Chalk and Challenges

The pandemic and a new mode of teaching reaffirmed that a teacher’s job is perennial, says Esha Chaudhuri

  By Esha Chaudhuri

“Teacher’s Day is a symbol of relationship for me. A day, where students get a chance to express their feelings for us, vocally and otherwise. We, for a change, sit, watch and listen to them. It’s a day where their hearts and ours clasp in a heartfelt embrace” says Wara Kharkongor, senior teacher at Pine Mount School.

September 5 is a day of recognition of teachers bringing excellence in the field through their contribution towards the development of the future, not without acknowledging the trials and tribulations of the pandemic. Leading during the crisis, pedagogical adaptations in remote learning versus regular classroom learning is seen as one of the biggest challenges for students as well their families, but the most for teachers.

Innovation and adoption

The switch to technological ways of pedagogy was almost overnight, but the transition was received well by teachers as well as students. Balsera Sangma, a teacher at Sherwood School, Tura says: “Teachers have taken well to the new mode of teaching. Live sessions, as well as online classes, have become the new norm. In fact, students have broken the mould of classroom learning byproceeding to self-learn through the internet, which has led to increased retention of information.”

In many instances, the new form of rigour seemed like a blessing in disguise. Principal of St. Edmunds School, Shillong, Solomon Morris says, “They (teachers) have adapted admirably and are evolving as super teachers each day. Learning never stops and they learn from each other, helping each other as they discover new tools to enhance their teaching-learning process. I am thrilled with the progress they are making.”

In others, the sudden nature of this changeover has given many schools and their teachers a window to reinvent educational activities from a futuristic point of view. As Principal of Loyola College, Williamnagar, Sunny Augustine says: “The new mode of teaching has forced many teachers to develop dual skills of face-to-face and virtual mode of teaching. Currently, we are integrating skills for both these modes to develop a hybrid system effective in teaching and learning. With the training given in the use of multiple platforms online, teachers in my school have been able to navigate between online and offline modes of teaching with ease and comfort.”

In many cases, the high dependence on technology became a point of learning new skills for teachers. As Kharkongor explains, “I am still learning to adapt, still finding ways and means in my limited facility and capacity to impart the knowledge through online classes. I am not tech-savvy nor have the equipment to try out various modes of deliverance. My only innovative method is using voice recording, where students can listen and rewind my lessons umpteen times. For diagrams, I send visuals.”

Building on this point, Anita Chakravarty, Assistant teacher at Loreto Convent, Shillong says, “The pandemic changed dynamics and challenged norms. Chalk and talk is perhaps still the most effective method of imparting education. However, online methodology is not entirely ineffective. Learning through trial and error is my narrative.”

Given the technological hurdles and the difficulty in monitoring challenging students, Principal Montfort Centre for Education, Tura, K.J. Jose shares how they made the curriculum interesting. “Besides routine classes, we shared with the students videos, audios, prepared notes, question answers and appropriate YouTube links for their further reference and study. Separate WhatsApp groups are created for each class for this purpose. However, reaching each student and keeping them engaged has been a herculean task.”

Emphasising on the need for a transformatory approach to educational practices, Arandati Paul, teacher at SJRBH School, expounds, “Jumping prevalent norms of teaching and accepting radical changes in classroom teaching was difficult to adapt to in the first few weeks. Gradually, one had to acquire digital classroom skills, to stay connected. My entire approach to teaching was turned upside down and thrown into a torrid virtual world. I’m learning on the job, with new e-education modules each day. However, to be at par with global teaching methods, we have to discard obsolete teaching styles. Henceforth, classrooms have to be fully digitized, where the teacher becomes a facilitator of learning. After all, technology is just another tool, not the destination.”

Nobody’s left behind

“Whether it is pandemic times, or normal times, the pressure to keep students afloat with their curriculum is always there. It is not about completing the course or syllabus. Have our children learned anything? It is about effective assessment of the concepts they have mastered. Is the curriculum relevant to their lives?” Morris asks.

Drawing attention to the crucial importance of the formative years, Augustine reflects, “The foundation of education is laid in lower classes, and most students in the villages have little to no access to quality education for their footing. No build-up is possible on a weak bedrock. In many villages of the state primary education sector, which is backed by the government, very little is invested. If anything has to happen in the future, it has to begin in the primary section.”

Giving an insight into the enormous pressure of teachers to keep the curriculum afloat, Jose explains, “Despite their commitment, teachers have had to ensure that students remain motivated especially for those appearing for Board examinations. Being aware of the many distractions and the varied household conditions of the students, teachers have tried their best to deal with the learning gap. Every day thus becomes a challenge for them and compels them to be more resourceful and adaptive.”

Sharing a realistic perspective on the immense pressure on teachers in general and the difficulty in assessing the performance of students, Kharkongor states, “Challenges as teachers we face galore! Finishing the curriculum is not such a problem. Concise, loaded lectures can always complete the syllabus. But, that’s not the point. The real challenge is how much have the students really learnt. Because body language, eye contact, spontaneous verbal response, etc. are very important aspects to set the pace for really assessing how much a student has imbibed from what’s taught. Personally, online teaching is like learning how to fly in a simulator. The next step is sitting in a real cockpit, a plane loaded with passengers, on a real aeroplane, on a real runway. Disastrous! Confidence shattering for both passengers and pilot.”

From the stance of primary school teaching and learning, Madhuri Ghosh, teacher at Rilbong Lower Primary School observes “students are too young to understand what online classes are. As teachers, we’ve tried our best by researching on how to help them better understand a simple topic so that they develop an interest towards learning things online. For example, we created animated videos by ourselves to show the body parts like hands, legs, head etc. and compiled the pictures with an audiofile so that they can learn better and faster.”

Presenting an alternative point of view on traditional institutional teaching, President and Educator, Education Centre at Spark, Seema Modak exemplifies her woes of keeping the drive functional among marginalised students. She says, “I teach children from slums and among 100 families, only two had smartphones in the villages. Economic burden on families of students has been high. Apart from that, network and connectivity in the villages has been a tremendous challenge. To get past this, we planned the curriculum and paid for a common phone in containment zones, and for villages, where we got one of the teachers who had a phone to act as the medium, and passed on lessons for different classes one at a time, in different batches.”

Reflection on State’s Indices

The Education Ministry had some time ago released the latest edition of the Performance Grading Index (PGI), where the performance of states in school education was assessed based on different parameters. Out of 1000, Meghalaya scored 649, finding itself at the bottom of the chart. On examining the grim state of affairs, the responses reflected a critical reassessment of the current situation in the sector, as well as the call for an overhaul in the structure and management.

Explaining how the state’s position in the performance index fared, Morris states, “I am not surprised at all. It’s for us to question whether we have taught them to think for themselves? Can they solve problems on their own or at least come up with some solutions or ideas? Do we encourage creativity? Can they express their opinions and views? Do we allow them?”

He elaborates further: “How many of our teachers are trained to deliver education along the lines I outlined above. There needs to be a radical change in the way we run our Teacher Training Centres and the B.Ed Colleges. Our teachers need the best training by the best teachers in the business. And we have these teachers in our state. If only we could harness the potential and get it going under creative and dynamic leadership with clear visions.”

Shedding light on the neglect of rural educational institutions in the state, Sangma affirms, “The reasons for Meghalaya doing disastrously is that education is not addressed threadbare and no serious attempts have been made to improve the education scenario, especially in rural Meghalaya. The Education department must take corrective steps by inducting trained staff, physical infrastructure and most importantly recruit people with the right aptitude. Loopholes need to be plugged immediately.”

Augustine observes, “Shillong had been the educational hub of the Northeast at one point in time, owing to geographical and historical reasons. We certainly are proud of this, but it is time to go beyond Shillong to other parts of Meghalaya. As far as a promising index is concerned, we need to fulfil parameters such as access, equity, governance processes, infrastructure and facilities, and learning outcome. We have a long way to go.”

However, all hope is not lost. Morris elucidates, “There is hope because Meghalaya has a huge repository of talent in almost all fields. All we need is the will to succeed, creative leadership, broad and clear vision, and greater accountability and responsibility. We need a collective vision, unbiased and fair management, judicious and transparent use of financial and human resources and transparent communication among all stakeholders in the education sector.”

Reimagining a new world

Could the move to online learning be the catalyst to create a new, more effective method of educating students? While some worry that the hasty nature of the transition online may have hindered this goal, others plan to make e-learning part of their ‘new normal’ after experiencing the benefits first-hand. The switch to new coaching techniques has been the highlight, but it has significantly aired internet struggles as well as the economic gap between the privileged and marginalised.

Despite the adjustment to online classes, chop and change are inevitable. The announcement of reopening schools, earlier a recurring annual event, now comes with its share of accommodations.

Welcoming it, Jose says: “I feel it is time to reopen the schools adhering to the precautionary protocols and ensuring maximum care. All the classes could be opened permitting 50% capacity on a given day. A certain amount of risk is inevitable as in all other fields like markets, travel, etc.”

Calling it timely and crucial, Sangma says, “As long as COVID-19 SOPs are followed and the cases are less in the area, this will prove to be good. Although students did adapt well to online classes, challenges like poor internet connectivity hampered the learning of a few. There were also concerns about the students’ mental health as they stayed inside their homes for months on end without any physical activity or in-person communication with their peers.”

Making an appeal to authorities and civil society members, Modak says “to avoid another similar situation in the future, a training programme should be provided by the government for teachers along with technical help since now online teaching and distant learning has become the norm. Also, as members of a conscientious society, we should help each other so that hope is kept alive.”

In a tribute to her teachers and mentors, Paul expresses “The day of 5th September magnifies its essence as it humbles me to remember all my teachers who contributed to shape the livewire in me and made me what I’m today. Teachers in whose encouragement I drew succor, in whose admonishes, I perfected my flight, in whose dedication, I discovered myriad worlds of possibilities and in whose unbiased love I still revel to this day.”

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