In our hurry to become a superpower, we forgot the elementary. We started first with creating engineers, followed by doctors. Then we created ‘tech coolies' and ‘nurses.' Teachers, along with other nation-building professionals, fell by the wayside.

Does September 5 ring a bell? If it does, you are probably a rare exception. It was Teacher's Day and the highlight for many was an e-mail doing the rounds asking people to drink a particular brand of whisky in remembrance of the teachers we've had in our lives. No prizes for guessing the name of the brand.

This really is to diminish the role that teachers play in shaping the future adult. In my long years in the field of education, I have come across many examples of teachers literally making or breaking the future of their students. Recently, while serving on the panel of the KC Mahindra Education Trust that gives annually 600 scholarships to meritorious children across India to continue their college education for three years, I came across N. Pavithra. Hers is a remarkable story.

From Kunnathur village in Tamil Nadu's Tirupur district, Pavithra is the older of two children, born to illiterate parents — mother Rani and Nagarajan, a daily wage coolie. When Nagarajan lost 50 per cent vision in his eye in a freak accident at work, the employers were quick to reduce his wages by half as well. He now earns Rs. 700 a week, which translates to $2 a day. The tragedy of Pavithra and family is that they do not figure in the below-poverty-line lists nor has any rights-based system given them any chance of a sustained livelihood. Under these circumstances, she turned to the only other authority figure other than her parents -- her government school teachers. She told them that the daily 30-minute classes were not enough for her to understand her lessons. At home, she was submerged with domestic chores and the care of her younger brother and handicapped father.

Her teachers saw in her a burning passion to learn, a hunger to excel and a deep motivation to use education to get out of the poverty trap. They asked her to stay back in school after regular hours and addressed her doubts. All this resulted in Pavithra topping her school with an aggregate of 95 per cent.

In my travels, I have come across hundreds of Pavithras — young boys and girls from impoverished, illiterate families. The common thread in them is a burning desire to liberate themselves through education. They all believed education was a great leveller, their only hope from poverty. And, like Pavithra, almost all of them scored more than 90 per cent marks in their school final exams, thanks to the intervention of government school teachers who believed in them and helped them learn during and after school hours.

The real challenge is to find excellent teachers who can be their remedial tutors, mentors and rainmakers. Many of us have fond memories of a particular teacher who left a mark on our lives, who changed our lives in some meaningful way. Where have all these teachers gone today?

Real teachers simply do not exist. We as a nation erased the framework and the climate to create good teachers. In our hurry to become a superpower, we forgot the elementary. We started first with creating engineers, followed by doctors. Then we created ‘tech coolies' and ‘nurses'. Then we created an army of generalists who claim to be educated, have paper degrees and could easily take up any of the service sector jobs — ranging from being an ‘officer' in a corporate to the ‘fast moving' retail sector to the financial services sector.

Teachers, along with other nation-building professionals, fell by the wayside. The remuneration became unattractive for bright minds to consider school teaching a good career option.

So far, the state has succeeded only in levying an education cess on our incomes which is more like conscription. In fact, it might have been a better idea to force all bright people to do two years of coaching and tutoring than taking a cess from the honest taxpayer. Why can't we have a high-profile Indian Education and Learning Service? This elite civil service could include direct as well as lateral entries and will work out ways to reform the elementary, tertiary and higher education systems.

The reforms package could include the IITs becoming training centres for teachers of mathematics, physics and other sciences. They could also offer post-graduate programmes in mathematics, physics and chemistry teaching. In fact, there could be specialised institutions focussed on teaching and offering a five-year professional course akin to the Indian Law Schools.

These could attract the best minds and graduate professionals called Learning Experts. All these will pave the way for our IIMs to offer electives in the larger area of school management and theories of learning and intelligence.

We need the best teachers to ensure all children excel. For this, even the pedagogy should shift from ‘teaching' to ‘learning.' Children should be able to learn themselves and teachers should be ‘coaches' and ‘learning facilitators.' There is a market for the good teacher; we now need to look at the supply side. This way, we can create an army of Pavithras, the real demographic dividend that will propel us to become a knowledge superpower.

(The writer is the CEO of Naandi Foundation, Hyderabad, which works in over 1,800 government schools to ensure that children learn. The views expressed here are personal. His email id is: manoj@naandi.org)