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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