Imagine yourself as a child living in a small mud house in a green valley, with lush farms on rolling hills that extend until as far as you can see. Your family is engaged in agriculture, growing rice and corn. A good harvest ensures enough food for the next few months. Other families around you, harbour a rich cultural life, with rituals and festivals that are celebrated on a monthly basis. Some of the adults you know, from your family and others, have gone to different parts of the country, in hope to find work and escape poverty. Most of your day goes in helping with farming, handpicking fruits and vegetables, and/or taking care of the livestock in the village. There is a school nearby, but no teacher on most days in any given month. With no real clue about the difference schooling can make to one’s life, would you have any motivation of going to the school?
These were some of my thoughts when we started to plan a project on education at Swasthya Swaraj, the organization I’m working with, as a fellow. In the last few years, the organization has attempted to work on education but due to lack of regularity and effectiveness, nothing sustained for long. For example, it had formed school committees in all the villages, and had also invested in conducting summer camps as well as teacher trainings, but due to various factors including Covid-19, the committees were soon forgotten, and the progress with children and teachers went back to square one.
This time, we decided to focus on one school, to at least have an example to be followed, and to also ensure regularity. Since we are also crunched on the availability of human resources to educate children, we decided to strengthen the existing government schools by beginning a School Sensitisation Program (SSP).
The primary aim of this program is to familiarise children with the concept of school and literacy, such that there is a higher enrolment rate and subsequently, more attendance of both students and teachers. Furthermore, we in wanted to reach those children, specially girls, who had never enrolled in a school or those who had dropped out.
The plan is to start slow, by first engaging children in short sessions, playing games and doing hands-on activities that would not only make them comfortable but also develop a sense of teamwork and trust. Then, we could move to basic literacy and arithmetic as per the child-centric localized educational tools. With the help of our staff, we would also integrate local culture and knowledge to enrich children’s development.
It has been about three months since we are conceptualising the program, and the experience until now has been extremely insightful, and challenging. Without knowing Odiya, the local language, going to the village and holding sessions with children who belong to a drastically different culture from mine, was initially quite scary. A lot of thoughts flooded my head. Was I being disrespectful in any way? Are they understanding anything of what I am saying? On top of that, gathering children from dispersed hamlets, or sometimes even from mango groves far from the village was taxing.
However, over time, the children and I got comfortable with each other’s presence. Not every child in the village could come each day that I was there, but there are a few who have been with me through this entire ride, attending every session. I see that as an accomplishment.
When we started this initiative, we knew that we may have to change parts of the plan as time progresses, since we had no prior knowledge about education in the villages. On interacting with children, one of the assumptions that got challenged, was that they aren’t motivated to come to school. This was told by teachers. But in our experience of frequent visits to the school, we noticed that, if called, almost all the children were ready to attend the sessions. I can only imagine it to be more effective if the facilitator knew Odiya.
The children do not need to be pushed to come to school. They just need some sort of regularity which will maintain their interest and will make their parents feel like they are doing something worthwhile in those few hours. This means that the onus is on teachers who should be present and be determined to make a change. While it may sound like an essential duty for teachers, which cannot even come into question in a developed region, this area adds a lot of factors that make public systems extremely difficult to function.
While it is important to look at the scenario from the eyes of people who will benefit from a strong education system, we also need to empathise with the teacher who has been appointed to work in one of the most backward areas in the country. They are not locals, and live at least 100 kilometres away. This means that they don’t have a close connection to the culture including the local language that children speak. Above that, the school is not maintained at all. The toilets are broken, the roof leaks and there is not even a bed for one to sleep on. There is no phone network, and the transportation facilities are poor.
One has to be extremely self-motivated to function in this environment, and that’s not something that we can expect from everyone. This puts us in a paradox that seemingly has no escape. We believe education to be the primary medium of change, however a lot of other things have to change before that force can kick into action.