Viral photo of students weeping at TN teacher’s transfer shows what’s wrong with education in India

India needs to think about its schools and teachers differently if its intention is to educate its massive school-going population.

On Wednesday afternoon, a government teacher in Tamil Nadu who had been transferred to another school was mobbed by his weeping students who did not want him to go. The students said that G Bhagawan was the best thing that had happened to them. A video of this incident was shared widely.

AR Rahman approvingly tweeted a news report on this episode with the comment: “Guru Sishyas”. Actor Hrithik Roshan also tweeted about it, as did Union school education secretary Anil Swarup.

Bhagawan, who was clearly overwhelmed by his students’ show of affection, explained how he approached his work. “I have tried my best to interact with students beyond just academics,” he told The News Minute.I used to narrate stories, understand their family background, talk to them about their future, and show them things via the projector. These projector sessions, in particular, were very enthralling for them. They felt like they were sitting in a cinema hall. It’s probably because of all these new things I tried to do that we developed a real bond. More than a teacher, I’m a friend, a brother to them.”

It seems Bhagawan did what good teachers do – he got to know his students as people, taking an interest in their lives and their futures and opened windows to the world for them.

Impediments to public education

This heartwarming tale willy-nilly also focuses attention on two major impediments to quality public education in India.

The first impediment concerns teacher competence. Bhagawan, an English teacher, is not fluent in the language. In a short comment he made on TV, he was unable to form grammatical sentences or find the right words to explain his situation. It is possible that he has bookish knowledge and is able to teach his students the rules of grammar and prepare them for simple writing exercises that they need to pass their exams. Because he has the instincts of a good teacher, he will undoubtedly contribute to the overall growth of his students. He may, however, not have the tools to make them learn the language he is employed to teach them. This lack of mastery is not unusual for school teachers of any subject in India. The qualities of a good teacher, which Bhagawan seems to have in abundance, ironically, are not a requirement for government teaching jobs. They should be. His paper qualifications, which are, do not adequately measure his command over the subject he is expected to teach, which should be a requirement for any teaching job.

The second impediment concerns how schools are run. Bhagawan’s posting to the school, and his transfer to another, have nothing to do with his contribution to the school and its students. Teachers’ postings and transfers are designed to meet set pupil-teacher ratios. In the government education system, schools are not individual institutions to be built to serve a community across generations, but administrative units of a government department. They are run on the same principles as such departments, with teachers treated no differently from clerical staff. The school principal may consider Bhagawan, a dynamic teacher with a special ability to connect with his students, a real asset to his school. Indeed, the principal of Bhagawan’s school said that he was one of the institution’s best teachers. The principal should be free to keep him and perhaps let go of some of the deadwood in his school. But he does not have that freedom. The deadwood will stay because of seniority, and Bhagawan will go because he lacks seniority.

India needs to think about its schools and its teachers differently if its intention is to educate its massive school-going population. Schools have to be schools, not sub-departments of a ministry, hamstrung by norms that apply to a hierarchical civil service. It needs more teachers who, like Bhagawan, have the bent of mind to make good teachers. But it also desperately needs its teachers to have mastery over the subjects they teach.

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People who fall through the gaps in road safety campaigns

Helmet and road safety campaigns might have been neglecting a sizeable chunk of the public at risk.

City police, across the country, have been running a long-drawn campaign on helmet safety. In a recent initiative by the Bengaluru Police, a cop dressed-up as ‘Lord Ganesha’ offered helmets and roses to two-wheeler riders. Earlier this year, a 12ft high and 9ft wide helmet was installed in Kota as a memorial to the victims of road accidents. As for the social media leg of the campaign, the Mumbai Police made a pop-culture reference to drive the message of road safety through their Twitter handle.

But, just for the sake of conversation, how much safety do helmets provide anyway?

Lack of physical protections put two-wheeler riders at high risk on the road. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. Nearly half of those dying on the world’s roads are ‘vulnerable road users’ – pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. According to the Indian transport ministry, about 28 two-wheeler riders died daily on Indian roads in 2016 for not wearing helmets.

The WHO states that wearing a motorcycle helmet correctly can reduce the risk of death by almost 40% and the risk of severe injury by over 70%. The components of a helmet are designed to reduce impact of a force collision to the head. A rigid outer shell distributes the impact over a large surface area, while the soft lining absorbs the impact.

However, getting two-wheeler riders to wear protective headgear has always been an uphill battle, one that has intensified through the years owing to the lives lost due on the road. Communication tactics are generating awareness about the consequences of riding without a helmet and changing behaviour that the law couldn’t on its own. But amidst all the tag-lines, slogans and get-ups that reach out to the rider, the safety of the one on the passenger seat is being ignored.

Pillion rider safety has always been second in priority. While several state governments are making helmets for pillion riders mandatory, the lack of awareness about its importance runs deep. In Mumbai itself, only 1% of the 20 lakh pillion riders wear helmets. There seems to be this perception that while two-wheeler riders are safer wearing a helmet, their passengers don’t necessarily need one. Statistics prove otherwise. For instance, in Hyderabad, the Cyberabad traffic police reported that 1 of every 3 two-wheeler deaths was that of a pillion rider. DGP Chander, Goa, stressed that 71% of fatalities in road accidents in 2017 were of two-wheeler rider and pillion riders of which 66% deaths were due to head injury.

Despite the alarming statistics, pillion riders, who are as vulnerable as front riders to head-injuries, have never been the focus of helmet awareness and safety drives. To fill-up that communication gap, Reliance General Insurance has engineered a campaign, titled #FaceThePace, that focusses solely on pillion rider safety. The campaign film tells a relatable story of a father taking his son for cricket practice on a motorbike. It then uses cricket to bring our attention to a simple flaw in the way we think about pillion rider safety – using a helmet to play a sport makes sense, but somehow, protecting your head while riding on a two-wheeler isn’t considered.

This road safety initiative by Reliance General Insurance has taken the lead in addressing the helmet issue as a whole — pillion or front, helmets are crucial for two-wheeler riders. The film ensures that we realise how selective our worry about head injury is by comparing the statistics of children deaths due to road accidents to fatal accidents on a cricket ground. Message delivered. Watch the video to see how the story pans out.


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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Reliance General Insurance and not by the Scroll editorial team.