Digitising an entire school was always going to be a daunting task. But for the 1.5 million schools in India, many of whom still operated on paper primarily, this task felt herculean. Many schools, especially in villages, had no online payment facilities and conducted most of its curriculum with pen and paper.
The story of underfunded schools is echoed across India. About 10% of them operate with just one teacher for the entire school. The government had recently reduced the budget for Digital learning to 456 crore rupees [nearly 47 million pounds]. According to a recent report from The Hindu, “only 62 percent of schools had electricity connections, only 24 percent had functional computers—and only 9 percent had both”.
None of them were any match for COVID-19 and it’s capacity to force the world to a standstill. Schools were never going to be kept open during the height of the pandemic. After all, who would risk their child being exposed to something so deadly?
This left school administrators, coordinators, and teachers scrambling to bring their entire system online at a breakneck pace. Like every other organisation in the world, schools faced a sharp decline in revenue during the pandemic. And like every other organisation in the world, the employee on the low end of the totem pole were the ones who faced the brunt of the added work, while also having their payment cut short cut by 40% . In this case, the “lower-level employees” were the teachers.
ZOOM OR TEAMS?
Leena has been a teacher for over 23 years and was, until recently working as a coordinator for a major school in Navi Mumbai. She had been employed there since 2018, but for legal reasons, she couldn’t name the school. After the pandemic began, she found herself grappling with constantly changing rules from the schools’ management. Rule changes that often led to confusion and hours of additional training for the teachers under her supervision.
“Initially, they started with Zoom, then reports came of zoom not being compatible, then they went with Microsoft Teams.” She said. Teams operated smoothly for them but the management had a strict policy of secrecy, which Teams didn’t qualify under. So they kept experimenting with different websites, each requiring additional training for the teachers.
The constantly changing rules meant that often teachers would have to sit together for hours on end trying to learn how to teach in these new circumstances. “If a normal working day for a teacher is from 7 AM to 4 PM, these [sessions] went on sometimes till 12:30 PM.”
While they felt that this was causing a huge waste of time, the teachers were powerless to do anything about it. “The teachers did not have any option.” She said. They tried to share their apprehensions with the management but to no avail. For them, there were no two ways around it.
“If you’re asked to do something, you have to do it,” Leena said. “It’s either follow, or quit.”
Even when schools do decide on what software they want to use, the technological woes for the teachers go far beyond that. In a country where wifi is a privilege enjoyed by urban families, most households have limited devices and very poor internet connections. Not to mention the power outages and drop in bandwidth during the frequent heavy downpours between June-September.
But even before the rains, Leena faced her first real challenge when it came time to train the teachers. “The problem was that not all teachers are tech-savvy.” She found that many teachers, especially the senior ones, struggled with online teaching technology.
“It’s like you’re back in the first standard learning your ABC’s,” said Rekha in Hindi. She is head of the department for Hindi at her school. Initially, she struggled to learn how to teach online. Observing her discomfort, students the ever-ready pranksters, tried to mess around, sometimes disrupting the class.
During the early months of the pandemic, she and her entire family were diagnosed with COVID-19. Despite this, Rekha still managed to push through and learn how to use the technology. “Eventually you have to stop giving excuses and do your job”, she said. Whether it was COVID or new technology, she persisted and succeeded.
Even when the teachers did figure out how to use the software, many of them found themselves fighting another battle with the hardware. With the kids requiring a screen for their online lessons, their spouses would need another device to work, the teachers struggled to find a laptop or computer to work on.
In Anshu’s case, it meant that she had to pick who gets to use the device. A primary school teacher, she struggled a lot at first because it was difficult to buy new devices when everything was shut down. “Because of that, my children missed a lot of classes in the first few months.”
The internet connections told a similar story. So many people using the devices at home meant that the internet bandwidth would often be stretched to the point where it was too slow to operate. The school would not pay for the teachers’ internet during this time, and there was no way for teachers to install a new wifi connection during the lockdown.This issue would become worse during monsoon season, where torrential downpours would often disrupt the internet lines and classes would have to be cancelled.
In India, less than a quarter of households had internet facilities set up. Furthermore, the existing ones were concentrated in urban areas, giving only about 15% of rural households have internet, even though they amount to two-thirds of the population. This is according to a 2017-’18 National Sample Survey report on education.
For many, the quality of the internet is abysmal even when it isn’t raining. According to a report from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), almost half of the 36.7 crores (367 million) internet subscribers are on 2G data and narrowband internet. This means that their download speeds are less than 512 kbps.
The next big challenge that Leena and her team was for them to deal with verbal abuse from parents. While most schools this year decided to not increase the tuition fees due to the lockdown, her school did. This angered some parents. Furthermore, a few divisions in a class were combined to teach the online lessons, meaning that the teachers weren’t able to give each student individual attention. Parents were frustrated by these decisions and they took it out on the teachers.
“Sometimes parents interrupt primary classes.” Leena said, “They would say ‘As a parent, I’m paying this much of fees. Why did my child not get a chance to speak today?’ As professionals, they couldn’t respond to the abusive parents in a way that might upset them. Teachers have to bear the brunt of it, not the management.” She said, “I feel that we were being used as human shields.”
“I feel that we were being used as human shields.”Tweet
A shortage of teachers is a major issue in many schools across the country. One-fifth of all teaching roles in the country are vacant, amounting to about a million positions. In a 2013 survey by The Globaleconomy, India ranks in the top 25 in the students per teacher ratio, with about 33 students for every teacher. Generally, fewer students per teacher are preferred because then teachers can give better quality education and spend more time per student.
Of course, not every parent was hostile towards them. Realising the value of their role in teaching their children, some parents send them appreciative messages.
One message to one of her teachers read: “It is because of her; our [child] has become more responsible and proactive and we are seeing a positive change in him.Only a teacher like her can bring out the best in every child.“
To add to their woes, the teachers’ salaries were reduced up to 30% of their original salary. Some managements called it a “deferment of payment” meaning that the rest of the salary would be paid later.
According to Bornali, a high school biology teacher, this is because parents were refusing to pay the school fees. When a lot of schools are primarily funded by student fees, parents refusing to pay due to an apparent “drop in quality of education” can hit them hard.
But once again, it’s the teachers and the staff who are caught in the crossfire between the school and the parents. “I’m enjoying working from home, but my husband hasn’t been able to work for months now due to the lockdown, and even my salary has been cut by 30%. So that is the main cause of stress in my life.” She said.
Some teachers, including Leena, questioned this claim from the different managements. “There is no A/C charge, maintaining the school, that kind of charge is not there. Despite the expenses being marginally reduced, still, the teachers are not being paid.” She said.
“Teachers should have been paid the proper payment. Because all the internet for the classes they are using, the wifi and all, everything goes from the teachers’ pocket . School is not giving any kind of support.”
For months teachers have been working endless hours for little pay. No matter the mental fortitude of a person, eventually such working situations would take a toll on a person’s mental wellbeing.
In Leena’s school, several teachers and coordinators had quit, and the school refused to hire replacements. So soon she was bearing the burden meant for several teachers. “I was responsible for more than a thousand children at one point. Helping the teachers keep their mental health has taken a toll on my mental health. It became out of control and I couldn’t handle it, so I just quit.”
For most, working from home meant that you get to spend more time with your family. But for teachers, that was not the case
“I often have to stay in my room to work all day, which means that I don’t get to spend any time with my two young children, even though we’re in the same house,” said Anshu.
A 2015 report by the International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research and Development looked at the mental health of teachers in India and how they differ along lines of marital status, gender, and whether it’s a public or private school. The study found that private school teachers had a significantly worse mental health rating, owing to higher and more wide-ranging targets expected by the school management and parents.
“I definitely feel burn out sometimes while teaching.” Said Soumya, an English teacher from the same school in Navi Mumbai. Teaching a diverse range of age groups, she often found herself working late at night for as many as four days a week. While she still enjoyed teaching younger children, she felt frustrated whenever taught high schoolers as many of them didn’t show the same bright eyed eagerness she saw in younger children.
“I’ve taken up poetry to get my mind off work.” Said Sudha, another teacher from Navi Mumbai. She often writes about her childhood memories, her mother, her teachers, and her favourite anecdotes. A few months ago, she started suffering from spondylitis, a long term condition where the spine is inflamed. For that reason, she has to wear a neck brace at all times.
However, she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so while teaching, nor is she willing to sit down to teach her classes online. She said, “I am very active, I don’t like sitting still. So for that reason, I decided to use a whiteboard like the one we use in in-person classes, so I get to stand and teach.”
The same 2015 report also showed that while male and female teachers both have mental health issues, men are significantly healthier than women when it comes to mental health. One of the biggest reasons for this is the societal pressure women here face to bear most of the household work while balancing her professional career. According to a report by the OECD, women in India on average spend nearly six hours a day doing housework, compared to the 52 minutes spent by men.
Funnily enough, being a teacher is a revered occupation in Indian society. In fact, India ranks eighth in the world in terms of respecting its teachers, according to a survey of 35 countries by the Global Teacher Status Index.
This is a culture you do see in person as well. It’s considered disrespectful to refer to them by name, always a “sir” or a “ma’am”. [I named them for the sake of readability, I hope they forgive me.]
But in the end, if respect is the only thing they receive, then our respect is performative. It’s nothing but lip service to feel better about the fact that we’re making them work through the night. Because this respect doesn’t translate into better pay, as they rank one of the lowest surveyed. If all school authorities and parents can do is clap for those that are doing one of our most essential services providers, then our gratitude is insincere.