Efforts must be based on a continuing curriculum, informed equally by the teachers’ reality as by the fundamental vision of education
About five minutes into the conversation with the Block Education Officer (BEO), I realized we were using the same phrase, “trainee teachers”, to talk about two entirely different things. I had assumed that the reference was to teachers who had joined recently, and were in a training period. We were discussing the poor quality of a particular training session; the BEO suggested that we need not be bothered, since it was trainee teachers who were participating. This seemed callous, till I realized what he meant. He was referring to a group of teachers in his block who had been identified by him to attend all trainings. Whatever the training, it was the same group that was nominated to participate. This was the BEO’s way of managing conflicting demands. There were many kinds of training organized for teachers; the BEO had to make sure that there were participants for all, with minimal disruption in the functioning of schools. Most teachers were completely disinterested in these training sessions. Identifying a group of teachers, who for their own reasons, were willing to attend training after training, had solved many of his problems. They were his trainee teachers. This method of managing may seem cynical, till the BEO’s reasons are understood. At the root was his accurate assessment that most of the training being organized was ineffective. Also, neither he nor the teachers felt any influence over what was being done. The curriculum, the methods, the duration and timing, everything was decided at the state capital, and he had to comply. He had repeatedly seen the poor quality of what eventually happened. He had figured out a solution, within his degrees of freedom. What the BEO did need not be condoned, but can be understood. One just needs to talk to government school teachers, who have had an overdose of poor training in the past decade. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the flagship school education initiative across the country, itself had 20 days of training budgeted every year for all elementary school teachers. This was very good. But driven by its highly centralized design, inadequate facilitators, mechanized methods and many other issues, this training had become a farce in most states, with only a few notable exceptions. In the past two years, the actions to manage the central fiscal deficit have resulted in a funds crunch on the ground, including in education. Since everyone agreed that it was ineffective, the SSA teacher training was one of the first spending heads to get large cuts across states; durations have now come down to three-five days per year. The sorry state of continuing professional development of teachers in India is rivalled by India’s teacher preparation (called “pre-service teacher education”) system, about which I wrote on 9 July. Continuing professional development is important in itself, for complex roles such as that of a teacher. However in the specific case of teachers in India it is even more important. That is because our pre-service teacher education leaves new teachers largely unprepared to play their roles. Not only does this lead to poor educational outcomes for students, but also disengages and demotivates the teachers, as they find themselves unable to cope with their roles. This is a vicious spiral beginning at the start of the teacher’s career. There is no substitute to building a robust pre-service teacher education system, and which must replace the existing dysfunctional one. When India gets this done, it will significantly help in resolving the issue of the capacity of new teachers joining the schooling system. However, that will not help the existing 6.5 million teachers in our schools, who have been prepared as teachers through the existing weak teacher preparation system; while some teachers are effective despite this, a large majority needs support and professional development. Otherwise educational outcomes in our schools will continue to languish for decades to come. Some necessary conditions for improving in-service (continuing) professional development of teachers are clear. It can’t be envisioned as “training”, with its ensuing narrowness; it must be “education”, which is deep and broad. The efforts must not be disjointed, but based on a continuing curriculum, informed equally by the teachers’ reality as by the fundamental vision of education. Most importantly, lecture driven sessions just won’t do, many modes must be thoughtfully sewn together. Some examples of these modes are mentored-at-work projects, exposure visits, guided reading, peer support and learning research projects. There must also be a cultural shift, with empowerment of the teacher and people near the teacher to chart her development path. The institutional structure to make all this happen exists, in the form of the 600 odd District Institutes of Education and Training. Making them vibrant can be the basis for a transformation of our in-service teacher education. And that is perhaps the most important lever of change if we want to improve India’s educational outcomes in the next 10 years. Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.