The village of Meethan in the Reodhar block is a drive of over 60 kilometres from Sirohi town, the district headquarters. The nearest town is Abu Road, which is over 30 kms from the village. Like much of the drive through the cultivated areas of the Sirohi district, one crosses large fields of ‘arandi’ (castor beans) on the route to Meethan. Twisting and turning through the village road, one arrives at the Government Utkrusht Upper Primary School.

‘Utkrusht School’ is Rajasthan’s equivalent of a ‘Model/Adarsh Vidyalaya’. The education department conducts an evaluation of schools and then selects(and names) one primary and one upper primary school in every gram panchayat as an ‘Utkrusht school’. It is more of an honorific as one may not always find any special facilities provided by the department to such schools. Clearly, there are variances in programmes and implementation across states and sometimes even across districts in the same state.

We arrived just as the children of the eight classes were organising themselves into lines for the morning assembly. It was a buzzing, humming time but not chaotic; it was well-organised and quick.A mike set and a band were at the front with a small group of students who were in charge of conducting the activities. Also, in the front was the head teacher of the school, a short, bespectacled man in his mid- fifties. He was clearly unwell but obviously determined to participate and work through the day. All eight teachers and 200 out of the 254 students were present. In addition to the customary songs, the group conducting the assembly engaged the students in current affairs and encouraged them to narrate poems and stories.

At the end of the assembly, as the children went into their respective classrooms—the school has a classroom for each of the eight classes—the head teacher moved to his office.I had been told by my colleagues that a meeting with him would be the highlight of our visit. They were right. Ramesh Chandra Pal settled into his chair and after a round of introductions, for the next few hours,we talked to him and his colleague, Ramraj Gujjar and gathered a fascinating insight into the history and evolution of Meethan’s Upper Primary School. We also spent time with the children, observing and interacting with them in the classrooms.

The first thing that strikes a visitor to the school is a large banyan tree in the middle of the compound with its aerial roots. This majestic tree is like a magnet that draws students and teachers to congregate under it. We soon learnt the reason for this as Ramesh Chandra Pal began to narrate the history of the school. ‘Established in 1956, the school had no classrooms or building; the lessons were held under this banyan tree.’ Over time, classrooms were added one by one.

In 2005, the school was extended to Class VIII to make this a proper Upper Primary or Middle School. ‘I came to this school in2009 on promotion. The enrolment at that time was one hundred and twenty students but only eighty to eighty-five students attended. In the previous year, none of the students of Class VIII had passed the Board exam. When I came here, the first thing that landed on my table was a court case asking why the school had a zero result in the Class VIII Board exams.’

What have I landed into? Ramesh asked himself when he saw that his teachers were busy going to court to defend the school which had been hauled up for its ‘hundred percent failure’ in the Board examination. But he also asked himself the crucial question, what should I do? Ramesh was living in the town and realised that the daily commute to Meethan would not be sustainable. He decided to shift to the village. He had a history of ill-health (more about that later) and his family felt Ramesh was taking a huge risk. But Ramesh was determined to change things at the school which he did not think could be done if he did not live close by. He started coming to school early, setting a bar for punctuality. Gradually, the teachers began coming to school on time too. He started talking to every child and spending time in the classrooms. By November 2009,50-60 percent of the ‘syllabus’ was completed but the understanding and comprehension of the children, in his words, was‘zero.’He called his teachers and said,‘What is the use of completing the syllabus if the learning is zero? Course aur syllabus ko maaro goli; bacchon ko fundamentals sikhao!’ (To hell with the syllabus! Let us teach the children fundamentals.)

Ramesh was clear that they had to begin with teaching basic literacy and numeracy as this was the door to reading, writing and comprehension. With this clear direction, the teachers began to create their own timetables and concentrated not on meaningless completion of topics but in ensuring that the children were following and learning the basics. Ramesh also recognised that there was no one to teach Sanskrit and though he had never taught the subject before, decided to take up the responsibility.

He then called a meeting of the village folk. He recalls, ‘I said to them with folded hands, please send your children to school daily, punctually.I will make this school work.’ Ramesh followed this up by visiting parents in their homes along with his teachers. He asked parents to spend a few minutes every evening to check their children’s class work and homework. ‘I asked them for feedback. They realised my home was open twenty-four hours for the children to come and clear their doubts.Some children began to visit my home on Sundays too. The community began to develop trust and we built a bond.’ The quality of teaching and learning began to show visible improvement with regular attendance and motivated teachers. Ramesh supervised the efforts closely, spending as much time in Class I as in Class VIII. He would informally assess the children’s learning and development.At the same time, he providedfreedomtohisteacherstodeveloptheirownmethods and pedagogy.

Ramesh is a native of Kanpur in UttarPradesh.At the end of the first school academic year, while he was on a well- earned vacation to his native place, he got the news that all 23 children of Class VIII in his school had cleared the Board exam. When he returned, the BEO, the DEO and the community came to ask how this remarkable turnaround had been achieved. ‘It is teamwork. Parents supported and believed in us. Our teachers were sincere and hardworking. Good results had to come,’ he told them.This success had a huge bearing on the events that followed. The community stopped sending their children to private schools. ‘Wahan se nikal liya aur hamare school mein bharti kar diya,’ (They removed the children from private schools and admitted them here.) Ramesh recalls with visible pride. Enrolment jumped from 120 to 200 by 2010. The community saved the money that they previously spent on the fee, bus charges and other expenses in private schools and started contributing part of it to this school. Speaking to us that day, Ramesh was running a high fever, coughing and sneezing, but his energy was unfaltering. He got up to take us to the board in the corridor that lists all public benefactors of the school. They are called ‘Bhaamashah’ in this region. ‘See the names, these are only from the year 2010, all the facilities here are built from their contributions.’

After about an hour, when Ramesh said to us, ‘Yeh junoon hai, (this is an obsession) I have left my native place and come here. I must create something for these children who come from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds,’ he told us. Some children came into the room as we were talking, asking for some papers. Calmly handing the papers to the children, Ramesh took a minute to inquire about a child who had been unwell.The rapport with children seemed natural and we pointed it to him. ‘It has to be natural and genuine. They can sit on my lap, I will hold their hands but they must study,theymustberegular.We celebrate their birthdays and I invite their parents to school.’ Ramesh recognises the need of a good diet for the children and has asked the community to contribute. ‘We teachers also contribute so we have fruits in themenu.We got the walls painted,and added a swing and a slide. When children come to school happily and go back home happy, learning is not a burden.’

Ramesh’s father was never in favour of his taking up teaching as a career. ‘He wanted me to be a policeman or patwari (revenue officer) but I wanted to be a teacher. I taught in a private school on an ad-hoc basis for five years before landing the job in the education department.’ Ramesh has built his reputation over the years. Around twenty years ago, he was deeplyinvolvedintheadultliteracyprogramme.Theilliterate ladies whom he taught during that period, still remember him. Ramesh does not take any casual leave and when he was ill some years ago (a paralytic attack because of which he now walks slowly) he insisted on attending a head teachers’ training workshop. He told the DEO that he would go with his wife, who he said,‘Is my right hand. She is the inspiration for all the work I do.’

Since 2010, the school has had a 100 per cent pass rate and the enrolment numbers are sustained year after year. The community support has only improved and the school has been able to add lights, computers, a few laptops and a laser printer. The school’s SDMC hasreceived the‘Best SDMC’award and in 2015, the district nominated the school for the ‘Utkrusht School’recognition. Ramesh has won the ‘Best Teacher in the District’ award which is not only a recognition of what he has achieved at Meethan but of the work that he has done for over twenty years.

As we were walking around the school, Ramesh received an invitation to attend the wedding of his former student’s son. Showing the invitation to us, Ramesh smiled and said, ‘I attended Govardhan’s wedding and it is time already to attend his son’s!’

(This is an excerpt from a chapter from the book Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers: The Heroes of Real India. Extracted with permission from the author and Westland Books. The author S. Giridhar is with the Azim Premji Foundation.)

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About the book

Title: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers: The Heroes of Real India.

Author: S Giridhar

Publisher: Westland Books

Price: Rs 599

Pages: 288 (paperback)