The Uncounted tasks of a teacher

Kanupriya Jhunjhunwala

“The teacher alternates her role all day to negotiate the world through her children, serving as a healer, nurse, parent, police and so on. Those who criticize the teacher should try spending a full day with fifty children. The number is usually higher; in many parts of India, it exceeds eighty. If teachers don’t go mad, it is because they don’t attempt the impossible. They manage as best they can, keeping India’s human resource development a low-energy operation. We can hardly hope to change this situation unless we look at teaching from the teacher’s viewpoint, standing with her in a real, average school.”
-Krishna Kumar, ‘Let Us All Blame The Teacher’, in a Pedagogues Romance – Reflections of Schooling, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008

It is ironical that the very machinery that is responsible for overseeing human resource development in our country has little, if any, concern for its own human resources. The bulk of the work of education is carried out by teachers, yet the teacher continues to be, at best, a cog in the wheel of education. Business leaders have long understood and responded to the connections between employee working conditions and productivity, yet when we talk of education systems we fail to make this critical link.

In an era in Indian education when external accountability in the form of large scale assessments is becoming the norm and authorities are quick to label the health of a system based on the performance of children on externally designed and pedagogically disconnected assessments, the blame for failure is often placed squarely on the shoulders of teachers. Undoubtedly the so-called ‘non-school factors’ – socioeconomic status of children, literacy levels of parents, home language, etc., are ritualistically recalled, however in a situation where the government system is increasingly acknowledged as a system for the poor, these factors may as well be recognized as government school factors. The difficulties of working as a teacher in a government primary school in the post Right to Education / Universalization of Elementary Education era are yet to be recognized in all their complexity. Till such time we fully appreciate the complexity of this work and assuage the conditions under which it is carried out, teachers will remain isolated in their classrooms, face overwhelming non-instructional duties, have limited opportunities for decision-making, lack basic materials and envision few opportunities for advancement and growth.

At this juncture, it is important to make a distinction between service rules/guidelines and working conditions. While the central Act itself and various state rules clearly define service rules and conditions, these guidelines only cover those areas relevant to the smooth functioning of the government’s efforts to manage teachers. They deal with administrative areas such as recruitment, leave, transfer, conduct, retirement, pension, and provident fund. Guidelines related to the work of teaching and learning are almost lost within the rules of conduct. For example, in the West Bengal State Primary Teachers’ Manual , of the 97 pages in all, only two pages are devoted to duties, rights and obligations of teachers, while the rest of the chapter on conduct (seven pages) are devoted to annual performance report, suspension, penalties, and associated procedures.

The central Act is more generous in its consideration of teachers. The Schedule which outlines the norms and standards for schools, including pupil-teacher ratios, norms for buildings, and school hours for children and working hours for teachers could be taken as an indication of the working conditions envisioned for the teacher. Other sections related to teachers include the qualifications for appointment and terms and conditions of service of teachers, given in article 23. Article 24 outlines the duties of teachers and redressal of grievances and article 25 (read along with the Schedule) mentions the pupil-teacher ratio to be maintained at various levels. Articles 26 to 28 cover the topics of filling up vacancies of teachers, prohibition of deployment of teachers for non-educational purpose and prohibition of private tuition by teacher respectively. Within article 27, it is mentioned that the only non-educational duties of teachers shall be in the case of decennial population census, disaster relief duties, or duties relating to election to the local authority, State Legislatures or Parliament, as the case may be.

Article 29 of the Act is the one related entirely to the duties of teaching and learning, providing references to curriculum, evaluation, and completion of elementary education. It talks about the overall development of the child, with adherence to the constitutional values, in an environment free of fear and anxiety and through activities and exploration in a child-friendly and child-centred manner. This article is referenced in article 24 which states that teachers must fulfil their duties related to the completion of curriculum in accordance with the stipulations of article 29. Overall, about two and a half pages of the 13 page Act are thus devoted to the duties and responsibilities of teachers.

The detailed summary of what is in the Act is important because it helps to draw attention to what is not in the Act or in the various state rules. Our expectations of teachers are clearly mentioned, and when we combine the expectations of the Act and its allied rules with the expectations placed on the teacher by the National Curriculum Framework 2005 and the more recent National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education, what emerges is the vision of a teacher as a thinking, reflecting, learning practitioner, living the values of democracy and creating classroom cultures of inquiry and democratic participation. In our quest to perfect this vision, a necessary quest towards education for democracy, what we seem to have forgotten is that being a teacher also involves the more trivial pursuits and needs of the body. A teacher can only be as much as her body will allow her to be.

Simple creature comforts and psychological well-being become pre-cursors to any teachers’ ability to survive and finally triumph over the vagaries of today’s government primary classroom. These are what are generally recognized as working conditions – perhaps a more apt name could be working pre-conditions. Studies regarding teacher motivation on the one hand and teacher absenteeism on the other have both shown significant positive links with working conditions of teachers. What this means is that aspects of teachers’ working conditions such as physical infrastructure of schools, the pupil-teacher ratio, load of non-teaching duties, professional autonomy, relationship with colleagues, declining professional status, political interference, ease of obtaining housing near the school and the ease and cost of travel to school all contribute to first, the teachers’ ability to be physically present in the school, and then to her motivation levels in attaining educational aims set forth in our national and state documents.

None of these working conditions finds mention in any state documents. The RtE Act expects the teacher to work for 45 hours a week, including teaching and preparatory time, however, given the lack of toilet facilities in a significant number of schools in the country, it would be impossible for female teachers to spend the requisite six to eight hours a day at school. The availability of safe drinking water is a major concern for teachers, and in most schools teachers have to carry water from home, or go without drinking water for the duration of the school day. No doubt, it is the remotest schools that need the most teachers, however, it is the remoteness of these schools that becomes a deterrent for teachers – these are the schools where most often there is no electricity, buildings are rarely repaired, and the effects of inclement weather are most strongly felt. These are the schools where the roof leaks incessantly during the rains, the floors are not yet concrete and seem to wash away with every flood, where the asbestos sheet that passes off for a roof makes the stifling heat of the peak of summer unbearable, where the window panes are not yet installed and the biting chill of winter makes it impossible to sit still on the floor. None of our school surveys measures the crowdedness of schools, or the noisiness that surrounds them, or the smells that they exist amidst. One might argue that these issues are not valid because the Act provides for an ‘all weather’ school building, separate toilets for boys and girls and safe and adequate drinking water. However, it is still not five years since the Act came into force, and although every effort is being made to ensure the provisions of the Act, we are still far from achieving the ideal. In the interim, it is unfair to blame the teacher for all that is wrong with the system. Instead it is important to start considering the factors, which may in the long run make it a little easier for her to fulfill her commitment to children.

Teachers spend many long hours commuting to their schools and are tired by the time they even reach the school. Inadequate and infrequent public transport often means that the school hours are dictated by local bus schedules. One solution that some states have opted for is to stipulate a distance from the school, within which a teacher is required to arrange housing. For example, in West Bengal, a teacher should live within an 8 km radius of the school, it is assumed that this will decrease travel time and also help in the teacher gradually becoming an integral part of the local community. However, it is not always possible to find a house for rent in deep rural pockets, the market for housing in these areas is just not mature enough. If at all it is available, housing is often not of the quality desired. There may be issues of caste and religion at play and for female teachers it may not be culturally appropriate to live alone in a rented house. Teachers often have no choice but to commute long distances, often by unreliable modes of local transport, and many a time on foot.

Besides the physical issues, there are issues of psychological well-being that are just as important. Most government school teachers are too busy. They do not have the mental space or time to reflect on their practice. A 2010 evaluation report of the SarvaShikshaAbhiyan compiled by the Planning Commission shows that approximately 40 per cent of schools in the country had a pupil-teacher ratio greater than 40, and although progress has been made in recent years, we are still far from the ratio of 30:1 as stipulated in the RtE Act. This report also shows that an approximate 60 per cent of all schools in the country in 2010 were multigrade schools, and on average, across the country 18.8 per cent of sanctioned teaching posts were vacant, the vacancies being as high as 46 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, 38 per cent in Madhya Pradesh and 36 per cent in Haryana. When schools are faced with teacher shortages, the teachers who are in schools face increased workload. In primary schools this results in multigrade classrooms, a situation that teachers are not trained to work in-overcrowded classrooms where the teacher is not able to give adequate attention to children. In upper primary and secondary schools it may also result in teachers having to teach subjects that they have no interest or expertise in. The number of working hours put in by teachers in such cases is likely to far exceed the minimum stipulated 45 hours, as teachers struggle to keep afloat with both teaching as well as administrative responsibilities of the day-to-day running of the school.

Recent international research on teacher absenteeism has created a negative image of teachers. One such much cited study found the rate of absenteeism to be as high as 25 per cent. However, the study fell short of investigating the reasons for absenteeism. In response to this study the All India Primary Teachers Federation published a study in 2008, in which they investigated teacher absenteeism in three states. They found that teacher absenteeism was indeed very high, but the reasons for absenteeism showed that a majority of teachers were absent from school because they were either engaged in in-service training, or other election or survey related duties. The study showed that teachers remain absent/are not able to attend school for a number of reasons such as participation in elections to local bodies, State Legislatures and Parliament, decennial population census, disaster relief duties, polio drop campaigns, preparing voters’ list, animal and bird surveys, below poverty line survey, ration card verification, generating awareness among people about leprosy, preparing project activities to be conducted by different panchayats, literacy campaign etc.

Further, teachers have to go to the education department for getting their leave sanctioned, General Provident Fund Advance, seeking release of their dues, annual increment, transfer, to participate in meetings and departmental functions, etc. Education departments are generally so understaffed that teachers feel that unless they go personally, their case will not move. Teachers are also required to travel to the block or district level offices to submit various school related administrative documents such as monthly salary requisition, collect salary cheques, submit various data, etc. In addition, teachers undergo mandatory 20 days in-service training every year. It was also observed in some cases that teachers and students were required to participate in functions involving high officials and VIPs. These reasons coupled with teachers’ illness, their family responsibilities and social obligations increase teacher absence rate. Further absence rates are higher during rainy season, extreme weather conditions, festivals and harvest.

As far as non-educational responsibilities go, the Act clearly lays down the extent of such responsibilities. However, once again, the reality of what actually occurs is more nuanced. Teachers negotiate, on a daily basis, a web of social and political relationships. The pressures they face and the battles they choose to fight continue to occupy a major part of their daily experiences. Many a time, they have to extend their time and contribution to causes supported by the political powers in the village to ensure smooth functioning of the school. It is not uncommon to hear of Panchayat Pradhans demanding contributions in both cash and kind, or of local youth threatening to vandalize school property if their demands are not met. As the perceived stature of the government school diminishes in the eyes of the community, so does the professional stature of the teacher. Increasingly, within the liberalized economy that now recognizes a free market for schools, the government school is being seen as any other arm of the state, as a space where various negotiations between state and society unfold, and people enact their rights and receivables from the state within the space of the school.

Pressures of privatization and an unequivocal demand for English instruction have meant that the government school is no longer the school of choice for people with voice. Government school teachers now grapple daily with the question of professional dignity and are mired in a spiral of failure even before they can make a start towards success. What is ironical is that when a teacher starts being a teacher, she is handed an appointment letter, a cursory few lines of information informing her of what kind of teacher she is appointed as, under which order number, by whom (appointing authority), which school and when she will start. There is never a job description, or even a copy of the service rules that are officially communicated. It is assumed that everyone who becomes a teacher knows what it means to be a teacher. It is assumed that besides the work of teaching and learning, which she has presumably learnt in her two or three or four year diploma/degree course, the course of daily survival within the hierarchies of a school will present themselves to her. It is assumed that she will learn to sink or swim, or in any case, do the best she can.

As Krishna Kumar has rightly pointed out, for many, many teachers it is an effort to survive, to do the best they can. They can either fight a daily battle against corruption, against social and political claims, against the inability of the system to catch up and deliver the promises it has made to children, against a system that has veritably set them up for failure and spend their last iota of energy in losing this battle; or they can exist in a situation of learned helplessness, a situation in which they are no longer aware of what they are capable of, a situation in which they have stopped fighting and learnt to ‘make do’. This latter situation is our status quo today. A situation in which teachers make do, and they teach children to make do – a situation in which we are nurturing a generation of democratic citizens to just get by. A situation in which the work of education becomes crippled by the busy-ness of teachers.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Anushka Halder for her research assistance in this article.

The author is an independent consultant with an active interest in issues of equity in education. She has a Master’s in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She can be reached at

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