The funny aspect of the whole thing was when she came over and started beating my students, my initial response was to shrug and continue with the lesson.
Let’s back up.
Two months ago I started a literacy class in a poor community next to the bridge. Makeshift huts climb the river’s banks and line the border of the adjacent city park. These huts comprise the most prominent destitute community in our area, and it was about time that we ventured in to see if they wanted a literacy program.
Accompanied by my friend and fellow teacher Salman, we soon found a family who had kids who wanted to learn. They told us it would be best if we came first thing in the morning when all the kids were around. So Salman and I started an 8am class with two kids, which became four, which became seven, and now after two months is up to 10-15 kids a day. All of the new students are making progress and two have already become literate.
Last Thursday we were teaching kids on our little mat when a middle-aged woman came out of nowhere and started beating them. It says something that my first response was to ignore her. Corporal punishment is common here, I figured she was some auntie or neighbor who the kids had wronged. Salman didn’t do anything either.
I realized more was amiss when after two beatings the woman grabbed a third kid, the one I was actually helping at the time, and queried, “Who are you?”
Wait, she’s grabbing kids left and right and doesn’t even know who one is? This felt like a reason to engage, so we asked who she was.
“I am the government school teacher.”
All kids are supposed to be in school. But in this community most of the kids never go to school, especially not the ones who can’t read and thus come to our little classes. A few of our students did go to school on occasion, and on the days when their parents were sending them to school we’d make sure to teach them first so they could make their 9am bell. But most of the others never went at all.
So let’s get back to the teacher laying down the beatings.
At first she was angry that we had been holding classes the same time as her school. We tried to explain that we had been asked to come at that time, that the kids already stopped attending school long before we got there. She wasn’t really listening.
Salman asked her what subject she taught, and then she got vulnerable. She said she taught all the subjects. Salman asked her to clarify, and she explained that her school had only two teachers for all the kids, so she not only taught all subjects but taught multiple grades together. Then she shared that there was no electricity at the school, and no water. The facilities were falling apart.
Salman told the teacher that it was possible to file a petition with the government to address some of these problems, he had done it at his own school when he was a student. She was interested and asked him if he could help file the petition. Salman promised to try. Soon the teacher left, in a somewhat different manner than she had arrived.
As we finished up class Salman told me a different story. He said that teachers like this don’t do any work, they mostly drink tea in empty classrooms or assign busy work to students while they sit and do nothing. Teacher attendance rates are only 70-80% and sometimes as low as 50%. He guessed that she had probably gotten visited by some higher-up who noticed the lack of students, and for that reason had trekked over to the slum community to berate them for not showing up. Salmon predicted that soon she would stop caring again.
We hope for our students to go to school, but we don’t mind if they wait until getting a head start with us first. School attendance is no guarantee of literacy – one study found that 50% of 5th-grade students in our state are unable to read at even a 3rd-grade level. And that number would have been lower except that many illiterate students had already dropped out of the system by then. Our hope is to fast-track kids into literacy, get them interested in learning, and then get them focused on school. At the very least, verification of graduation is required for many jobs.
The day after the visit, seven of our students went to the government school and weren’t able to attend our literacy class. We focused our teaching time on the remaining students who were too old to go back to school or whose families just cared less. The same thing happened the next day. But then two days later no one went to school and we were back up to 13 kids in our class. Salman was right – the teacher’s energy to pull kids in had only lasted two days.
That interaction highlights the difficulty we have working with systems that are broken on multiple levels. In this case there are at least three conflating issues.
* Many of our students don’t go to school
* But in many cases local educators aren’t teaching most of the time anyway
* The way educators know how to teach (and discipline) when they do teach is destructive to students’ minds and spirits
So how much should we push students to attend if there isn’t teaching going on anyways? How much should we pressure teachers to engage more when the type of teaching that does happen is forceful and demotivating rote education backed with threats of punishment?
I’m proud of the fact that many students who have learned to read from us proceed to go back to school. Our classes appear to make them more confident in their ability to learn and more able to make sense of class. Sometimes our example just gives their parents a greater value for education. But I’m not always convinced that this increase in enrollment is a good thing. The best I can hope for is that our way of valuing kids: letting their voices speak, helping them to think for themselves, and loving and respecting students while acting nonviolently, may be so successful that it permeates the rest of the system.