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Teacher Leaders in 21st-century Schools

Ambica Naithani (ambica.naithani@gmail.com) teaches economics at the Bombay International School, Mumbai and has previously covered education and human resources as a journalist with the Economic Times.

As a society, there seems to be no clear consensus on the purpose of education, which has a multiplier effect with a growing number of private schools catering to a burgeoning middle class. This comes as a contrast to the Fabian socialist ideology according to which character-building was pivotal to education. And, for character-building to be a central tenet, the need for teachers to don the role of leaders has never been felt more.

I recently stumbled upon my grandfather’s postgraduate dissertation on the workload of teachers in secondary schools in Dehradun. This 50-year-old thesis is still relevant for some of the issues we face today, that of deteriorating standards of education. However, the clarity on the purpose of the school was clear, that of nation-building. Back then, contemporary researchers and educators opined the same, that nurturing well-informed and fully developed citizens was seen as the primary focus of education, which, in turn, laid the foundation for a just society. Teachers were seen as pivotal to attaining this objective. This comes as no surprise for a time when Fabian socialist ideology was at its peak, so much so that the Third Five Year Plan had laid emphasis on the moral and ethical codes of Indian lives.

The question that stares us in the face 50 years since is: what do we expect from education and what do schools stand for? With a burgeoning middle class, coupled with a growing number of private schools catering to the demand, there seems to be no clear consensus on the purpose of education. Parents choose a school that promises their child better academic results through greater access to state of the art technology (deriving vicarious thrills of foreign campuses). On their part, these glossy schools (some offering multiple curricula, including international syllabi), backed by corporations with deep pockets, assure parents of fulfilling their dream goals, garnished with some extracurricular activities and community engagement. “Overall development,” they declare, is the raison d’être of education. Having said so, how many actually believe and focus on character-building as the centrepiece for education? Sadly, many would think of this proposition as a trade-off for academic competence; a completely misunderstood and self-defeating point.

Back in the day, a London-based preparatory school, Hill School, known for its emphasis on propriety and self-discipline, was famous for sending its students to secondary schools. The unrivalled dictator and founder of the school, Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Townend, also referred to as “Major,” introduced 30 sports where students were encouraged to participate, apart from compulsorily spending three weeks in a year at the school’s chalet in Switzerland for skiing. This helped them imbibe qualities of team spirit, resilience and self-esteem, thereby leading to character-building. However, Townend’s treatment of his teachers was shoddy; hiring, appraising and firing were done at will. Little wonder that, after the patriarch’s death in 2002, the school has been in news for all the wrong reasons, dwindling academic and safety standards. Maybe, his biggest accomplishment veiled his monumental failure, his inability to foster teacher leaders.

As architects of character development, the need for teachers to step up as the 21st century’s leaders has never been felt more. Does this happen? Probably not. And, the reasons for this stem from both orthodox and modern viewpoints.

Teaching as a Career

Conventionally, in India, we have grappled with making education a preferred career option for teachers for a host of reasons, ranging from inadequate pecuniary benefits to probably the relative ease of getting into this mass profession. This is very different from schools in developed countries where teachers have to go through rigorous training to enter the profession. For example, Finland, known for its high educational standards, makes it mandatory for teachers to complete a five-year master’s degree in education before they start teaching. According to some reports, teachers are chosen from among the top 10% of the nation’s graduates in the country. Back home, the problem of the profession being relegated to the back bench has exacerbated over the years with the wider choice in careers that the youth have now, thanks to a liberalised economy and rising average incomes throwing open more opportunities. It seems improbable that a student armed with an MBA will decide to let go of an offer from an investment bank to become a schoolteacher during campus placements. So, if the talent pool from which we get good teachers keeps shrinking year after year, how do we get competent and self-motivated individuals with a strong belief system to be teacher leaders? How do we get individuals with professional competence and integrity in equal measure?

An impactful nationwide solution needs to be thought of in order to lift and overhaul the educational system in the country. One way of doing this is by setting up an Indian Education Service (IES)—a cadre in the country’s civil services, like the Indian Revenue Service—that will oversee education with motivated specialists and technocrats who understand the complexities surrounding education. Though this initiative had been vocalised in the past when the Congress government was in power, it did not reach a logical conclusion. The current government should try and make this a reality, especially since the T S R Subramanian Committee in 2016 had made a recommendation of setting up an IES as part of the new education policy. There will be not only a sustained effort in ensuring quality education in government schools, but also better enforcement of laws governing ubiquitous private schools, some which completely flout norms.

For example, at present, according to the by-laws on affiliation to the Central Board of Secondary Education, private schools in Uttarakhand need to pay salaries to teachers according to pay scales mandated by the state, which for a graduate teacher is ₹9,300–₹34,400, while for a postgraduate teacher is ₹48,000–₹54,000 a month (basic salary). Many private schools pay much lower than the prescribed pay scale. There is a need to crack the whip on such institutions, and restore the faith of teachers in academia by according respect to the profession. In order to be effective, the IES would need to be corruption-free and not stifle growth and innovation by hindering pedagogical breakthroughs that some private and international boards bring in.

The modern perspective posits the teacher–student relationship as that of a consultant and a client, one of the many casualties of the corporatisation of education. Consequently, a teacher is meant to cater to intellectual requirements largely by downloading knowledge and arming students with skills for assessments. With a proliferation of nuclear families and couples deciding to have a lesser number of children, the attention parents give their wards is much more than what it used to be, with parents of students who perform better than the rest demanding to know why certain marks were awarded for an assessment, what exactly the teacher has decided to teach and how the teacher will help the child in getting better grades. While parent involvement is critical for a child’s development, this must not come at the cost of a teacher’s autonomy and independence, which is challenged when a guarantee of returns on investment is expected by parents.

As for those students who do not perform well in academics, teachers have the leeway of blaming it on the students’ lack of abilities, not being able to stick to deadlines, rigours of the board, etc. They can quickly refer to the voluminous paper work they are expected to maintain and provide evidence of teaching the designated syllabus within the designated time frame, with balanced assessments, meeting the learning objectives with critical thinking skills, etc. (This, of course, is a gross generalisation, as the assumption here is that students do not have different learning needs, a subject of another article altogether.)

Teachers must draw upon personal experiences, linking these to the curriculum, in order to teach students to be responsible and reflective citizens. There is a need for schools in the country to stop aping the corporate world mindlessly; teachers are not dealing with inanimate things that will deliver an outcome with a prescribed formula. There sure is a science to teaching, but it is much more than that. To understand these nuances, demonstrate foresight in running schools, and nurture teacher leaders, there is an urgent need for principals who do not just toe the management’s line, but have a balanced, democratic and dynamic view of education instead. As seasoned academicians, these individuals with strong belief systems and academic credentials should be able to instil confidence in teachers and students alike, something that managers are not equipped to do.

Though there are training programmes for principals run by both national and international boards, there is a need for a national-level training body specialising in training principals that could be established under the aegis of an IES. There could be representation from both the private and the government sectors to train principals in instructional and pedagogical leadership, administration, psychology, communication, leadership, finance, and law. Eminent personalities from academia, bureaucracy, armed forces, development sector, sports, media and the corporate world can be brought in to deliver comprehensive modules. Interaction with colleagues from across the country will also to some extent help establish a unified effort in achieving a common objective, perhaps that of nation-building, a pressing contemporary issue that has been neglected for a very long time.

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