By Freeny Maneckshwa
Photos: Sumit Dayal
PATNA, Bihar, India, April 15 2014- Every weekend for the past five months, Ashok Kumar, Government school teacher, has been cycling from his home to Bikram in district Patna -16 kilometres each way- to attend the Open Distance Learning, organised by the Educational Research and Training (SCERT) with the support of UNICEF.
The road to the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET), where Ashok attends the course, is rutted in places and turns into a muddy morass during the rains. No concessions have been made even for public holidays like Holi or Chhath - Bihar’s biggest festival. Besides giving up a weekly holiday, Ashok Kumar also puts in about two hours of daily study which is in addition to his teaching duties.
The efforts of Ashok Kumar and 10,800 other elementary teachers are bearing fruit. The innovative open distance learning course that teachers in 27 districts across Bihar are undertaking, free of cost, is already benefiting not only teachers but also students in Bihar.
Attendance rate for teachers has gone up by an impressive 90 per cent and, more importantly, the training is already impacting their teaching style and helping them improve the quality of learning in the class rooms.
The lack of trained school teachers adds to the challenge of over-crowded class rooms.
In 2006 a decision was taken to fill this yawning gap by recruiting Shiksha Mitras/Panchayat Shikshaks or people without the necessary academic and training qualifications to teach on a contractual basis.
However, the Right to Education Act 2009, which has been four years in existence, makes it mandatory for teachers to be professionally qualified and trained. In Bihar, only 54 per cent of teachers in the Government schools hold such certification. There are some 1.61 lakh teachers who are not professionally qualified.
“Removing them from their posts would have created far more pressure on the pupil teacher ratio than what already exists. Such a step, moreover, spells unemployment for these teachers, many of whom have gained good teaching experience,” says Dr S A Moin.
Way Forward- Training Existing Resources
“The answer was to impart training to those in service”, explains Parul Sharma, Education Officer for UNICEF in Bihar.
UNICEF which had already been supporting SCERT and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in Bihar in addressing the skewed student teacher ratio and quality and equity issues in education, extended its collaboration to find a solution to the issue of untrained teachers.
“Several programmes and approaches were reviewed. ICT-based courses were suggested but could not be a viable option owing to poor power connectivity in rural areas. Eventually, a module, based on a South African open distance learning programme, with inputs from many educationists and pedagogues, was specially designed,” says Dr. Moin.
The two-year course which confers a diploma in Elementary Education is spread over four semesters with internal exams at the end of each semester and a final examination to be conducted under the Bihar University. The programme kicked off with online registration of untrained teachers on September 5, 2013, the anniversary of Dr. Radhakrishnan, the second President of India and an eminent teacher.
“As the course got underway some concerns emerged relating to attendance, participation and maintaining uniformity of inputs. To address these UNICEF helped SCERT in developing supportive supervision and monitoring mechanisms and now, to a great extent, these problems have been addressed,“ says Parul.
The course, which is a break from many traditional courses, lays great emphasis on self-learning. A proactive approach is adopted with sessions encouraging group discussions.
“Participants are expected to frame their own questions on what they consider to be crucial issues and take these up during discussions. The professionally developed programme enables the teachers to apply and experiment with the techniques they are learning rather than wait until the training period is over,” points out Abha Rani, principal of DIET.
“Some of the subjects taken up in the module over the semesters include an overall understanding of education, child development, how to teach language, the role of ICTC in teaching techniques, art, environmental studies, how to teach maths, English and Hindi and others,” adds Abha.
Training already impacting teacher’s style of functioning.
Although there are infrastructural problems as many study centres function from dilapidated, dingy, dark buildings due to power shortages, participants keep up their enthusiasm. It is early days but many teachers say the training has already begun impacting their style of functioning in the class rooms. I am learning how to handle children of various abilities in my class,” explains Shaheena Paligani, who also attends the training at Bikram.
Sunita Kumari, woman teacher at the study centre in Badshah Navaz Rizvi Training College (BNRT), Gulzarbagh Patna, adds that she can now gauge the varying abilities of a five-year-old and a seven-year-old in the same class. “I realise I need to give some children more time to answer a question or do an arithmetic exercise,” says Sunita, who has learnt how to strike an emotional chord with the young children and how to effectively communicate with them at their level. “Whilst children have become habituated to learning by rote, it is crucial to try and make them understand and comprehend their lessons,” she adds.
Also Ashok Kumar is experiencing the benefits of this programme. “I no longer prevent pupils from expressing themselves in their mother tongue. Learning cannot be forced. I must adopt child-friendly methods and make them feel I am their friend,” concludes Ashok.
Currently running in 27 districts, the programme is expected to be extended to others and to include more untrained teachers.