Only a dozen children were present in a class of 40, at the junior primary school at Arauni Samshudinpur. With the reaping season at its peak, children in this nondescript village a little over 35km from Lucknow are busy helping their parents in the paddy fields and saving their family’s labour costs.
But attendance has generally been poor at this Unnao school, with its ramshackle building, encircled by fields and kutcha paths. The toilet has been dysfunctional for months.
The teachers’ efforts to fix it have been unfruitful. “We wrote many times to the officials but nobody came to check even once,” laments Vineet Sahai, one of the two teachers present in the school. The third was absent.
As he talks about the difficulties of being a teacher in rural UP, Mr. Sahai confesses that he would prefer a posting closer home – he travels more than 70 km each day back and forth from Lucknow to work.
Meanwhile, students wrap up their recitation lessons but before they leave, I decide to test their comprehension on the simple task of reciting the Hindi alphabet. However, most appeared under-confident. Only one could fluently recite the alphabet. Others, who fumbled and mumbled, were students of Class VI. Was this students’ ineptitude or teachers’ incompetence?
“Learning is slow in rural areas as students are not trained in formal schooling prior to Class I. Students who miss classes frequently fall behind and find it hard to recover. Parents here show little interest,” explains Mr. Sahai, who is a qualified Maths teacher, but is also required to teach English and chip in with Hindi grammar lessons. The school has nobody qualified to teach science.
By the standards of India’s Right to Education law, the school has a decent teacher-pupil ratio – three teachers for 40 students. However, at least one of the three is distracted by numerous non-teaching duties throughout the year.
The list also gets longer each year: conducting housing and economic surveys, census duty, voter identity card duty, election duty, opening bank accounts, Aadhar card registration, and managing mid-day meals.
Day-to-day clerical tasks add to the workload. Anganwadi worker Renu Shukla says three-fourth of UP’s primary government schools do not have clerical staff. “My teachers’ extra duties are the biggest obstacle to teaching,” says Headmaster Ramgopal Singh, who blames deficient learning on the poor comprehension of the students and disinterest of their guardians.
“My teachers are well qualified, experienced and talented. What can we do if the pupil is not interested in studies and his parents rather have him at home looking after the younger siblings? Village schools have their own peculiarities. We have found many boys prefer catching fish rather than attending classes,” Mr. Singh says.
In Uttar Pradesh, 40 per cent of students enrolled in Class I drop out before Class VIII. Some 10 km away from Arauni, the Ucchdwar primary school has better infrastructure – a decent building, functional toilets and a neat playground.
But in rural UP, good facilities may come with a quandary of their own – an excess of students vis-a-vis teachers. Ucchdwar has 103 students for three teachers. RTE norms stipulate a teacher for every 30 pupils. The joining of a fourth, contractual teacher, a Siksha Mitra,, has been in the pipeline for months.
The teachers’ burden is compounded by discrepancies in distributing learning materials on time. “We didn’t get a single workbook this session. Books for Maths and Sanskrit are yet to be distributed. How can we teach?” asks primary teacher Rachana Srivastava, who also makes a tedious journey of 70 km back and forth from Lucknow to Unnao each day.
The process of teaching and learning at the elementary level is mired in structural deficiencies and bureaucratic callousness. If teacher shortage is a structural problem, at the qualitative level teaching is crippled by teacher absenteeism, a culture of proxy teachers and sub-contracting, the appointment of untrained teachers, long distance postings, lack of motivation, poor accommodation facilities, non-academic duties and political pressures.
A prime reason for the poor learning and teaching, Magsaysay award winning activist Sandeep Pandey argues, is teachers shirking their duty.
“There is no department like the Education Department where people take such decent salaries but refuse to work. There is corruption everywhere. If you go to a police station, you will find a policeman, you go searching for a doctor, you will find him, even if he is in private practice. But teachers...he may have appointed a tutor to teach on his behalf,” said Mr. Pandey.
A shift in mentality towards the teaching profession, which is largely viewed in a “condescending manner,” is needed, he added.