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Attend to Primary Schoolteachers!

Primary schoolteachers in India have no source of academic support whatsoever. In order to enhance efficiency what they require is assistance to cope with classroom situations involving everyday problems or needs. This article examines the drawbacks of primary education system in five Indian states and highlights the problems faced by teachers, administrators and teacher educators, and puts forth ideas for good practices that emerged during the course of the investigation.


Attend to Primary Schoolteachers!

Vimala Ramachandran, Suman Bhattacharjea

and support they receive and the encouragement/incentives the system offers for dedicating more or less effort to teaching. In addition, the degree and nature of teachers’ accountability – to their employers, to their students, or to parents – a ffects what they are willing to attempt,

Primary schoolteachers in India have no source of academic support whatsoever. In order to enhance efficiency what they require is assistance to cope with classroom situations involving everyday problems or needs. This article examines the drawbacks of primary education system in five Indian states and highlights the problems faced by teachers, administrators and teacher educators, and puts forth ideas for good practices that emerged during the course of the investigation.

This paper draws upon a recent study by Vimala Ramachandran, Suman Bhattacharjea and K M Sheshagiri, “Primary School Teachers: The Twists and Turns of Everyday Practice”. The authors are grateful to Azim Premji Foundation for supporting this study. The views expressed in this paper are entirely those of the authors.

Vimala Ramachandran ( is with the Educational Resource Unit, Delhi and Suman Bhattacharjea (sbhattacharjea@ works with ASER Centre, a r esearch unit created by Pratham, Delhi.

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uring 2008, we attempted to document and understand the situation of primary schoolteachers in India. Through the year we travelled to five states across the country (Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Rajasthan) speaking to teachers, administrators, teacher educators and other c oncerned individuals and groups. The j ourney was both fascinating and deeply d isturbing. The learning from this journey is captured in this piece.

Teacher Preparation

Despite the plentiful supply of young p eople ready to train as teachers, existing mechanisms to select those who show talent for and interest in teaching are weak and ineffective: typically a low pass percentage in the Class 12 or even Class 10 examination is all that is needed. Whereas pre-service teacher training programmes are designed on the assumption that school ing provides adequate content knowledge, the hard reality is that a large number of teachers do not have a firm grasp of primary school content. Equally, pre-service teacher training programmes are not based on the conditions that prevail in most government (as well as many private) primary schools across the country. They typically assume that teachers will have a homogeneous community of learners, adequate infrastructure and material and the luxury of teaching a single class at a time. Teacher candidates thus spend a year or two receiving and being tested on a vast amount of theoretical knowledge that is of little help in real classroom situations.

Performance, Recognition and Rewards

Above and beyond what fresh recruits bring to the job, the education system acts in a number of ways to shape what teachers do in the classroom. These include the nature and amount of in-service training they are provided, the kind of supervision

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while their degree of autonomy impacts their ability to adapt content and methods to local needs. We briefly discuss these i ssues below.

In-service Teacher Training: The education system rarely asks teachers what kind of training would be useful to them. Des pite the huge emphasis on in-service training in recent years under the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), it comes as no surprise to find that teachers for the most part view these courses as formalities to be completed, rather than resources to help them do their job better. Those responsible for designing training (and also imparting it in many cases) typically have advanced degrees and administrative seniority, rather than hands on experience with primary school teaching. Training is thus rarely based on teachers’ everyday practice, experiences, problems or needs. Nor is it linked to s tudent learning.

Academic Supervision and Support:

D espite the fact that the resource centres were established at the block and cluster levels to provide academic support to teachers, in practice these personnel fulfil routine administrative functions. The primary schoolteacher has no source of academic support whatsoever. Given that training programmes provide little help in this regard, the teacher is left to muddle through as best as she can. Supervisory staff have neither the training nor the e xperience to provide academic supervision or support to teachers. On the contrary, examples abound of supervisors actively blocking teachers’ attempts to utilise l ocally developed innovations to make curriculum or teaching methods more r elevant to the needs of their students on the grounds that these go beyond the content or activities prescribed by textbooks.

Unsurprisingly, then, for most teachers “completing the syllabus” becomes the


first and only teaching-related objective. The obvious corollary to this is that if s tudents fail to learn, it is their own or their family’s fault. Most teachers we met did not even conceive of their work in terms of creating an environment where all children can learn.

Incentives and Rewards: Since teachers’ salaries are related exclusively to senior ity, teachers have little to gain by putting more effort into teaching. Further, the n o-detention policy in primary schools in many states means that there is no systematic way of evaluating student learning, let alone linking it to teachers’ performance. A powerful disincentive is created by the informal system of patronage and rent-seeking in operation in many parts of the country. Teachers often dedicate considerable time and effort to keeping local politicians and power brokers happy because they control the limited r ewards obtainable within the system – in particular, transfers to desired locations. In general, access to those with power can increase status, whereas dedication to teaching cannot.

Autonomy: Across the five states teachers said that they are not expected to exercise their own judgment in determining how best to teach, since both content and i nstructional methods are defined elsewhere. Teachers are expected to implement innovations developed at higher l evels of the system, regardless of practical constraints on their implementation, and without regard for whether these do, in fact, contribute to student learning. By assuming that the provision of standardised inputs automatically translates into meaningful classroom experiences, such policies further limit teachers’ ability to construct their own and their students’ knowledge.

Accountability: Head teachers exert l imited authority over teachers, since promotions, transfers and other decisions are taken elsewhere. Supervisory personnel are confined primarily to administrative inspections and data gathering. Local communities do not have the skills to u ndertake a professional evaluation of teachers. District education authorities

o ften operate on the basis of political or administrative, rather than educational, criteria. To whom, then, are elementary schoolteachers accountable for the quality of learning outcomes? That is, who within the system has the authority and the ability to define what constitutes good teaching practice, evaluate whether teachers are doing a good job, reward those who are, and sanction those who are not? The short answer to this question is: nobody.

Resources and Unity of Command

The absence of an integrated vision for educational development can be seen concretely in the absence of linkages, both horizontal and vertical, between different institutions within the education system. Educational activities in every state are developed piecemeal by a large number of sub-systems, each responding to a different set of criteria and objectives. The SSA and the State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) in-service training programmes, for example, often operate independently of each other. While the District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) fall under SCERTs, Block Resource Centres (BRCs) and Cluster Resource Centre (CRCs) are responsible to the state SSA office. Even where vertical linkages are clearly defined, typically only the apex body in each chain has any real authority. The DIETs, for example, f unction as subsidiaries of SCERT in each state r ather than as autonomous professional institutions.

The lack of linkages within the system can result in the generation of educational policy based on an idealised vision of the future which has little connection with ground realities. Because implementation is monitored on the basis of quantitative targets rather than educational outcomes, the numerous ways in which such policy fails to be translated into educationally worthwhile practice – and the reasons for this failure – are neither documented nor analysed.

The Power Dynamic

The “informal system” of patronage, rent seeking, the everyday dynamics of local politics and vested interests that drive d ecisions at different levels of the administration emerged as the sub-text in almost all conversations with teachers. Teachers are both victims and vehicles of this

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c omplex dynamic that plays out on the ground. The term “political interference” captures some of it but a lot more belongs in a grey area of social, economic and a dministrative power.

The predicament of teachers in India cannot be addressed in any meaningful manner unless and until political interference and rent-seeking is seriously addressed.

Reform or radical change is called for to address this phenomenon boldly and without resorting to the comfort of working within the parameters of the formal system as detailed in administrative norms and procedures. As Sharma and Ramachandran (2008:310) argue:

Tackling the problem of the informal system is not an easy task for it has permeated every government institution in India. However, the breadth of the problem does not reduce the need to address it in specific sectors. Because various government departments deal with different groups of people as well as activities, the dynamics of rent-seeking behaviour and its consequences also shift… the interface of the elementary education system is with the least powerful members of socially disadvantaged groups, i e, poor children. Thus while powerlessness of the social groups involved allows rent-seeking behaviour to go unchecked, it is the children of these very social groups that rent-seeking affects most, shaping not only their present but also their future. The social consequences of rent-seeking in elementary education are enormous and long term…

A Model for Teacher Development

If teachers do not view students’ learning – however defined – as part of, let alone central to, their professional responsibilities, then clearly the situation cannot be remedied by tweaking quantitative t argets or by establishing additional a dministrative layers.

Before discussing some possible ways forward, it is important to have some conceptual clarity regarding what an integrated model for teacher development should aim to include. We turn to available literature for some answers.

Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves (1992) identify four basic elements that provide a framework for understanding teacher development: the teacher’s “purpose”; the teacher “as a person”; the “real world context” in which teachers work; and the “culture of teaching”, that is, teachers’ professional relationships with others within the system.

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Innate to this conceptualisation is the understanding that teachers’ mastery of subject matter and pedagogical skills, though important, are not the only elements that contribute to effective teaching. This approach recognises, first, that teachers are human beings who “do not come empty-handed, they bring much baggage in the form of images, ideas and experiences about teaching. One task (…) is to help them unpack and articulate these, so some can be thrown away, others refashioned or replaced” (Lewin and S tuart 2003) – a process that requires the provision of opportunities to engage in continuous, practice-based reflection on educational purposes and processes. It recognises, second, that teachers’ practice depends not only on their own abilities or even desire to teach well, but in equal measure on the conditions, expectations and rules of engagement – both formal and informal, stated and unstated – of their working environment.

While the above discussion provides an overview of the kinds of issues that teacher development policies and programmes should address, the process of design of these policies is another important area to keep in mind. Two elements vital to the design process are highlighted below.

First, to what extent are teachers themselves involved in policy/programme (or even activity plan) formulation? If teachers are mere recipients and implementing agents of plans, curricula and textbooks produced elsewhere, these are unlikely to address their real needs. Nor does a topdown design process model the participatory, interactive process that teachers are subsequently expected to engage in within the classroom as a central aspect of a constructivist educational pedagogy. An influential review of teacher development practices in five countries concluded:

When teachers are actively involved and em

powered in the reform of their own schools,

curriculum, pedagogy, and classrooms, even

those with minimal formal education and

training are capable of dramatically chang

ing their teaching behaviour, the class

room environment, and improving student

achievement. Conversely, when teachers are

ignored, or when reforms come from above

or are not connected to the daily realities

of the classroom and local environment,

even the most expensive and well designed

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i nterventions are almost certain to fail (Craig et al 1998).

Second, to what extent do educational policies encompass a comprehensive and integrated response to the diverse set of factors known to affect teacher d evelopment?

The policy environment in which teachers work sends a myriad of often conflicting signals about how schools are expected to do business and about what behaviours and skills are valued and rewarded. Messages about more-or-less preferred teaching practices and learner outcomes issue from all of the major education policy domains, including those that shape curriculum, assessment, teacher and administrator licensing and evaluation, and accountability. Existing policies and practices must be assessed in terms of their compatibility with two cornerstones of the reform agenda: a learner-centred view of teaching and a careerlong conception of teachers’ learning (Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin 1995).

We have seen in the preceding paragraphs that in the Indian context, these “conflicting signals” comprise a fundamental disconnect between the theory and practice of teacher development: that is, the discourse on what teachers “should” be and do on the one hand, and how the educational system acts to promote or d iscourage these attitudes and behaviours on the other.

Dismantle ‘Control Raj’

Is there a way out? Is there something that we – meaning our leaders, civil society

  • o rganisations, teachers, educators and concerned people – do to shake up the “control raj” and breathe some life and fresh air into it? We talked to teachers and parents, researchers and administrators, social activists and educators. Here are some ideas that emerged in the course of our exploration.
  • (i) Create Forums/Hubs for a Learning Community of Teachers and Educators: As we met teachers from different parts of the country we received two contradictory messages. One: teachers in government schools are helpless cogs in the wheel of an impersonal system, and two: teachers have tremendous power within their own sphere of work – the school – and that if they set their mind to it, change is indeed possible. Sometimes the two messages emanated from the same group of people.
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    One resounding message is that there is an urgent need to create platforms and mechanisms which enable teachers to i nteract as professionals, not only among themselves but also with other professionals such as scientists, scholars and college teachers. A churning of sorts is needed and teachers have to be at the heart of this churning. If sustained over a sufficiently long enough period, these “spaces” for constructive engagement with the reality of I ndian schooling are likely to catalyse changes from within. This may also provide us with effective strategies to deal with p olitical apathy at one level and political i nterference in matters that concern the l iving and working conditions of teachers.

    We need a critical mass of people who take pride in what they do. This is what KSSP did in the 1970s and 1980s, Kishore Bharati and Friends Rural Centre in the late 1970s and early 1980s and Eklavya and HSTP programme attempted over many years. There are many other initiatives that have tried to bring together teachers as professionals to talk, share and discuss.

    Linked to this is the need for affirmation and support to exceptional teachers. There are thousands of teachers across the country who despite all odds continue to teach with great commitment. A lot needs to be done to bring such role models to the forefront. Negative images have found their way into the media and into the a dministration. The reality is that teachers as a group are in some measure politically empowered but both as a group and as individuals professionally disempowered. Recognising their work, addressing their professional identity and their need for knowledge and skills is a logical s tarting point.

    This is within our reach and something that can be done in the age of electronic and print media. Teacher conventions (at district and sub-district levels) could be followed up with a range of activities to enable teachers to explore their subject/ discipline, access knowledge and skills and become engaged in something more than themselves as individuals with s ecure government jobs. We need teachers who feel good about themselves. We need teachers who go to work with excitement, energy and ideas.

    Any mass movement (working with teachers is nothing short of a mass


    m ovement) needs anchors, platforms and (for elementary and higher levels) – among
    spaces where the uninitiated can mingle a range of o ther issues. Yes, some may
    with those who are part of the process. a rgue that the National Curriculum Frame-
    Great ideas of block and cluster level re work (NCF) 2005 has already done that.
    source centres, teacher centres and the Yes, there is a need to go into specifics and
    like got bureaucratised because the idea draft a curriculum for pre-school education
    was operationalised in a bureaucratic teachers, for elementary teachers and for
    manner and manipulated by the informal higher levels; take them to concerned state
    system of patronage and rent-seeking. Can g overnments/government of India f orums
    an open and vibrant hub be created by a and make a case for change and provide a
    large number of active and interested per new framework. This would be a long and
    sons and institutions? Can we create oppor difficult process but something that merits
    tunities for teachers to come together, use a urgent attention.
    library or a laboratory, access interesting The government is not a monolith and
    teaching and learning material, meet o ther experience of the last 20 years in parti
    teachers and educators and attend a work cular, has shown that – given the oppor
    shop of their choice – thereby setting in tunity and given adequate pressure from
    m otion a virtuous spiral of change? the ground – the government at different
    l evels can be persuaded to set a new and
    (ii) Advocate for Autonomous Academic different agenda of systemic reform.
    Standard Setting: Given the long history U ltimately, lasting change can only be
    of merging of roles of standard setters, reg r ealised if the government comes on
    ulators and administrators (The National board and works with civil society actors
    Council for Teacher Education being a clas and teachers to neutralise the informal
    sic example) there is a need for an autono s ystem’s i nfluence and make the formal
    mous academic standard setting regime, system e ffective and accountable.
    one that is outside the direct control of the
    educational administration and one that (iii) Build and Nurture the Professional
    cannot metamorphose itself into a govern- Identity of Teachers: Some simple
    ment department. There is a need to create a dministrative changes could blow some
    a body that draws purely on eminent edu fresh air into the system. In Tamil Nadu
    cationists and academics to lay down and Kerala, teachers who join at the pri
    standards for teacher education (especially mary level can upgrade their educational
    pre-service), monitor whether these are qualifications and move up the education
    being adhered to and generate public pres system ladder; there is nothing to prevent
    sure for compliance through periodic re a teacher from becoming even the director
    search-based reports on standards. Such a of SCERT in the state. At each stage,
    body could also develop standard bench t eachers can avail of leave to study and to
    marks which need to be accessible to all. take examinations. Not only are
    As a first step concerned organisations/ a ppointments at all levels – middle school,
    individuals can take a leaf from the ground high school, DIET or even SCERT – open to
    work done by activists of the Right to Infor all to apply, but teachers who have
    mation campaign and also the work that u pgraded their educational qualifications
    went into the formulation of N ational Rural are encouraged by setting aside of a
    Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). We s pecific percentage of posts. Teachers we
    need to bring groups of practitioners and spoke to in these two states said that this
    academics together who can start the draft was a huge motivator. We also met officials
    ing and design how an autonomous aca in SSA who had started their careers as
    demic standard setting process could be set p rimary schoolteachers.
    in motion. There will be different ideas and When the Rajasthan Shiksha Karmi
    different approaches, and naturally so in a project was initiated the idea was to ena
    democracy. We need to engage with ideas ble rural youth to gradually upgrade their
    like what is the minimum non-negotiable educational qualifications and thereby
    standard for a “school”, what are the b ecome “regular” teachers at some point
    e ssential requirements of curriculum for of time. In 2007, the Orissa government
    pre-service teacher education programme proposed that those who enter as
    20 august 1, 2009

    p ara-teachers/contract teachers should, over the years, move up to become regular teachers. Interestingly the World Bank is also proposing a similar regime, whereby a teacher could first be hired as an apprentice and then move up to become an associate teacher (based on performance and educational status) and finally a “master”, meaning a regular teacher. This approach also argues for checks and balances in the tasks of hiring, posting/assignment, training, salary, supervision and dismissal – thereby “balance(ing) local control with higher-level support for training, professional standards and monitoring” (Pritchett and Pande 2006).

    Do We Have a Chance?

    For far too long educationists and researchers have only analysed and pointed out what is wrong and how terrible the system is. The time has come to d evelop clear plans – maybe state-or d istrict-specific plans to invigorate and energise the system. There is a need to bring together like-minded people and those with experience in both the education sector as well as in management to develop concrete alternatives, put them out into the public domain and talk to people who care. Momentous changes like the RTI or the NREGA programme did not happen because someone in government had a bright idea. They came about because a group of people d ecided to work towards them.


    Craig, Helen, Richard J Kraft and Joy du Plessis (1998): Teacher Development: Making an Impact (Washington DC: USAID and The World Bank).

    Darling-Hammond, Linda and Milbrey W McLaughlin (1995): “Policies That Support Professional D evelopment in an Era of Reform”, Phi Delta Kappan, April.

    Fullan, Michael and Andy Hargreaves (1992): Teacher Development and Educational Change (London: Routledge).

    Lewin, K M and J S Stuart (2003): “Researching Teacher Education: New Perspectives on Practice, Performance and Policy”, Synthesis Report, Multi-Site Teacher Education Research Project (MUSTER), DFID Education Papers.

    Pritchett, Lant and Varad Pande (2006): “Making Primary Education Work for India’s Poor: A Proposal for Effective Decentralisation”, Social D evelopment Papers, South Asia Series, Paper No 95, The World Bank (June).

    Sharma, Rashmi and Vimala Ramachandran (2008): The Elementary Education System in I ndia: Exploring Institutional Structures, Processes and Dynamics (New Delhi: Routledge).

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