The case of the struggling “new” teacher

Gopal Midha

An educational “case” is the story of an event or a phenomenon you are likely to find in a school, a college or other educational setting. The educational case often ends with an unresolved dilemma or a question of what needs to be done and instead of seeking simplistic universal answers (e.g. motivate the teacher), cases encourage readers to think deeply about the context of the problem (e.g. leadership practice, curriculum) and what else could be at play. Cases do not usually have obvious right or wrong answers and are best discussed together in staff room meetings. Interestingly, the same case discussed a few months later amongst the same group of teachers may lead to a refreshingly different discussion of what was happening and why, highlighting the progress in the thinking of the teachers.
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Sagarika did not know what else she could do. She was at her wits’ end. She thought that she had taken the wrong decision to teach at Ramjas school. Located in a quiet neighbourhood in Chembur, Mumbai, Ramjas elementary school had around 200 students from kindergarten to grade 6. The school had been adding a grade every year. Almost 90 percent of the students came from upper-middle class and belonged to the rich Marwari and Gujarati families. Sagarika wondered if the difficulties she faced in class were due to teaching a different student profile or simply the pangs of joining a new school.

Sagarika had done her B.Ed four years earlier and joined Nilawati school in Bandra West. The school was run by a private trust, had an elite student profile and served students from rich families staying in the Bandra-Khar area. She was lucky to get a break there.

The school wanted a teacher who had no previous teaching experience (they thought old teachers were too set in their practices), could relate to students and was fluent in English. Sagarika fit the bill and she was willing to work for almost half the salary that a senior teacher would have been offered. The classrooms were small – about 10-12 students and the teaching method and materials were already fixed. She was given a one-month teaching orientation to understand how to use the already prepared lesson plans in conjunction with the student and teacher workbooks.

The new school teacher requirements were not difficult for her. She belonged to an upper-middle class Punjabi family, was convent educated and was willing to comply with what the school wanted. Sagarika took the prescriptive mode of teaching in her stride and stuck to the methods she was asked to follow. Two years later, she began to feel that she wasn’t enjoying this fixed method of teaching. She wanted to be more creative but she knew that veering away from lesson plans would lead to repercussions. She fixed up a meeting with the principal, Ms Raje, to talk about trying new methods of teaching mathematics. Ms Raje, adjusted her thick horn-rimmed glasses, looked at her from her seat and said, “You are doing well. Stick to the lesson plans. Believe me, we have tried other ways. They don’t work!”

Another year passed and Sagarika was beginning to suffocate. She decided to look at other school options, but most of them were either too far from where she stayed or were a clear dent in her resume if she took them up. And then the lucky break happened. Her colleague told her of a vacancy at Ramjas, an innovative school that was looking for a teacher mid-year because one of their teachers had a family emergency and had to leave. She met the principal, Mr. DeCosta and was fascinated with the school philosophy. The school borrowed largely from Gandhian principles of work and labour. They encouraged different teaching styles and best of all
(in her opinion), the teachers decided the curriculum. They did not have standard textbooks. Sagarika put in her papers at Nilawati, served the one-month notice period and joined Ramjas.

Life at Ramjas was baptism by fire. After one day of orientation where she heard a few presentations about the school and observed a couple of classes, she was led to the class 5 classroom where she had to teach mathematics to two sections of 30 students each. She had prepared a lesson plan but the students were having none of it. This was a boisterous and noisy lot and they refused to settle
down even when she raised her voice. The principal, noticing the noise, walked in and lent some order to the mayhem. He asked the students to be more respectful and her command lasted for a day. Next morning, when Sagarika stepped into the class, she was back to square one.

The next two weeks weren’t any easier. The students wanted to only play during class time. She tried to negotiate with them. She would teach half the time and they could play the remaining half. The agreement lasted for two days and then they wanted the whole time for doing what they wanted. If she persisted with teaching, only the first two rows of students would pay attention. Raising her voice would only bring temporary order and it would tire her. She tried using the earlier lesson plans from Nilawati but they were meant for 12 well-behaved students and those plans didn’t work at Ramjas. By the end of the second week, some students especially Veena and Arjun were openly defying her. They would not do their homework or pay attention in class.

Sagarika listened in on the staff room conversations hoping to get some idea or method that would help her teaching. She was afraid to admit that she was having difficulties with teaching. Nothing really helped as none of the teachers seemed to be struggling as she was. Or maybe they had become used to the misbehaviour.

One day, during lunch time at the staff room, she gathered up some courage and asked Noori, the English teacher of Grade 5 on how she handled the classroom.

“Well, they are just brats and you have to show them who the boss is. I have often thrown the noisy ones out of the classroom,” she said.

Bhumi, who had been listening in, chimed, “Yes… some of those can be a handful. I called Veena’s parents last month and they still haven’t bothered to come. From what I heard, they have lots of issues … marital problems you see…. and their child’s school life is on the backburner.”

Tribhuvan, the Hindi teacher said, “Well, I would suggest you talk to Mr DeCosta. One shout from him and they will quieten down.”

Bhumi let out a deep breath and said, “Mr DeCosta’s style is all about you-figure-it-out-yourself. He will listen to you, Sagarika, but he won’t tell you what to do. He never does!”

Noori said, “I am waiting for CCTV cameras to be installed in the classes. No more discipline issues from there on.”

Sagarika listened to these ideas but she didn’t like any of them. Fear wasn’t a motivator that she wanted to use. Installing CCTV cameras felt like an invasion of her and the students’ privacy. Sending them out of the class wasn’t a helpful teaching strategy as the students would only fall further behind. Talking to the principal seemed premature. She wanted them to enjoy mathematics so much that they found it better than playing. But she seemed to be stuck.

Maybe, she wondered, the B.Ed hadn’t really prepared her for teaching such a classroom. She was burning out fast, she knew. Five of her batchmates had already quit teaching to join as call-center managers or work in sales positions. That’s not what she wanted.

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While it might be tempting to give quick solutions to Sagarika, try to use the questions below to figure out Sagarika’s dilemma and what is contributing to it. After you read the case, try and spend some solo reflection time with the questions below, then get into groups and discuss:

  1. What, in your opinion, is/are the possible cause(s) of the problem that Sagarika is facing? What other issues are contributing to her struggles? Divide these issues into (a) individual (b) school-wide (c) education system-wide.
  2. Some might argue that the other teachers at Ramjas have given up on the students? What do you think?
  3. How would you describe the leadership in Ramjas? How does it compare with the leadership at your school? Does everyone agree with what is shared?
  4. What are the mechanisms in your school to help someone like Sagarika? If not, what could be five components of such a supporting mechanism. Can you rank these components?
  5. How do you know your mechanism will work? Look at the current research on schools (e.g. using search engines like Google Scholar) to check if any of your ideas are empirically supported.

Sagarika’s case might be the story of a teacher in your own school or it might share dilemmas from your own journey. Sagarika’s questions surely echo some of my own when I began teaching almost a decade ago. Since then, in my work with teachers and principals across the country, I have often noticed two tendencies. The first is to blame the other person or the system for the educational problems we face. Fixing blame feels comfortable because it isn’t our problem anymore. But it keeps things stuck where they are. The second tendency is to solutionize or fix things without understanding the problems. Solutionizing is a key that becomes the lock tomorrow. We must do the unpleasant work of breaking these two tendencies. It is worth the future of our students.

The author began his teaching journey in Mumbai after he switched careers from banking. He has worked with the central government and several state governments on key educational policy issues around teaching and school leadership. When he is not working, he loves to head to the mountains or make pots on his pottery wheel. At present, he is doing his PhD at the University of Virginia and can be reached at gopalmidha@gmail.com.