She was 23, living in that village alone, 600km from her parents’ home in Nanjangud near Mysore. She had been selected as a teacher two years before and posted there. The lush paddy fields encircling the villages’ government primary school were incongruous in the arid climate of Bijapur district. They were there because Krishna fed those fields generously through the canals of one its many dams. In front of the one-room school was a small pond. I met Uma for the first time in 2011 in that school.
The school had 25 students, distributed equally across classes I to V. She taught all three subjects of the curriculum, and for all the five classes sitting together, she was the only teacher. We had reached almost at the end of the school day. Still, her energy didn’t seem any less than that of her students. When the classes ended, the children did not leave, they merely moved out and started playing as we chatted with Uma.
How was it that all her students seemed to be ahead of expectations for their respective classes on both language and math? Her response wasn’t elaborate. She merely said, “All children are inherently very good, and I love teaching children.”
Two elderly men came through the paddy fields to take their grandchildren back home. They decided to join our chat. They could not stop gushing about their village school teacher. Uma seemed to have transformed the school in her two years there. In gratitude, the village had collected money to build a toilet at the school.
Six years later, I was at a high school in a dusty town in North-East Karnataka. It shared a boundary wall with the town bus stand. Blaring horns and revving engines could be heard from any classroom. That is where I met Uma for the second time. We talked again.
The spring in her step that I had seen amid the paddy fields was missing, though her engagement with students seemed no less. Was she jaded after eight years of being a teacher? Or was it just an “off day”? Or perhaps the racket from the bus stand? It was none of this, she said. It was simply that she absolutely loved teaching young children, while with these older students she worked hard and did well, but did not have the same sense of fulfilment.
So, why did she move from a primary to a high school? Because, the salary is more and the social status is higher.
Uma’s story is very common because the compensation and career prospects for high-school teachers are more attractive than for primary-school teachers. The Indian education system clearly values teachers of higher classes more. Social status is a function of this value. And, it also reflects in the better working conditions of high-school teachers.
It is not that high-school teachers have perfect conditions and scintillating career prospects, but just that they are much better off. The most dramatic example of this valuation anomaly is the case of early-childhood educators, the Anaganwadi workers; they are not even recognized as teachers. Unsurprisingly, teachers of lower classes are continually seeking opportunities to move on to the higher classes.
The signalling of lower value is reinforced by lower expectations on qualifications: a two-year diploma after class XII for primary-school teachers versus two undergraduate degrees after class XII for teachers of higher classes.
This lower valuation of primary (and middle) school teachers is deeply flawed. Teaching young children is as challenging, if not more, than teaching older children. The expertise required in both roles are equally complex and deep—while being somewhat different. And the contribution of teachers of early classes is in many ways more important than that of high-school teachers, since they truly set the foundation for and trajectory of a child’s education.
This flawed valuation of teaching roles hobbles the entire teacher management system—in attracting, retaining and engaging teachers in primary and middle schools vis-à-vis high schools. More capable individuals prefer higher classes at entry as well as through their careers. This doesn’t mean that lower classes don’t have good teachers; just that on an average, the incentive structures pull teachers away from lower classes. This anomaly is also patently unfair and unjust.
The draft National Education Policy 2019 (NEP) has a slew of measures to correct this anomaly. It equalizes compensation and career prospects across the lower and higher classes. Teachers would have no incentive to move across primary to high schools. It extends this equalization to early childhood educators. It also provides for good working conditions for all teachers. And it completely re-architects the qualification norms for all teachers: to a four-year high-quality integrated degree in teaching after class XII.
These policy actions, if implemented, will transform the world of teachers in India. It will certainly require some doing, including a significant increase in public investment, as the NEP does recommend. And, when it gets done, no Uma will leave a role that she loves. And the most important foundational years of schooling will not lose enthusiastic and competent educators.
Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd