The ‘Stars’ of Kushtagi: My First Visit to North Karnataka

Last week, Monalisa Hota from our Research team visited our programmes in Kushtagi block, Koppal. Below, she shares her experiences of the school visits and English training.
My visit to Kushtagi on 15th and 16th January 2013 was divided into two parts: Observe the Second round of English training to the Master Resource Persons (MRPs) and school visits. I spent the whole of first day with the 13 who came to participate in the training. Almost all of them were familiar with Akshara Foundation and Kanchan Bannerjee as they were trained before, except one very enthusiastic teacher who was new but insisted on being trained in this round. She seemed qualified enough to grasp the new material even though she was new to the training itself. Their English was far from perfect but their eagerness to learn and teach this ‘foreign’ language was impressive, to say the least. While the group of participants had almost equal male and female participation, more males teachers were better in spoken English, confidence and energy. Since the training was being conducted within a school, availing children for teaching learning purposes was easy and that enriched the whole experience for the participants. Kanchan’s ability to break this complex language into simple digestible pieces and to make the training as hands-on as possible by involving the children of the school played a major role in sustaining the interest of the participants throughout the session.
The process of training itself was very effective. However, the fact that only 50% of the invitees could make it to the training was an issue worth discussing and resolving for future. Despite an agreement with the Government to set some days aside for Akshara Training, only half could attend. One of the teachers called Kanchan to express his discontent with the Principal’s decision to call him back to school while he was on his way to training; he desperately wanted to participate. When such promising, enthusiastic and energetic teachers face unnecessary and avoidable hurdles, it’s a loss to all of us, especially the children. These are the kind of teachers we need in this time of crisis in the teaching fraternity. Is it possible to retain their energies before they are lost to the ‘system’? New as it was to me, I was constantly attempting to process these new pieces of information, reflect, discuss and think of possible solutions.
 Next day was the day of school visit. Based on one article I had read on KLP on the usefulness of School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) in creating an environment for learning, I was curious as to what was the situation in the schools that I visited. Out of the four schools I visited, I found the SDMC active in just one school and that was the school in a 200-households small village named Bailihard. This school was simply mind-blowing. Every single foot of the premise was prim to the last detail; the periphery was lined with trees, shrubs and plants, the playground itself had a volley ball net (wow!), the floors of the corridor and the classes were spotless (not marble floor spotless…but clean), the staff room was no less than a small conference room with green table cover and cushioned chairs, and the toilet too was spotless and shining. I was told that the SDMC was very actively involved in the maintenance of the school; I saw the SDMC President dedicated to beautifying the surroundings, unaffected by the visitors.  Most teachers including the Principal were out for Samalochana Sabha, a monthly meeting on exchange information. However, those who were left behind were quietly and diligently going about teaching; they appeared content and engrossed in their work and kept the children constructively occupied too. While the two primary classes were being taught by teachers, the 5th class sat quietly by itself. All of them could fluently read the text from standard two book. Just as I was about to leave the school premise, I noticed a girl of this class reading from her book with the other students repeating after her. I witnessed a self-managed class in the middle of other schools that were barely able to function even with the teachers. This serendipity felt so perfect that it reminded me of Meluha (an imaginary place in Amish’s Shiva Trilogy where everything goes by the rules and everyone follows them diligently and efficiently). I agree, quite an exaggeration but relatively speaking, it felt a lot like that.

However, this moment of utopia ended as soon as I entered the next school, which was as small in terms of student and teacher strength but was quite the opposite of the ‘perfect’ school: the girls’ toilet was locked and perhaps unused as there was no drop of water anywhere around the source of water, the staff room was tiny with just one very small desk and one chair, and the children just sat listlessly. When the 5th standard was tested on reading, half were unable to read, some of these were not even able to recognise letters. Similar to this was another school in Koredkera which had a much larger student and teacher strength. But this school had infrastructural issue as its three Nali-Kali sections were squeezed into two rooms of which one room was packed with 64 students gazing blankly at the wall. There was barely enough space for any movement, let alone conduct the classes as per the methods. They are short of rooms, the teacher said. They were also short of two teachers and had a Pupil Teacher ration (PTR) of 1:48 instead of 1:35. The school lacked SDMC support. With a defunct SDMC, the School Development fund was returned to the source. Classes 4 and 5 were merged for the day due to the Samalochana Sabha held in that school. Out of the seven students, four could not read when tested on reading from second standard Kannada text books. In general, I also observed these children to have hygiene issues. Moving on, I had a chat with the Principal of the school where training was on. This school was short on rooms and had no boundary wall, as far as I could see. The toilets were open but seemed unused. The Principal who was into 33rd year of service was very happy to know that I knew Hindi as she was unable to express herself in English. So, we managed to exchange out thoughts. In the first minute of our meeting, she complained about the lack of cooperation from the parents in creating a learning atmosphere at their homes. She said that “children spend 7 hours or so in school and we make so much effort to teach but the moment they go home, all our efforts go waste”. Then she complained about the SDMC’s lack of support towards school development. As she compared the present day attitude of parents with that of 50 years ago, I could see that she was unable to incorporate the change over the year that has led to high enrollments thereby making teachers’ role even more challenging. I cautiously shared my observations of the school in Bailihard to get to know her better, careful not to offend her in any way. She expressed mixed emotions of surprise, defense  and helplessness. Even though she had not seen the school herself, she knew it was a small village and the school gets a lot of support in planning and development through SDMC and others. “Our children are also good Madam”, she said when I told her about that 5th standard that was functioning by itself. One of the teachers of this school had a stick in her hand, as she sat and chatted with her colleague, and occasionally did “hey” to shut any noise that disturbed her. None of the teachers taught, instead they sat chatting in pairs while  monitoring the classes.

From what I understand, while blaming and complaining comes naturally to all of us, the solution lies in believing in change and becoming the agent of change. So, even if an active SDMC is instrumental in learning of children, must the school remain dependent on just that or they could be empowered to create an SDMC that works for their children’s betterment? If the school believed in themselves and said ‘we can’ instead of ‘we cannot’, I feel a lot would begin to work out; because only then would they begin to think of ‘how to’.
Educative, informative and thought provoking as it was, my first trip to Kushtagi put me in touch with some really beautiful and positive components or ‘shining stars’ of our system/society: an amazing trainer who simplified learning English and made it fun, a bunch of enthusiastic teachers who wanted to learn this language, one promising teacher who was so upset about not making it to the training, one extraordinary government school where all 5th standard children could read standard two text, and a beautiful start-studded sparkly sky which we city-bred people are so deprived of. All the ‘stars’ were so beautiful and so real. I would love to see more and more of such stars all around us. The challenge is big and there is a long way to go…together. Reminds me of the famous saying “united we stand, divided we fall”.

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