“Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar meets his school teacher on his two-day visit to Kerala” – this was prime time news a month or two ago. It is admirable that a distinguished person holding a high office remembered his humble roots and chose to pay public salutations to his teacher. What I found even more admirable was that the teacher was able to vividly recall every small detail about Dhankar’s school days. “A young boy in khaki, sitting in the first row, fully concentrating on the class” – she fondly reminisced, among other things.
I have several teachers in my circle of acquaintances. For all practical purposes, I am one myself, though it is only a part-time vocation for me. When the above incident came up during casual conversations among us, each of us accepted that such a strong bond between teacher and student in today’s world is rare, very rare. Why is that, we wondered. Is it desirable, we debated. Yes, very much, we concluded.
A good many reasons for this diminished bonding cropped up during our discussions. But one reason stood out as the root cause. It came up repeatedly as the underlying cause of many other issues. It was the issue of skewed student-teacher ratio. Keeping aside a handful of schools catering to the elite, most schools in our country, urban or rural, have a poor pupil-teacher ratio (PTR). That is the focus of this article.
PTR is a silent but fundamental problem ailing our education system. One that does not get the attention it warrants.
In my experience as a teacher of technology subjects, I have had the opportunity to teach classes with just 3-4 students present. At the other extreme, I have also had over 300 students sitting in my class! The dynamics of teaching small groups and large groups are entirely different. We label them differently too, and rightly so:
• Private tutoring: Mostly an informal gathering where the teacher takes special interest in the personal learning journey of every single student.
Ideal: 1-10 students. Typical: As large as the tutor’s living room!
• Coaching classes: Whether online or in person, these are organized training sessions conducted by private companies generally oriented towards an entrance examination.
Ideal: Around 25 students. Typical: Close to ideal, at least that’s what their ads say.
• Formal schooling: Formal classroom environment with fixed roster schedules and teachers working towards the primary goal of syllabus completion.
Ideal: Around 30 students. Typical: Between 25-80 students.
• Training and workshops: Medium-size gathering of a Subject Matter Expert imparting on-job skills to participants. The goal is to collaborate in real projects and learn from the mentorship of the trainer.
Ideal: Around 30 students. Typical: Focused and effective when conducted at the mentors’ official premises. But overcrowded and largely ineffective when conducted at the education institutions.
• Knowledge sharing sessions/lectures: Meant to be a one-way dissemination of knowledge on specific topics from an expert to a deeply interested audience.
Ideal: Attendee strength not a constraint as it’s more of a one-way knowledge sharing.
Each of these forms has a specific scope and purpose and works well only in that scope.
What is recommended as per the law
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE) in its Schedule lays down the PTR for both primary and upper primary schools. At primary level the PTR should be 30:1 and at the upper primary level it should be 35:1. The Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) framework stipulates that the PTR at secondary level should be 30:1.
Why higher student strength doesn’t work?
To help convey a point, the teacher needs to constantly make eye contact with the students. The teacher monitors the body language of the students to gauge whether the students are able to understand what is being taught. Only then can the teacher narrow down on the students who need more attention including those who are inattentive. And, it is practically impossible for a teacher to monitor more than 25-30 students in an effective, focused way.
What about online classes?
Online classes are suboptimal compared to in-person classes as they are devoid of body language gesturing or making eye contact. They are rising in popularity as there are other reasons where they score better such as saving travel time, use of digital tools, and so on. However, monitoring absenteeism and indiscipline is the key challenge for online classes. So the same thumb rule holds. It is practically impossible for a teacher to monitor more than 25-30 students in an effective, focused way even in online classes.
Urban vs rural challenges
The problem seems uniformly prevalent in government schools, urban working-class neighborhoods, and rural schools. Good, knowledgeable teachers are lured away by other lucrative job options in urban centers. In the villages, local inspired teachers who can effectively convey subject matter content in the vernacular are limited. So, in both cases, the issue is scarcity of good teachers. That invariably leads to overcrowding of classes of the teachers who remain to shoulder the responsibilities.
The way forward
There are some concrete solutions articulated in the New Education Policy, 2020 (NEP). The NEP focuses heavily on filling vacancies for teachers and also pays attention to the often-neglected aspect – the PTR.
First, teacher vacancies will be filled at the earliest, in a time-bound manner – especially in disadvantaged areas and areas with large PTR or high rates of illiteracy, says the policy document.
“Special attention will be given to employing local teachers or those with familiarity with local languages. A PTR of under 30:1 will be ensured at the level of each school; areas having large numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged students will aim for a PTR of under 25:1,” lays down the policy.
“Teachers will be trained, encouraged, and supported – with continuous professional development – to impart foundational literacy and numeracy”, it says.
“On the curricular side, there will be an increased focus on foundational literacy and numeracy – and generally, on reading, writing, speaking, counting, arithmetic, and mathematical thinking – throughout the preparatory and middle school curriculum, with a robust system of continuous formative/adaptive assessment to track and thereby individualize and ensure each student’s learning. Specific hours daily – and regular events over the year – on activities involving these subjects will be dedicated to encourage and enthuse students. Teacher education and the early grade curriculum,” the policy document says.
Sounds like an effective plan, at least on paper. What actually translates into concrete results, only time will tell.
Nevertheless, taking a cue from Dhankar’s visit each of us can make a concerted attempt to visit our alma maters and seek out our teachers. We can express our gratitude, share our successes, and make them feel cherished. We could even offer to volunteer to teach.
The author is an IT industry drop-out after several years of slogging and money-making. She is now working freelance as a corporate technical trainer and content writer. She is hoping to channelize her passion for writing into a satisfying experience for herself and a joyous experience for her readers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.