On Teacher’s Day, we share the voices of four government school teachers who teach at zilla parishad schools in Palghar and Thane districts of Maharashtra. During the lockdown, they have continued teaching their students who are mostly first generation learners, children of daily wage workers and landless farmers.
Only 18.5 per cent of rural households in Maharashtra have any internet facility, according to a 2017-18 report of the National Sample Survey. But, using both empathy and common sense, these teachers have gone beyond the call of duty to ensure their students did not miss out on learning during the pandemic. They spoke to Chatura Rao, a children’s author and teacher who wrote these profiles.
Rohini Dandge logs into her class at 8 p.m. as that is the only time her students have access to a smartphone.
Rekha Swami works on keeping her first generation learners engaged, especially children of migrant daily wage workers who travel with their parents during the lockdown.
Rajan Garud uses puppets to make his students laugh again in these dark times.
Mithila Bhosale had to teach parents of her students from the Navi Mumbai slums about internet misuse.
The zilla parishad school is among 1,06,237 state-run schools offering primary education to 15 million students in Maharashtra. According to the state’s economic survey, a large majority – 77 per cent of these children – are in rural areas.
‘In the blue glow I see their small faces light up’
It’s 8 p.m. and I have just logged in to my class.
I see that only three children of the 15 in my class have come online. The village of Bara Bangala has no electricity at this hour, so they look at me from dark rooms. A sibling or a parent shines a torch on the child and in the blue glow I see their small faces light up when I greet them.
This is my night school – a plan I came up with to make sure that all our students in classes two, three, four and five remain in school. I am happy that even those who had not enrolled and those who came back to the village with their migrant parents have also joined us at the zilla parishad school here.
The children, aged seven to nine, are from Mahar and Thakar Adivasi families; their parents do wage work in paddy fields, on construction sites and in small plastic units in Shahapur. Some clear and sort waste in Thane and others (mostly women) charge a small fee to carry gas cylinders and get them filled at Kasara Bk, which at about two and a half kilometres away is the nearest town.
Bara Bangala hamlet in Shahapur taluk is located in a forested and hilly area, a 100 kilometres northwest of Mumbai. It is connected to Mumbai by the suburban rail network. My school can only be reached on foot. It is a 20-minute walk from Kasara station. For six years I travelled from my home in Titwala, around 60 kilometres away, to Kasara Bk by train and then walked to Bara Bangala using a path alongside the railway tracks. If a train came from around the hill, I’d press up against the railing of the bridge, close my eyes against the rush of air and dust, and wait for it to pass.
I stopped making this commute when the lockdown began in March 2020. Instead, I started night school!
My students’ parents were out in the daytime looking for work and they would take their phones with them, my students had no access to digital devices. In fact, some of the fathers were reluctant to lend their phones for the purpose of classes. I tried to convince them. Once they agreed I drove to the village in my car, local train services being suspended due to the lockdown, to install Zoom and Diksha apps on people’s cell phones and teach them how to use these. [Diksha is a government resource that provides learning material in the form of videos, songs, poems and plays.]
I created a WhatsApp group of young people in the village who had smartphones. I urged them to make their phones available to my students for an hour each day. Since they were at home with little to do, most readily agreed.
Over time I used a range of resources to teach my classes. I would scan printed material and send it out on the class WhatsApp group. I also sent learning resources from Telegram groups such as the Maharashtra Teachers Panel and Shahapur Teacher Education Development, which are voluntary groups run by motivated teachers.
I message my class on the WhatsApp group and even phone a few. As students trickle in, I share songs and videos on my screen so that the waiting children can enjoy these. I show them short videos about Warli paintings, good habits and the dangers of plastic waste.
In around 10 minutes my class is all online. Some are in pairs, sharing a phone. Some children have gathered at Samaj Mandir, the village community centre, with an older boy and girl who are lending their phones for the class.
I ask the Class 5 children to work on an exercise from the guidebooks for the government scholarship exam. I ask the Class 4 students to learn a poem. They must return to class to recite it after 20 minutes.
When I need to use the board, I stand my phone against a pile of books facing it and explain the number bond and place value. I address the more timid children by name, drawing them in to ask questions. The rest comment, ask and discuss freely, and the class gets livelier as the hour passes.
When the students return to the screen to recite the new poem, they get a round of applause from the rest of the class. By 9 p.m., I am tired but happy. We wish each other good night and log out.
Teaching on location at Bara Bangala was never easy. The village gets water only once a week, so the school has no toilet, no running water or even drinking water. The closest toilet is at Kasara station, so I drink very little water during the hours of my visit.
When I first began teaching here in 2014, school was an eight-by-eight feet rented room. Fourteen children (classes one to five), a colleague, and I, filled this space with books, stationery, voices raised in the singsong chant of alphabet and numerical tables, and the giggle and chatter between lessons.
Many children in the village used to skip our school and go on to school in Kasara Bk. When I began to do interesting activities, 15 more children enrolled with us, needing us to get a larger space.
The people of the village contributed money, material and free labour. We teachers helped to coordinate the efforts and also contributed money. A brick room was built on a plot of unfenced land and became the schoolhouse for the primary students. It is built on forest land through an unofficial agreement between the members of the Mokhavane Gram Panchayat and people from the Forest Department. We could easily raise funds and build a toilet, but all this may well have to be pulled down if the Forest Department wants it back.
‘I hope they don’t lose interest in learning’
I teach Class 2 students in the zilla parishad school in TAPS (Tarapur Atomic Power Station) Colony, Palghar. Most of these seven year olds belong to Adivasi, Ahir and Maratha communities and speak different languages at home. I also have children from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who speak Hindi and Bhojpuri. The parents of my students do semi-skilled and unskilled wage labour in industrial units in the Boisar area.
In March 2020, when the country went into total lockdown, some of them went home with their parents, back to their villages. Staying in touch matters very much as students know that their teacher thinks about them; parents also feel the teacher’s concern and it motivates them to continue with schooling.
My biggest challenge was to keep my students – many of them first generation learners – interested in school work. I especially worry about those children who don’t have access to smartphones, those who went back to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and those whose parents are unable to help in their education. I hope they don’t lose interest in learning and that when they return, their entry into Class 3 will be easy.
I had a WhatsApp group in place even before the pandemic – with 14 children on Whatsapp and six on SMS. Despite this, when the lockdown happened, I knew learning would be difficult for them. The one smartphone in the family would be reserved for the older children, and only few of these families could afford steady access to the internet.
I started with a basic plan of sending a photo of a printed page for my students to read, followed by questions. They would write down answers, take a photo of the page and send it back to me. Later I began to use Google Forms and an app called Testmoz to create multiple choice tests. Their scores would appear right after submission, making it exciting for both parents and children!
I began to post YouTube educational videos for the children to watch. But I discovered that of the 20 children in my class, only half would actually watch as sufficient bandwidth was not available; their parents’ prepaid accounts would often run out of money. There was another problem with those videos – my young students are often shy or scared of strangers and they would get distracted by all kinds of things while watching videos where strangers were teaching. I was sure that they would be more open to the learning that came from me since my face and voice are what they are used to. And so I brought out my children’s old blackboard, set it on a stand and used an app called Xrecorder. Some videos were made simply by training the camera on my hand working out sums on the blackboard using chalk and my voice explaining what I am doing.
My language videos are a little different. For example, I took ‘Chhote Rangari’ or ‘The Small Painters’, a Pratham Storyweaver book, added my explanation and asked questions based on the text. I made a 1-2 minute video of a poem about butterflies from the Class 2 Marathi textbook. It has visuals of butterflies in nature with a child’s voice reciting, which was actually my voice; I used an app called Kinemaster to tweak it to sound like that a child. It would switch back to my voice for my explanation of the beauty and colour of the flowers it hovers over.
Many parents watched the videos with their children. Some asked me if the child’s tuition teacher could use the video to teach and so I immediately included tuition teachers in my class’ WhatsApp group. Even today I am in touch with them and have found that this is a good way to reach my students.
I used to teach in Harijan Pada. Most students worked at nearby farms and fruit orchards in the mornings and were free to come to school only in the afternoon. They would bring their younger siblings along and it fell upon me to manage everyone. Students of classes one to five were in the same room. I would teach in a mix of Warli and Marathi. This was similar to my first posting 25 years ago at a zilla parishad school in Adivasi Pada, a tribal hamlet in Dahanu. I would go door-to-door fetching the children or they wouldn’t turn up at all. I realised back then just how important it was for me as a teacher to go that extra mile.
Puppets, riddles, playacting and picture quizzes
I teach Class 3 and Class 4 students of the district primary school in Saphale.
About 60 per cent of my students are from farming families in this agricultural town. A majority of them farm their own land and many parents commute to Mumbai for work.
Early in the lockdown, I realised that staying engaged with the children was important. I called parents and instructed each of them on how to install and use the Zoom app. We started online classes on April 1, 2020, seven days after the lockdown began.
The atmosphere was so grim and fearful in those early days of the Covid-19 crisis, I just wanted to provide a space for us to meet so I didn’t start with anything related to the curriculum. Instead, I invited artist friends to bring puppets to our online class to meet the children. With activities like these, I gradually drew the children’s attention away from their anxieties. I initiated a discussion through text and images that I shared on screen. The children participated by sharing their experiences (of say, an hour spent playing in a schoolyard like the one in the picture).
I used pictures from the textbooks. There are words associated with particular pictures that the students are supposed to learn. But I didn’t make them write these directly. I asked them to describe what they saw. To get them to identify objects using the right words, I’d describe the object in roundabout ways. Suppose the word is ‘clock’, I’d ask, what time does class start for us every day? What were our school timings, that we don’t follow much these days? Through questions and riddles, I’d bring forth the idea of time and a clock and then eventually speak more about the clock and its use. I’d further bring in the Maths aspect of the clock, like the division of an hour into minutes and seconds.
I also used science riddles, sharing pages from books I owned. The children would discuss what they saw and try to figure out what the phenomena was. Later, I’d give them more information on the topic.
Before the lockdown I would teach through dialogue – they would not know if I was playing or teaching! Through dialogue, as a means of learning, kids often taught each other, with me only directing the conversation along.
There is a history to this. Twelve years ago, after completing high school I wrote the Diploma in Education (D.Ed) entrance exam, just to keep a friend company. Later when I realised that acting wouldn’t promise me a livelihood, I put aside my dreams of stage and screen., deciding to try and be the best teacher I could. I went ahead and completed the D.Ed course.
My first posting as a teacher was to a village called Khorichapada, Palghar taluka. My students spoke only Warli.
It was the monsoon of 2009. The school was surrounded by forested hills and lush green fields and faced the vast stretch of the Vaitarna reservoir. I was 21 years old, born and raised in Mumbai, and I had never seen such a sight, except in movies.
Khorachipada was so remote and since my stipend was only 3,000 rupees a month, I set up home on the school premises. I’d start school at 8 a.m. and there was no closing time – the children hung around even after dinner!
Since I am a trained actor with an ear for languages, I picked up the children’s dialect in two weeks. Over the next 12 years I developed bilingual stories, a Warli-Marathi dictionary, and an alphabet book where “a” stands not for the Marathi ananasa [pomegranate] but for the Warli anuna [custard apple]. I believe these will help to bridge the language gap for young Adivasi learners.
My classroom method has been to keep track of every child. The weaker ones tend to get left farther behind when the ones in front push on ahead. So I focus on them and try to help them to catch up. Once they are somewhat at the same level as the others, the class atmosphere improves and we all progress with peer learning too.
Since March 2020 when the lockdowns first began, I have been in touch with almost all my 58 students. I call parents often, asking how they are faring. Recently, in an online class my shy student Vedant asked, “Sir, when will our school start? When will we get the chance to meet face-to-face and spend all day together?” These words, spoken by a child straight from the heart, made me feel happy and proud to be a teacher.
Teaching in the slum pockets of Navi Mumbai
I teach children who live in the slum pockets of Navi Mumbai. They are surrounded by signs of wealth and lifestyles starkly different from their own. I have been teaching middle school at the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation school for 20 years.
In April 2020 when the entire country went into lockdown, these children and their families were thrown into sudden and severe distress. Their parents work as auto rickshaw drivers, domestic help, vegetable and fruit sellers, and as labourers at the Agricultural Produce Market (APMC) in Vashi. They lost their livelihoods overnight and entire families left for their villages.
Everyone was worried about food and there was no money to pay for an internet connection so that their children could continue their education online.
After July, some parents came back and started looking for work but they had left their children behind in the village. So the family’s smartphone was no longer available to the kids as their parents had taken it along for work. The parents wanted their children to study but they lacked the means to provide them with devices. I gave my own devices – two smartphones and a tab – to students who needed these to join online classes. My colleagues were inspired and distributed their devices among students too. As part of their corporate social responsibility initiative, Amazon helped with recharging bills.
I posted material in the form of PDFs and videos for my Class 7 students, 90 of them. They became proficient in answering questions in Google Forms. I embedded videos from Diksha, a government resource that provides learning material, in the Google Forms. Students would work with these resources and post the answers back to me.
As parents arranged access to phones, children began making videos for Tik Tok using Facebook, YouTube and other platforms. Many parents are unaware about what the child was actually doing when they had the phone in their hands/ I called the parents and helped them to download the Zoom app to hold a meeting. I urged them to keep a watch on what their children were actually doing.
I created over 15 teaching videos so that they could get a sense of being taught in class by me. I prepared about 15 one-line questions and answers on each lesson, got these printed, and distributed them to parents when they came to school for monthly ration distribution.
My students’ parents would come back home from work late in the evening, so I would schedule my daily online classes after 7 p.m., when the chances of all the students having a phone would be higher.
Many come from fragmented homes where a parent has left; they are forced into adulthood early. I look out for early signs of trouble. Many dream of going to Mumbai and becoming actors or dancers and I try to help them focus on more realistic and stable career options. I want my students to grow up as thoughtful individuals.
Many of my students have grown up and work in various professions – parcel and courier services, in banks, as nurses, and in builders’ offices. Some teach computer classes, and some have started their own small businesses, like pav bhaji and juice centres.
Teaching is not a profession, it’s a service. My grandfather used to say, “be an honest teacher rather than trying to be an ideal teacher.” My aim has been to be an honest teacher.
Note: The teachers featured here were part of CEQUE’s professional development programme for teachers from low-income schools in Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Palghar, Nashik, Thane and Mumbai districts of Maharashtra. PARI Education would like to thank CEQUE – Centre for Equity and Quality in Universal Education – for sharing these stories.
Chatura Rao is a teacher of creative writing, information arts and information design practices at Srishti-Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru. She says: “I met and interviewed several government school teachers. Even as they would sit down to speak with me, I saw how their attention would dart frequently to the students in their care, and how they responded, alert and patient, to so many demands at once on their time. Many of them had been posted to a school for over ten years and were beloved members of the community; they cried when their transfer orders arrived. As a writer and a teacher, I was moved and happy to be able to listen to their lockdown stories.”
Antara Raman is an illustrator and graphic designer based in Bangalore. The social sciences and a passion for ecology and conservation are the biggest influences on her work. An avid reader, her illustrations for PARI are defined by their narrative quality and metaphorical use of colour.