshikshak who was selected from the same community to teach in the primary school. Meanwhile, the remaining percentage of the salary was borne by an organization named CHIRAG who initiated the Balshikshak programme across all the government primary schools in the region to improve upon the learning levels of children. As always, this time when the SMC members visited the school to hand over the monthly salary of the Balshikshak to the head teacher, they were amazed to see the cleanliness in the school campus. They were all inspired by her commitment towards transforming the school’s infrastructure and learning environment and in return they assured that they would provide her with full community support in all possible ways in materialising this endeavour.
Community Contributing to the School Infrastructure
Given the water scarcity in the mountainous region and persistent threat of wild animals, the community members at first built a storage tank and put a metal grill all along the school boundary. Separate toilets for girls and boys were constructed and a few tables, chairs and rug mattresses were purchased for the classrooms. The pathway leading to the school was paved because every rainy season the deposit of slime made it difficult for children to access the school safely. The classrooms were repaired and painted once again and wooden racks were made available for children to neatly arrange their bags and chappals. The procurement of funds was a major challenge, however, with the relentless support of the head teacher and SMC members, the Gadgaon school was given an infrastructure and maintenance grant from the BEO. Ms. Bisht herself generously donated for the cause with many other community members also contributing some amount, however, the important thing to note here is that as the locals were involved in the school development process, labour was practically free, the investment was essentially made in procuring the necessary materials. During this entire process, Ms. Bisht was transparent in regard to utilisation of funds and constantly talked to locals for incorporating their suggestions into the school transformation plan because after all this is a community school. In due course, this selfless service of hers towards the betterment of children’s education earned her the community’s trust and confidence.
Improving the School Learning Environment
A major development which the head teacher introduced in the school was starting of the pre-primary classes. Children who were admitted to Gadgaon primary school after having attended the Anganwadi centre in the village were not sufficiently school ready. This implied that children were not yet ready to be introduced to formal learning because they still needed to be taken to the washroom, made to sit quietly etc. In a class where children of grade I and II are made to sit together, the presence of such children would not only affect the schooling of fellow peers but likewise cause much harm to their own learning because they would start to fall behind in the syllabus. Ms. Bisht took notice that in most private schools, creches and primary sections are located in the one single campus so that children smoothly transition from one class to another and this arrangement also keeps the teachers well informed about the syllabus which has already been covered in the previous classes. However, this is not the case for most government schools because firstly not all Anganwadis and primary schools are situated in close proximity and secondly, depending upon the pupil teacher ratio, the number of teachers would accordingly be allocated to a particular school, which might range anywhere from a single teacher managing the entire school to having a dedicated teacher for every grade because of the large number of children’s enrolment. In the case of Gadgaon primary school, the best that Ms. Bisht could do was to start pre-primary classes in the same campus. She did not have any extra classroom to accommodate the children so the classes were initially being taken in the veranda by a Balshikshak until a classroom was made available. It was not possible for the same Balshikshak who was already engaged with classes I and II to look after pre-primary children, so another para teacher needed to be hired from the same community especially to take good care of little children and make them school ready. In this school, the role of the Bhojanmata is not limited to only cooking the Mid-Day Meal but also assisting the Balshikshak with pre-primary classes in all possible ways.
The classrooms no longer have a bleak appearance like before because there are lots of age appropriate TLMs and colourful charts made by teachers and children which are displayed on the walls. Ms. Bisht believes that books and other self-directed learning materials should be made available to children to foster their sense of curiosity and eagerness to explore the world; keeping them locked up in cupboards destroys the need to even procure them in the first place. Academic knowledge alongside co-curricular activities are both necessary for children’s development, however, inculcating self-discipline and good habits are equally important during the early years. Children are asked to arrange their bags and shoes neatly everyday when they come to school. On a rotational basis, children of primary age-group as well as teachers carry out the responsibility of cleaning the school campus, classrooms and toilets.
The head teacher initiated a student collective named Jan Sahyog under which an account was opened in the name of each child. Every month, children are expected to deposit 5 rupees in their account and when there arises a need to buy stationary or essential items such as a bottle or even a pair of socks for winter, children can withdraw the necessary amount to procure the same. There is also a letter box in the school campus which children can use to post suggestions or complaints that they would like to anonymously convey to the teachers. During an environmental science project, children were individually made to sow seeds, after which it was the duty of every child to regularly water their plant. This project was one among several others wherein children were taught through action to enlarge themselves from being self-centred to think about the wellbeing of the larger community. Morning assembly is a time when there is a synergy among all the children and teachers, it is an opportune moment for everyone present to share songs, prayers, thoughts and stories that have a moral value thereby spreading positive vibration into the school environment. It is these little practices alongside the sheer commitment of teachers that makes the Gadgaon school a truly special learning space for children of the community.
Transforming the Community Learning Space into a Model Primary School
The Gadgaon primary school is a living testament of the exemplary leadership of a head teacher in leveraging community support to transform the school infrastructure and learning environment. Although the Balshikshak program is run across all the government primary schools in the region, this is the only school to have more than one para teacher because of its profuse community support. Ms. Bisht regards both the Balshikshaks as teachers and not mere helpers, she gives them periodic training and guides them in planning the curriculum. She believes that without the presence of Balshikshaks, it would not have been possible to bring in a substantive change in children’s learning outcomes and establish a sound rapport with the community. The remedial classes are primarily managed by Balshikshaks because they stay back after school and assist the weaker children in strengthening their understanding of the subject matter. During the summer and winter breaks, the Balshikshaks open the school for about two weeks to prepare teaching and learning materials as well as other necessary arrangements that might be required to run the library program for the upcoming term. Although the school officially remains closed, children are always welcome to drop by in case they need any help in revisiting certain topics which they would like to run through before the school reopens.
Ms. Bisht commutes everyday more than 40 km on the treacherous mountain road to reach the school. She has taken the responsibility of opening the school regularly so it is her duty to be there on time and when there arises a need for her to visit children’s homes, she accompanies the little ones after school hours.
Ms. Bisht’s exemplary leadership has inspired other teachers to work sincerely towards improving children’s learning outcomes. This shared effort has fruitioned in the increase in children’s enrolment over the years. The school has also won numerous awards for best SMC, infrastructure and various other co-curricular activities. Ms. Bisht believes in going to the depth of the problem and finding the right solutions to address the issues. She does so by involving all necessary stakeholders to brainstorm together and come up with workable solutions. It is this collaborative effort between teachers and locals that has transformed this community driven learning space into a model primary school.
An Insider’s View on the Gadgaon School Leadership
During my interaction with one of the guardians, who also happens to be a teacher in the neighbouring private school, I learnt that he has admitted his younger son right from pre-primary classes in the Gadgaon school whereas his elder daughter has been studying in the private school since nursery. I was quite appalled by this statement because in rural communities it is common for girls to be admitted in government schools because they would after all get married someday and move to another house. So why at all invest behind her education? The response I received affirmed my view that the community members had indeed reasserted their hope in the Gadgaon public school because of the exceptional leadership skills demonstrated by Ms. Bisht.
The parent told me why should always a male child be given preference over a female child when it comes to sending children to school. Moreover, what is wrong in sending my son to a government school like Gadgaon which has all the necessary resources and is led by Ms. Bisht herself. Government schools are opened in particular localities for the welfare of children and larger good of the community. However, if the school happens to lack the necessary resources and does not have the required teaching staff, the locals will need to hold the education functionaries accountable for not having been provided the basic amenities. This concerted effort will definitely put pressure on them to do the needful which eventually will result in creating a better teaching and learning school atmosphere for local children. The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan also advocates community participation in the school development plan because the involvement of locals will further foster a sense of ownership, thereby, strengthening the rapport between the school and community.
Utsarga Mondal has completed his M.A. in Education from Azim Premji University. He is working in the field of education.