Teaching in India

by Kenneth Champeon, Sep 27, 2003 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

The power of teachers lies in the enormous influence they have upon the world's children. But should teachers be respected or ridiculed? In developed countries, they are poorly paid, and they are usually ranked with policemen and firefighters in terms of the desirability of their jobs; in developing countries, teachers give equal time to crowd control and the embellishment of the bland curricula provided by remote government officials.

In India teaching provides wives and single women with a supplementary source of income for their extended families. Teachers seldom pursue further education; indeed, most teachers seldom read. Unlike their American counterparts, Indian teachers do not delude themselves into believing that education is a profession comparable to medicine or law.

And India's exam-driven system discourages teachers from veering too far off the state syllabus. They cover what needs to be covered; very often, they cover what they had learned in school. And at end of term they are forced, and the students are forced, to cram. In this context, innovation is counterproductive.

Salaries are discouraging: my Indian colleagues earned 3500 rupees a month, then about $90. This was barely enough to pay for a living space about the size of an American living room -- even in the Bombay suburbs. No teacher could afford to live alone.

Overpopulation may be the root problem. I taught classes containing upwards of 60 students; insanely, the government wanted to increase the number to 80 or 85. Teachers generally taught four to six of these classes per day; so, at exam time, they had to grade as many as 300 exams.

Resources are stretched. As of 1997, my school had no photocopier, only a cyclostyling machine. Most teachers were computer illiterate; many could not type. Candles were used to boil water for science demonstrations. One of my "chalkboards" was made of cloth; an ordinary chalkboard was smaller than a door frame. Chalk was soft; it snapped often; you could go through two pieces in 30 minutes. Erasers, or "dusters", always went missing. Internet access was problematic: connections dropped regularly; modems broke or disappeared; once, burning trash melted the phone lines.

A teacher asked me how the developed world could help the developing world. Not how, I thought, but where to begin?

At first many teachers struck me as lazy. They spent a lot of time in the staff room: knitting, gossiping, comparing clothing, reading Femina magazine, drinking tea. They seldom prepared lesson plans; their time was consumed by managing truckloads of paperwork. Professional discussion was courteous but vacuous.

But they were not lazy; they were exhausted. The heat alone was stupefying. Many teachers rushed home to cook, care for parents, tend to children; they were never alone. Many gave "tutions" (tutorial sessions) to make extra money. Many had extensive religious commitments. One teacher commuted for two hours a day; another for four. Their environment was highly distracting; they were constantly being summoned and interrupted. Absenteeism was rife, so teachers had to fill in for each other at a moment's notice.

Lee Krishnan was a teacher at a boys' school. She woke up at about 6:30 every morning. She would boil the day's water and prepare her son for school. They entered the city by train: a one-hour trip. She fed her son toast, or an egg. (She took the Harbor Line from Vashi, which passes through Bombay's worst slums. "Sometimes it gets depressing," Lee said.)

Lee was a class teacher -- or homeroom teacher -- so she had to be on time: 9:30 sharp. Her son went to her school, and would remain there until he was taken to a babysitter nearby. Lee taught four or five classes a day. She ate lunch from a dhaba, a portable stack of stainless steel bowls, for 15 rupees.

She left school by four or five and returned by train. Her apartment building looked like an American housing project, but its stability was questionable. The cement looked like hardened play dough. Her apartment was smaller than the bedrooms in my flat: her husband, who "hated" Bombay and wanted to live in a village, called the apartment a "matchbox". It had little decoration; she had bought the furniture in college; her faucet was always leaking, when the water worked. Her dog, Flash, was chained to a table leg. Her son, Dushyant, rode a toy scooter with manic enthusiasm in the cramped space.

Lee spent her evenings cooking for her husband, who worked long hours as a computer consultant. She spent a lot of time on the phone. Only once did she complain of fatigue. She took me on tours of the city, to Belapur and Elephanta, to Hindi films. She never tired of walking.

She was proud; she wanted to pay for everything. She bought me a book, which she inscribed with the words, "I hope you have good memories." She asked me if I needed to do any Christmas shopping. I did; I needed a salwar kameez. "Thursday okay with you?" she asked. And on Thursday I would watch her haggle with consummate skill. I have never known anyone who laughed as much as Lee did, except perhaps her son. Her husband described himself as an optimist. They made it easy to ignore their dismal apartment.

Lee was a revolutionary teacher. She called my roommate nightly to plan for the next day, if our phone was working. In one exercise, she made her students complete 10 sentences that began with the words "I can't". After reading their papers, they had to destroy them. One student had written "I can't disrespect my parents"; Lee made him destroy it. She took her students on field trips; she began a photojournalism project and courted corporate sponsors; she stopped a class for 5 weeks, until it had agreed upon a class constitution to correct misbehavior. She uttered a heresy: "I want my kids to enjoy language".

But Lee was isolated. Nobody knew what she was doing, and she was above explaining it. She found meetings and workshops irksome. She was a compulsive reader; she was studying for a Ph.D.; her interests ranged from Latin American Studies to Islam. Being a Christian, she was free from the stifling influence of Islam. "Mutt" was one of her favorite insults.

Though alone at the boys' school, Lee had a comrade at the girls' school: Melissa d'Alphonzo, also a Christian. Both motivated and thoughtful, they did not meet until they both traveled to America as part of an educational exchange program. After that they became conspirators; they phoned each other constantly.

I met Melissa in America. She had left a newborn son behind in India and was anxious about him. Her husband worked in Dubai. It had been a conscious decision; it made financial sense. But as her son grew, she and her husband had begun to reconsider.

Warm, confident, tenacious, cheerful: this was Melissa. Like Lee, she found joy in simple things. Eating off banana leaves was "so dirty!" In Bombay there was "so much of crowd!" But in the classroom Melissa was all business.

She taught like an American, insofar as this was possible in an Indian setting. She encouraged students to formulate ideas in their words; she encouraged analysis over indoctrination. And she did these things while keeping a tight rein on the often explosive Indian classroom. She wanted her kids to be freer and more responsible. But she often wondered whether they were learning anything; exams said otherwise. She defied the syllabus; she talked to her students about life, about the news.

So like Lee, Melissa walked a tightrope. A few years earlier she had left her school for another, more lucrative, less hectic job. She returned because teaching the richer students was unrewarding. "These kids have so much to give," she said. The teachers did not. "Every time someone comes from outside," she said, referring to me, "the school sucks them dry. They make them do this, make them do that." When Melissa and I decided to direct Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, other teachers made belittling comments. Shakespeare!

Melissa's plate was full. After teaching her morning classes, she traveled to other schools in Bombay to disseminate her school's initiatives. She returned to help with drama practice, and then went home to her son. Then, two hours of church service. In Bombay such running about is time-consuming, tiring, and expensive.

One day we took a cab together. Melissa always covered her mouth with a handkerchief when passing through downtown. "I was very upset yesterday," she said. I told her I thought she never got upset. "Of course I get upset," she said. "I just don't show it." An indirect criticism: we Americans always showed it; this was weakness. But Melissa was wearing down. At work she met nothing but resistance and failure. She and her mother had been fighting. Her son's health was fragile, and her husband was across the sea.

Usually she reacted to obstacles with a sigh and a melodious "What to do?" She was a woman of action, of details, of hope. She treated the girls like daughters. "What is it, child?" she would say. And she began to treat me like a son. She brought me Oreos and Goan food. She inquired into my love life; she said that romantic love was impossible without faith in God; she talked of destiny. I was a perfectionist, she said, because I was a Capricorn. She would phone me occasionally to gauge my mental health. "You seem," she said, "more depressed every day." And she was right. But my depression after leaving India was worse.

Melissa's other comrade was Naazli Khan. Naazli was as gentle as she was serious. She could tell tardy teachers that they were not children anymore and shouldn't have to be reminded of meeting-times; she could also, for a favor so small I can't remember it, promptly go into the library and make me a thank-you card.

Naazli called me Champ. So I called her Khan.

Naazli was the school's field-general. She always had the last word. She would scold novice teachers for making obvious mistakes, but she was almost never vicious. What viciousness she had always dissipated in world-weary laughter. She was always busy. She would walk into the staff room, sit down with a sigh, and wipe her brow with a handkerchief.

In the classroom she had a rare combination of intelligence and flair, a kind but cutting way of gainsaying her students. Like Melissa, she was on a mission to get the students to think precisely. Once she asked them a question and they responded -- all of them -- with the ambiguous Indian head wobble. "Don't shake your heads!" she shouted. "Yes or no!"

I eventually became Naazli's computer tutor. She was stubborn about learning how to do things herself. Her mouse was always falling off her mouse pad: the mouse was a new toy, unfamiliar. And while we sat in front of graphs, we talked about my marriage plans: a common topic. She read my palm.

Naazli had a nightmare about me. Some thugs came into the school and beat me up. Later she dreamt that I was abandoning her and the other teachers; I was headed to Boston; I waved as I walked away with a trolley. It was the nightmare of every Indian: that no amount of generosity can keep foreigners in India.

Naazli was one of many Muslim women who was approaching spinsterhood. Parents continued to seek matches for their daughters, but the field grew thinner. "It's quite sad," said Melissa. "Naazli is a good teacher and a good person." Melissa could have been speaking of herself, or of Lee. But their benevolence and skill were up against a monstrously corrupt and incompetent system. I never quite decided if they were heroes for persisting, or fools. But it was their country; they loved it; and if they did not save it, who would?

- The End -