Juggling freedom and choice

Roshni Mirani

Mrs. Elizabeth Mehta is an accomplished educationist with over four decades of experience at all levels of school education including extensive work in rural India. During her career, Elizabeth has been involved in teaching, curriculum development and education management. She has also conducted classroom-based pedagogical research and has participated in several international and national conferences. At Muktangan, she oversees the programmatic aspects of seven schools and a teacher education institute. For her exemplary work in education through the years and for setting up the Muktangan Schools Network, Elizabeth Mehta was honoured with the title ‘Member of the Most Excellent Order of The British Empire’ (MBE) in 2015.
(source: muktanganedu.org)

You are an educationist by profession. Did you major in education or was it an interest you developed when you came to India?
I never intended to be a teacher. Originally I wanted to do medicine, I ended up doing my honors in psychology, BSc. When I first came to India, I knew nothing about the culture here. I knew very little apart from my immediate family, and I wanted to understand the local culture better. Therefore, I thought about teaching and interacting with children as they are so open. Once I got into education, I never left it because you could be a child again in a classroom. I love teaching, so I’ve done my B.Ed. here after 20 years of teaching and educational leadership courses both here and abroad. Teaching is my passion.

If one of the keys to student success is having a low student-teacher ratio, then in a country like ours, that would require a lot of teachers. Do you think there is a shortage of teacher training institutes in India?
There is a surplus! If you look at the Times of India article of 26.8.19 – where the Chairman of The National Council for Teacher Education was interviewed – they are producing surplus teachers. However, the quality of the teachers they are producing is poor and very few of them actually enter the teaching profession. People raise the question that in a country as huge as ours, it is not viable to have a low student-teacher ratio. At Muktangan – our student-teacher ratio is 1:14. If you want good quality education, the teacher needs to be in a position to respond to each child, know how the child is thinking and build on that. Otherwise you just have chalk/talk and it is the teacher who ends up doing all the talking in the classroom, not the child. So I am trying to demonstrate the benefits of having a low ratio of students to teachers.

I read that Muktangan believes that each child has his/her own pace of learning. But if children need to move ahead to the next class after each year, and give a common board exam in year 10, then how can they have the luxury of learning at their own pace?
If you don’t learn at your own pace, you don’t develop a strong foundation. In the board exam they may not reach the level of the high performers, but they are getting through the board exam and they at least know their foundations are strong.

Is government accreditation important? If so, how/when will Muktangan get it?
Yes, it is important. In fact, legally non-qualified teachers are not allowed any longer to teach in a classroom. The Muktangan teacher education course has not been accredited yet because we don’t have our own space and because we are doing things differently. But we do have at least one government accredited teacher in every classroom. These are teachers trained by us who have gone on later and done their government accredited training. But the irony of this situation is that even though our teacher training course is not accredited (it’s in the pipeline now, we are getting closer to it), our teachers are being used by the state government to train principals of teacher education colleges who have PhD. degrees, because the government recognizes the quality of our program.

To quote Satbir Bedi, Chairperson NCTE (TOI 26.8.19): “Since the Right to Education (RTE) Act was implemented in 2009, there has been a miscalculation in the demand for teachers, which has led to the mushrooming of teacher training institutes and degradation of quality, as the supply overshot the demand for several years.” What is the current standard of the government run teacher education program in our country?
The government has recognized the poor quality of the teacher education program. In the pipeline now is a four year Bachelors in Education and in fact we are getting into partnership with a private university to do that, wherein you get a degree in a school subject – either science or arts – plus the teacher education component. It is all under transition at the moment and they wanted to close down thousands of teacher education colleges, the quality is poor and students are not even attending them.

What are the main challenges to teacher training in our country?
The entire process of teacher education is inadequate. Many of the teacher education colleges have minimum enrollment. I mean if you go to any teacher education college, most of it is just delivering a lecture about how you need to support the child’s learning in the classroom. However, if the faculty in the teacher education college can’t support the trainees’ learning, how is that trainee going to do it in a school? So it leaves a lot to be desired.

Internship is also minimal, it’s all theoretical. To illustrate this – when I did my teacher training, after more than 20 years of teaching, while delivering lectures, they had to constantly ask me for illustrations from my classroom experience.

In fact, about 5-6 years ago, we had a partnership with the state government for teacher education colleges. What was interesting about that is that we said we want to help the trainees in the teacher education colleges to understand ‘active constructivism’ where students are actively engaged in learning for themselves, exploring and developing their own concepts. The teacher provides the environment, but the students use the environment to construct their own understanding. Now “active constructivism” has been a buzzword in education for years. So we went to the principals of teacher education colleges in Mumbai to get permission to conduct workshops on active constructivism. Many of them said, “Oh we’ve already done that, we’ve done the lecture on that.” We said you cannot get students to learn what active constructivism is by a lecture method. We have to involve them in activities. But eventually after becoming interested in our activities the principals also joined in. There’s still a long way to go.

To overcome these challenges what would you like the government to do and what would you like private citizens to do?
The government needs to have greater trust in teachers. Trust in their professionalism and a lot of decentralization. Genuine change can only come about if it happens at the school level. That is what is going to motivate teachers – if they are not told all the time what to do and how to do it. Other professions like lawyers and doctors are not told what to do, then why are teachers told? They are at the bottom of the pile. So we need to raise the status of the teaching profession, get the respect of the general public.

Do you think teaching is a low paid profession throughout the world? Is that one of the primary reasons it attracts fewer people?
Yes, it is, all around the world. Although with the Seventh Pay Commission, I am told that a permanent teacher at a government school could get a starting salary of about Rs. 60,000 a month. Also they make a lot from tuitions. But, they are totally demotivated because they are not given any freedom and have a lot of administrative work to do. When the government is recruiting new teachers they have selection tests and they take the best. But it’s the bureaucracy in the government system that destroys the motivation. These teachers are all very bright but when you talk to them – and we are doing professional development with them – they have become so negative. Yet their underlying motivation is still to help kids learn, but they have got so demotivated themselves. They’ve been intelligent young people when they joined the teaching profession. We, at Muktangan, give our teachers a lot of freedom even though we use the state textbooks. The curriculum is different from the syllabus. The way they transact it, is their own method. For example, they may connect chapters out of sequence or take chapters from the following year to teach a concept. We are often questioned about this. There is little autonomy given to the teachers. In general, teachers are badly paid everywhere. Except in Finland where a teacher gets a salary comparable to a surgeon. They wow you into the teaching profession. Kids don’t start school till the age of 7, the school day is only about 3/4 hours and the kids are doing brilliantly. The irony is that there’s a more regimented system in South Korea and autonomy in Finland and both are battling for first place!

How would you like 17-year olds like me – who have access to the best education this country has to offer – to contribute to the system?
You really need to get into the education sector as a future career path and look for courses today that will expand your horizons. If studying abroad, come back to the country and try and be a part of that change. It’s badly needed. Work to make the change happen!

If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for – related to education in our country or in the world?
I want both teachers and children to be given greater freedom and choices. When you are given a choice, you want to learn. If there is no choice in the classroom, you don’t learn. Let kids be more responsible for their own learning. Don’t put pressure on them.

The author is a 12th standard student studying at Haileybury School, UK after finishing her ICSE from the Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai. She is interested in pursuing further studies in education and psychology. She can be reached at [email protected].

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