Every question deserves an answer

Ardra Balachandran

On a random day in 1994, corrected test papers were distributed by our English teacher in class IV. My friend, who usually tops all exams, happened to land only an eight out of ten in this particular one and was visibly exasperated. During our recess, she vented with a mudslinging monologue about the teacher who, according to her, was “showing partiality”. The abuses she hurled appalled me for the simple reason that I was hearing that kind of language for the first time!

Back home in the evening, I casually mentioned to my mother about what had happened. Little did I know that my real opportunity to get appalled was only coming up! At the highest pitch I can imagine her voice in, my mother yelled nonstop for a good two minutes for the blasphemous conversation that my friend and I had indulged in. She warned me unconditionally that if she ever gets to know that I spoke of a teacher disrespectfully, she would disown me. I somehow managed to report in a feeble voice that it wasn’t a conversation, but almost a one way communication. Only after she was convinced of my non-participation, did she calm down.

But times have changed.

art-balancing The generation of parents who would take the teachers’ side in case of a conflict are mostly grandparents now. The nucleus of every present day (nuclear) family is the child and this reflects in all social equations that involve children; particularly those within school. Acharya Devo Bhava isn’t an adage that would ring a bell to most modern parents, let alone students.

Along with a reduced focus on teachers in the education system, there is a bunch of other developments, particularly in the last couple of decades. Through this period, private school culture has become rampant, with new schools mushrooming to meet the demand. The student-teacher relationship has transformed. From the perspective of schools, teachers are just replaceable employees who work in the background for students. There is no dearth of qualified teachers anymore; there is no strict scrutiny of quality among educators either. All of these contribute to a vicious circle wherein parents are increasingly sceptical of teachers.

Labourers without legal or state protection
Stringent labour laws that cover public and private sectors constitute a cornerstone of any civilized society. But do teachers – or “school employees” – in India have a legal framework wherein their grievances can be redressed? The answer is a resounding ‘No’. In earlier times, the cultural consensus that the position of a teacher deserves respect compensated much for this lacuna. With that consensus declining at a rapid pace and teachers turning into just fallible human beings who also happen to be employees of a school, the need for governmental action to create a framework, at the least, wherein teachers know what they deserve; is absolutely essential.

Arun Saxena, President of International Consumer Rights Protection Council (ICRPC) says: “I filed an RTI petition to find out which government department is responsible to address the grievances of private school teachers. Every possible ministry that you can think of in this context – including HRD – washed their hands off. The fact is that they are an orphaned lot.”

The Teacher Plus website receives an astounding number of queries seeking information and guidance on a wide range of issues that teachers face. From “Do teachers have rights against students who slap them or harass them in any way?” to “During cold months can’t teachers wear sweaters or shawls?” the spectrum of questions is quite evocative of the abysmal condition of our education system with respect to teachers’ rights.

Take this one, for example: “Can a school pay salary to its teachers on a priority basis; can they pay someone first as they like them and pay the teacher they like least the last?” This is quite a telling question which throws light on how clueless our teachers are, and helpless as well, even when it comes to matters which are so apparent.

Unaided, quite literally
The issues faced by teachers in the unaided, private management school sector are alarming. A large chunk of questions that come in to our website pertains to the lack of job security and shoddy pay structure in such schools. Terminating without giving enough notice during a valid contract period, not paying salary in the entire first year of employment, withholding salary with retrospective effect citing resignation as a reason, detaining certificates to delay relieving process, denying pay during summer vacation even after many years, thwarting any attempt to form teacher welfare societies by threatening to terminate – these are common occurrences in private institutions. There are even cases where teachers with more than a decade’s experience were terminated without notice. If a teacher is terminated or chooses to quit and joins another school, the second institution can very well disregard their experience and offer a fresher’s salary; nobody will question that. When it is a call between having a job with less salary and not having a job at all, the “choice” is quite easy! The looming insecurity that there are always fresh graduates waiting and willing to take the job without minding much about money makes the decision further easy to make. Experience gets trumped by money considerations and employee rights go flying in the air!

Not paying a “respectable” amount as salary is not even perceived as a problem as though teachers in this segment should just consider themselves lucky to have a job and a fixed salary in the first place! One organization in Kerala, which has several educational institutions under its umbrella, is notorious for crediting a certain salary for records and then making the teachers return a chunk of it in cash (an immensely rich organization which receives ample funding even from abroad).

Is there eligibility for maternity leave (and how long)? Is it possible to get gratuity after 30 years of service? Is it fair to ask for crèche facility in school premises if a teacher has young children? Is there a fee concession for a teacher’s child? These questions may seem very basic in the larger context of global employee rights, yet are, in fact, asking for luxuries in the current setting of our private schools. Is there anything more pitiful than a teacher having to ask if she is expected to stand through the day for all her classes? Yes, there are private schools which refuse to give teachers a table and a chair in classrooms and there is nobody to question that. This is where we “stand” as a society.

Of course, we are not failing to recognize that there are properly run schools even in the private sector. Anjana Unni is an English teacher who has worked in more than one unaided school in Kerala. When she relocated from Kottayam to Thiruvananthapuram three years ago, she went back to her first employer Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, Nalanchira, with eagerness. Her experience has been so pleasant that she goes on to say, “It is as good as an aided school job.” Binu Suresh has been with Girideepam Bethany Higher Secondary School, Kottayam, for the last 26 years and has worked her way up from a high school chemistry teacher to the headmistress. Both Binu and Anjana vouch that in their institutions there is no system of collecting certificates prior to joining or insisting on notice period before resignation. Anjana says, “I have heard of such practices in other private schools which are fairly new. Ours is a school with a history of goodwill.” But we know that exceptions are not examples and also that the “newer” schools aren’t very few. The volume of private schools and their popularity among parents is far too high to not consider having a proper government approved system to ensure quality of the teacher pool and, in turn, upholding their rights.

Social workers in teacher robes
If the issues mentioned above are obvious violations of rights, there is another important aspect which teachers themselves ignore or are not aware of. Arun Saxena brings it up: “It is an internationally accepted norm that employees should not work for more than eight hours in a day. Teachers work eight hours in school and then take home bundles of additional work. With continuous student assessment in place, this is almost an everyday affair which demands so many more work hours and even utilization of their personal resources (electricity, for example). It eats into their time which should be spent with family or on recreation – both essential for an individual’s wellbeing.”

This aspect cuts across the differentiation of public and private schools, yet most teachers would not even agree that this is a problem. Any teacher with some sense of responsibility will only say that it is an integral part of their job to complete these tasks. It is in this context that we should remember, there are schools which demand teachers to come to work on student holidays as well!

The National Accreditation Board for Education and Training (NABET) mentions on their website that they offer “an accreditation program for Quality School Governance in the country, with a view to provide framework for effective management and delivery of a holistic education program aimed at overall development of students.” Many private schools wear this badge proudly on their sleeve to increase their saleability quotient. Even NABET is silent on any guideline for standardization of work hours for teachers.

What is the result? You have hapless teachers racking their brains over questions like “Should trained teachers be manning school buses?” and “Can you clarify if fee collection from minor students is the responsibility of assistant teachers in private schools?”

Empowered students, reticent teachers
On many accounts, the scenario in government aided schools is definitely better when compared to the unaided ones. Lakshmi Anil, who teaches English to high school students at NSS Boys Higher Secondary School, Changanacherry, says: “Government pays salary and promotions are based on seniority alone, so there aren’t many problems. There are occasional minor issues; but they are mostly personal in nature, coming from petty egos.”

teacher Manu M.R. is a mathematics teacher in another institution under the same management – NSS Higher Secondary School, Kesavadasapuram. He highlights an issue which he has observed over his career of almost 17 years: “Students are increasingly aware of their rights; which is a good thing. But they also know how to exploit it. They keep parents in line with threats of suicide and walking out. Even the last bit of fear and respect for teachers is long gone, thanks to NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) fine print. If an issue arises, society and media will take only the child’s side. No one will pay attention to a teacher’s part of the story that the intention was to guide the child on to the right path. So why take risk? Most teachers I know have settled into the attitude of ‘teach, take salary, go home’. Nobody is bothered about moulding students into good human beings and all that. Teaching has become just another job.” No prizes for guessing who loses the most in the bargain – society as a whole.

Where do we head?
Most Indian teachers fall within a small spectrum of socio-economic class wherein it is almost impossible to pursue a legal battle (that there is no law to come to their rescue is another matter) if a grievance gets escalated. They will not have the resources to pay for it. Another deterrent, especially in the case of private school teachers, is fear of termination. Arun put up a complaint form on his website www.consumergrievance.com so that teachers can easily key in details about their complaints. Till date, not a single teacher has shown the courage to divulge names. Most teachers just cannot afford to lose the jobs they have by revealing their identity. It is in this context that an organized effort like an NGO becomes relevant. As of now, there is no such organization in India that works for private school teachers, says Arun. It is high time that such a dedicated organization took up the cause and drew more attention to the rights of the people who impart knowledge to our children.

Within the existing framework, there is also a lot of scope for Parent-Teacher Associations to intervene, especially in the case of private schools. As of now, most of these bodies function only for the benefit of students. If communication channels are made more open so that teachers can voice their issues in a forum where parents are also involved, there are much better chances of managements taking them seriously (and also not get into the threatening mode). It will ensure transparency from all groups – students, teachers, parents and the management. More than that, it provides a collaborative air wherein it is understood by all that wellbeing of both students and teachers – the most important stakeholders in education – is integral to the process of learning.

Finally, if teaching is indeed a noble profession, isn’t it only fair to ask for teachers to be treated like kings and queens?

The author is a freelance media professional based in Kochi. A post-graduate in Mass Communication from the University of Hyderabad and an M.Phil. in Gender Studies, she writes on topics ranging from gender and education to food and entertainment. She can be reached at ardramaanasam@gmail.com.

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