On Monday, while working in a classroom at the Dharavi Transit School, I had an experience that illustrates rather perfectly the challenge teachers in municipal schools face every day. We were helping our Teach for India fellow by administering start-of-year diagnostic tests, pulling students out of the class one by one so that he could continue teaching. The test was fairly straightforward, requiring the kids to first read “sight-reading words” from a list they were supposed to have studied, and then to read other one-syllable words (or pseudo-words) that they would not necessarily know already. The range of ability was enormous. I had anticipated some difficulty with the sight-reading words, since only about a third of the students had managed not to misplace their practice sheets, but I was not prepared for the dramatic differences in reading level. One girl made only one mistake, while another got a mere 3 out of 70 words correct. The other students displayed gradations of ability stretching between these two extremes. All of them are in a single class, so that one child who could barely write his or her name must be taught alongside one that is able to read and write simple sentences. I was shocked to find myself becoming frustrated with the children who were so clearly distracted by action taking place outside of the window or inside of the hallway, particularly intriguing since the test in front of them was so unintelligible. If I (a person who has always, perhaps arrogantly, considered herself rather patient) could not handle one kid for 20 minutes without getting discouraged, I cannot even imagine managing a class of 40 for five hours, five days a week. My few exchanges with the different students reinforced quite strongly just how difficult a teacher’s job is, and helped me to empathize more with Indian teachers in government schools. While I have until now been somewhat inclined to blame these teachers for failing to educate their students properly, I have begun to see what makes their job so challenging. In addition, teachers are paid a very small salary, which must make their work even more unrewarding, making me understand why there are entire classes who simply do not have a teacher.
This experience is just one I have been thinking about over the past day, so I thought I would share it so that others might do the same.