During pre-service teacher education, I was taught that teachers must be considered professionals with autonomy over their practices. They must devote enough time to learning and keep themselves abreast of the recent research developments in their respective disciplines. Based on this, I had formed a theoretical understanding with respect to the teacher’s professional status and the challenges it faced in the Indian context. I was aware that teachers in India were buried under a number of administrative tasks to which they devoted a significant amount of energy, effort, and time. In the textbook and examination driven system of education, their duties involved making students score good marks, maintaining records, and ensuring discipline in the classroom. This preliminary understanding had prepared me to expect such institutional demands during my journey as a teacher. However, when I finally embarked on the path of being a schoolteacher, I was horrified by the extent to which teachers were expected to perform non-academic tasks. Classroom teaching was the bare minimum that a teacher was expected to do along with several other tasks. This left them with little time for any serious thought or research about the content they were planning to teach or the pedagogical strategies they could use. The theoretical ideas I had only read about were on display in front of me, with a new catalyst magnifying their intensity. This new catalyst was digital technology which was being widely adopted in every sphere of school life, including teaching as well as administrative duties.
The school I had joined was an elite private school. The school management firmly believed that digital technology and artificial intelligence were the future of the country and the students needed to be prepared accordingly. They challenged the traditional pedagogical strategies and persuaded the teachers to regularly integrate their classroom teaching with the latest digital tools. The management even organized weekly training for the teaching staff to ensure ‘continuous learning’. Everything was done using internet enabled devices, from maintaining attendance records to planning lessons. On the face of it, this school would appear as a textbook case for progressive schooling in the country which was focused on the ‘growth’ of their students and teachers alike. A deeper analysis, however, would lift the seemingly progressive façade off this approach and expose the rotten structure which continues to deprive teachers of their voice.
Smartphone as a constant companion
It was my first day at this school and I had the impression that phones were to be used only if there was an emergency. Hence, I carried on with my work with my phone resting in a corner. However, I was instantly made to realize that my phone was to accompany me wherever I went. I was added to numerous WhatsApp groups on my very first day and all the important information was going to be received through this medium, including any urgent communication. I was told that I should expect to be called by the principal or the headmaster at any time, even if I was taking a class. Therefore, I was supposed to keep checking my phone for messages throughout the day. To fulfil these demands, I began carrying my smartphone everywhere, including my classes.
Although the teachers were not supposed to be on their phone while taking a class, they had to check their phones whenever a notification popped up to ensure that it was not a matter of emergency. This practice turned into an ethical conundrum for teachers in which they could never emerge victorious. They had to constantly check messages on their phones, often at the cost of their students, so that they didn’t miss out on an important notice. However, they were severely reprimanded if they failed to see the messages on time and also if the principal saw any teacher using their phone while taking a class or sitting in the staffroom. While the teachers were expected to be aware of all the updates they were receiving through their phones, being seen using their devices was enough to label them as ‘lazy’ and ‘non-serious’ by the principal. The constant state of anxiety, helplessness, and compulsion caused by this exercise turned teachers into unthinking employees, only trying to stay out of trouble. No one dared to reflect upon this mandate, let alone speak up against it. The smartphone, thus, rendered a brutal blow to the teachers’ ability to think or act without fear.
Lesson plans integrated with technology
The teachers were expected to submit lesson plans for each of their classes, twice every month. These plans were to be made digitally. The planning was to be done on a pre-designed Microsoft Word format which had to be strictly followed. Every year, the school management changed the format to ensure that teachers were making new lesson plans. Teachers had to get accustomed to frequent changes. But the changes were so poorly done that teachers had to spend a significant amount of time learning how to work with them, time that would be better spent researching and finding diverse academic materials for students.
A constant requirement in every plan was to integrate technology in the lesson by listing at least three video links. Teachers were also encouraged to use digital games and online quizzes in the class. The lesson plan was evaluated based on the inclusion of such material without any cognisance of its suitability or necessity to the lesson that was to be taught. As a result, teachers would focus on creating these quizzes and searching for videos rather than finding alternate reading material or exploring varied perspectives. Their autonomy over pedagogical methods was gradually replaced by the control of the school management that was blinded by the digital gloss and had little understanding of educational theory.
Interactive boards replace blackboards
To implement the plans mentioned above, interactive boards were introduced to create digital classrooms. They did not supplement the ‘traditional’ blackboards but replaced them. In every class, the teacher had to first login to access the quizzes and other digital material she had prepared. This exercise led to the loss of approximately five to seven minutes of the 35 minutes teaching time. During the time that was left, teachers had to constantly juggle between different windows on the system including the whiteboard, the video, the quiz, and the PowerPoint presentation. This struggle distracted them from focusing on the content they were teaching and the discussions that had been planned.
Towards the end of every class, teachers were supposed to logout from their account. Often, the rush of reaching the next class made them forget about logging out. This could have severe consequences. Once, a teacher forgot to logout from her account and the students used this as an opportunity to download the question papers for the upcoming examinations. When the principal found out, the teacher was blamed for being ‘irresponsible’ and ‘careless.’ The authorities remained oblivious to the deeper causes of this ‘lapse.’ The faith in digital technology remained firmly entrenched, placing teachers at the receiving end of suspicion.
Digital records and materials
The school’s reliance on digital technology to enhance efficiency demanded teachers to maintain records and share learning materials prepared by them on numerous platforms. The foremost record they were expected to maintain was that of attendance. However, apart from the physical attendance register, teachers were expected to upload the attendance everyday on four different platforms. This had to be done before the lunch break. Teachers who did not have any free slot before the lunch break were caught in a cycle of stress and powerlessness. These unrealistic demands took a toll on their well-being and motivation.
Another demand that most teachers found unreasonable was to upload the materials prepared by them on various portals, each requiring a unique format. The management had mandated that every lesson be accompanied by a lesson plan, a PowerPoint presentation, a video, an online quiz, and a question bank. These also had to be shared with the students through an application and via Microsoft Teams. Preparing these materials as a mandate did not take into cognisance the suitability of these materials for the lesson. The pedagogical value of video-based lectures was not assessed before asking teachers to prepare and upload them. Spending most of their time preparing these, teachers could rarely think about or explore ways to make their classrooms more engaging. Enslaved by such demands, teachers lost their creative spirit to create meaningful classroom experiences.
Continuous professional development in a digitalized ethos
When a new teacher joined, she had to undergo a training session by the IT department of the school to familiarize her with the portals and planning mandates. While this was a much-needed induction into the digital environment of the school, it made most of the new entrants anxious. A common response of the new teachers was that they would not be able to keep up with such stringent demands. Trainings were, however, not limited to the initial days of appointment. Every teacher had to compulsorily attend online training sessions organized by the school management almost every week. The timings of these trainings were always Saturday afternoons, which went beyond the stipulated number of working hours. The mode of delivery was lecture-based and often monotonous. Most of the trainers were working in corporate style educational settings who failed to comprehend the basic principles of educational discourse. Frustrated by these ill-timed, poor quality training sessions, most teachers attended them only as an institutional requirement.
Teachers were also expected to ‘independently’ enroll in online courses for their professional development. However, most courses they enrolled in did not require any serious engagement. Many of them could be completed within an hour. By the end of the academic session, almost every teacher had a long list of such dubious ‘qualifications’ which neither enhanced their content knowledge, nor had a substantial effect on the quality of teaching.
Showcasing their ‘achievements’ was another part of the job. Teachers had to share everything they did on social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook. This was viewed as a marker of ‘continuous professional development’. Teachers were, therefore, seen recording videos and taking pictures in the classroom to share on their social media accounts. Students’ privacy was not even a distant thought. The disruption caused by taking these pictures was entirely ignored by teachers as well as the principal as long as an active presence was maintained on social media. Caught in this frenzy to constantly prove themselves and document their work, teachers were distracted and derailed from the rigorous path that teaching and learning entails.
Consequences for teachers’ professional identity
The National Education Policy 2020 advocates the use of technology in educational pursuits to improve ‘educational processes and outcomes.’ The policy imagines a ‘bidirectional’ relationship between technology and education. However, it hides the links of technology with a privatized neo-liberal regime which denies significance to the teacher’s work. As argued by Krishna Kumar (2011) in an article titled Teaching and the Neo-Liberal State, ‘technically facilitated communication’ in the process of education reduces ‘the teacher’s agency and spontaneity to relate and respond.’ I closely experienced this phenomenon while teaching in a techno-governed school.
Over-reliance on technology and device-based pedagogical methods deprived teachers of any agency to initiate critical discussion or employ creative strategies to teach. They were reduced to their instrumentality in implementing pre-defined rigid frameworks. Digital technology promoted an ethos in which the teachers could be controlled effectively by the management and their efficiency could be measured. A teacher who spent her time reading or researching had no ‘evidence’ to prove her worth to the management. Gradually, the flickering spirit of resilience was replaced by a culture of compliance and obedience.
Based on my experiences, I argue that technology threatens to further reduce the already precarious status of teachers in India. This new position demands subservience rather than active thought. Caught in the web of regulation, suspicion, surveillance, and evaluation, the teacher’s identity as an autonomous professional remains endangered.
The author is a former history teacher who taught in a popular private school in Uttar Pradesh. Her areas of interest and work are teaching of history, curriculum studies, and museum and heritage studies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.