(with inputs from Aniket Nandy)
Both parents and teachers have something in common: they want their children to succeed. Researchers have found that children from poorer communities do not perform well even if the schools are given the same facilities as affluent ones. This is because the human resources available to the children remain unchanged. On the one side are parents who are unable to help the children due to their own lack of education. On the other is the teacher’s inability to use the facilities given to her to enhance the student’s learning.
Teachers working with students from disadvantaged sections are witness to the latter’s struggle to move on to a better future. The students are often apprehensive about whether they will succeed. In such a situation, what can teachers do? While they may not be in a position to make decisions regarding a student’s education or future, they can reach out to the parents and work with them to guide the students to pursue what they want. Most parents believe that teachers can help them better understand their children and their needs. With parents being a part of the larger community, working with them and bringing them into the school context brings great benefits to the children, the teachers and the community at large. Children learn a great deal from observations of personal contexts. Meaning is created through interaction and experience. A good parent-teacher relationship can work wonders for a student.
Examples from Vidya Vanam
From its inception in 2007, Vidya Vanam’s curriculum has been based on the needs of the Irula community of the villages of Anaikatti (Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu). Though established as an English-medium school on the community’s request, we realized that the local culture and lifestyle had to be integrated into and form an integral part of the teaching-learning process. Therefore, we began by recruiting teachers from the community and created an atmosphere for the children that included their language, stories and songs. Apart from this, being employed as a teacher gave these women a certain standing in and respect from the community and the opportunity to further their own education and qualify as teachers as per CBSE norms.
Take the example of Selvi. A young widow with three children, who was a daily wage labourer at a brick kiln. She had just passed class 10 when she joined Vidya Vanam as a kindergarten teacher. Through the years, she has completed her diploma in Indian Montessori training course primary level awarded by the Indian Montessori Centre and is now a qualified teacher, the school’s music teacher. After joining the school, she has completed her B.A. Music and teaches Carnatic music and Irula music at Vidya Vanam.
Another important community engagement project was the forming of a women’s self-help group. Comprising mothers of students and other women in the area, the group were trained in embroidery, stitching, textile design and taught to make bags, pouches, jewellery and other items for sale. Today, they are an independent group and benefit from the support of and advice from Vidya Vanam’s art and craft teachers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the school reached out to the larger community and worked to alleviate problems at the grassroots. Since the government distributed rice and oil through the PDS system, the school made up packets of other food necessities and distributed them to over 1000 families in 25 villages around the school. Apart from this, the school kitchen prepared and distributed cooked food to those who were unable to access supplies, especially the elderly and children.
The other issue the pandemic threw up was the lack of connectivity in the interior villages and lack of access to digital devices. Therefore, the school introduced the idea of bus classes, in which the teachers went into the villages in the school bus and taught the children – not just the Vidya Vanam students but any child who wanted to learn – by holding classes inside the bus or under the trees in the village so that the social distancing mores could be maintained.
As part of its effort to engage the larger community, the school has opened a reading room and library that anyone can access. The library is kept open from 4.00 pm to 6.00 pm on weekdays and through the day on weekends. Here, newspapers, magazines and books are available to anyone who would like to borrow them and read.
Periodically the school conducts awareness programmes on social issues such as addiction and substance abuse, child marriage and also conducts health camps both for its students and the people from the surrounding villages.
Vidya Vanam’s recent campaign is on waste segregation and reduction of plastic waste in the villages. In an effort to encourage the villagers to embrace composting and develop kitchen gardens, the school has offered to supply seeds for cultivation in the patches available at each house and to buy back any produce remaining after the family has taken what it needs. Apart from this, the school is offering to give each family a green garbage bag in which it can store plastic waste (cleaned). The school will collect this every week and arrange for responsible disposal.
Current and former students will be involved in carrying forward these initiatives and liaising with their people to ensure that the message reaches everyone. With awareness of the value of education increasing, many of the students from the Irula community are going on to complete higher education and finding avenues to fulfil their dreams.
The author is the director of Vidya Vanam Senior Secondary School and Aniket Nandy the social science and art history teacher. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.