In December 2017, as part of a study to understand parental perceptions of government schools in Ahmedabad city, researchers at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad came across several parents who complained about the complacency of government school teachers.
They said they had witnessed and heard that teachers are often absent from classrooms. The schools in which their children were enrolled had shortages of teachers to begin with, they said. Teacher absenteeism, over and above the shortages, meant that children from different grades would be clubbed together and taught in the same classroom.
As part of the same study, we visited a few government schools where these parents had enrolled their children. In one, the principal complained of a shortage of two teachers in primary classes. Due to this, the school had only two teachers for students from grades one to five, and had been clubbing students from second, third and fourth grade for this reason. The principal also complained about teacher absenteeism.
Yet we found that most were sympathetic to what they referred to as the “plight of teachers”.
Were parents right in suggesting that teachers do not teach in government schools? Yes. But is this because teachers are shirking work? Apparently not.
According to one principal, teachers in government schools work harder than teachers in private schools. Apart from teaching, they have to be available for an onslaught of administrative work passed on to them through government circulars and by their superiors.
Teachers gave examples of administrative work which included being involved in the implementation of various government policies. For example, teachers have a large role to play in conducting census surveys, are summoned for election duty and are responsible for maintaining records of students enrolled in various government schemes. Teachers bear the responsibility of getting parents to present their documents in time to enrol for the scheme and to ensure a form with the students’ details is sent, along with required documents, to the concerned authorities.
In some cases, these duties take up months of the teachers’ time. For example, the application process of Section 12(1)(c) – that mandates private unaided schools to reserve at least 25% seats for the disadvantaged – runs for a month sometime between February and April every year. Government school teachers are placed at help centres to assist applicants with the application process and to collect completed application forms.
This means that for that one month every year, government schools have hordes of parents coming into their premises. Some teachers have to be outside classrooms tending to their application forms. Their own students are unattended. Several teachers complained about having to give their students holidays for days at a time, until such work is completed.
Apart from being overburdened, teachers complained of the sheer stress of some of the administrative responsibilities they bore. For example, two teachers in a government school discussed how they found it difficult to eat and sleep during election duty because there was tremendous pressure on them that nothing goes wrong. Of course this, in turn, affected their ability to teach properly.
Moreover, teachers and principals in government schools complained of the ad hoc nature in which such work is sent their way. The advent of cheap smartphones and fast internet has made their lives worse – making it easier for teachers to be contacted by administrators. One teacher said that all teachers in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) were made part of a WhatsApp group where they might receive a message at any time of day or night from people of the administration asking them to come to some part of the city for administrative work. Often, the work they were called away for had nothing to do with education, schooling or even policy.
Teachers described two incidents as examples of being called away without warning that were shocking. During the time that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had visited the city of Ahmedabad in 2017, teachers from several government schools had been asked to congregate on a street in the city to be part of the “crowd” that would wave at him as he was taken around the city along with his convoy. In another equally shocking case, when a corporate event held at Sabarmati had failed to gather sufficient footfall, a group of teachers from government schools in the area were called to the location and made to wear shirts and ties to make it appear to the media present that the footfall was greater than it really was.
Teachers are being called away repeatedly, without warning and for long spells of time. This meant that they are unable to plan for lessons, or even maintain continuity in lessons that they are able to take. In a profession that should ideally involve a large amount of pre-planning, having to juggle taking extra classes to make up for a shortage of teachers and the increasing burden of non-teaching work would adversely affect the performance of our teachers and subsequently the children attending these schools.
The irony of the matter is that often the policies that they are called away to work on are targeted at making education more accessible to the disadvantaged sections of society. However, the more education-related policies we introduce, apparently the less teaching we will see in government schools. Since it is largely the most disadvantaged who currently are attending government schools, they are the ones who suffer.
It appears that the issue of teacher absenteeism is a result of us forgetting that the primary role of teachers should be to teach. If we intend to continue expecting our teachers to teach, then recognising how administrative burden creates teacher absenteeism is imperative, at par with the accountability mechanisms we demand for government schools. Based on the discussions we’ve had with teachers and principals from other districts and states, we have no reason to believe that such burdens are not imposed on teachers in other districts of Gujarat, or in other states.
This article does not discourage the idea that the government schooling system lacks incentives for teachers to teach better, nor does it deny the possibility of teacher complacency. To be fair, any and all sectors face the threat of complacency of its workers when appropriate structures and incentives are not in place and teachers are no exception to this. But, it is definitely not as simple as teachers not wanting to teach. Teachers are accountable for multiple things and they are at the beck and call of administrators, but, perhaps, not always for teaching-related activities.
Karan Singhal and Nisha Vernekar are co-founders of Pune Collab, an initiative that aims to build a database and platform that eases collaboration among NGOs and volunteers in Pune. They also work as research associates at IIM Ahmedabad, primarily researching on education and gender.