The education sector: Are we being a bit tunnel-visioned?

Education is often thought to be the panacea to all problems faced by the developing world. It improves chances of employment, makes one more aware of his/ her rights…the list is endless. However, there are a lot of factors to consider apart from just the method of teaching. The specific issues I discuss in this article relate to role teachers play in shaping perceptions as well as the mismatch between theory and practice when it comes to hygiene.

I can’t speak for every country in the world, but I can claim a certain degree of familiarity with the scenario in India. Being Indian myself and having interned/ volunteered in NGOs that work in the area, I’ve seen the slightly more privileged side of things (from the institutions I was fortunate enough to attend) as well as the reality of Municipal schools for the underprivileged. The issues I hope to raise in this article cut across both these dimensions. I only list two, for the fear of going off on a rant (as I tend to quite often on these matters), but of course there are several others.

  • The teachers and the norms they unknowingly inculcate: Often, classrooms in developing countries do not have teachers. So if we have an NGO that places qualified teachers in these underprivileged classrooms- problem solved, right? No doubt she may be a great teacher; she probably uses all the tricks and techniques your organisation has cleverly devised to enhance student learning and her students achieve great scores on their tests. But what about what she is transmitting to students in terms of values? Let’s take the example of gender norms and stereotypes. A well-respected teacher from a reputed private school often reprimanded talkative female students with “girls should behave like girls”. The counsellor/psychologist of the school told a group of 5th grade girls in a separate talk that “rape is always a girl’s fault, because she doesn’t say NO in an authoritative way”. It’s interesting to note she informed them that rape was forced sex, but that they didn’t need to know what sex meant.

Here’s a mix of other instances from both, the school and college level, privileged and not.

Example 1: One of the underprivileged schools I visited to take assessment tests seemed to have extremely well-behaved students…we laughed that it was almost suspicious. On our second day there, the headmaster asked us if we required canes or wooden rulers to ensure discipline the boys. She responded to our shocked expressions with a casual shrug. “They’re used to it. This is how we keep them in line!” The NGO I was with didn’t operate in that school, but did have ties with them. Should they have intervened?

Example 2: A teacher in one of the best colleges for commerce and business in a big urban city remarked: “Girls, you should consider becoming a lecturer at a college, because let’s be honest here, you are not the bread-winners of the family. You just come in the morning, work for a few hours and then have the rest of the day off to go back to your families. Why do you want to suffer and struggle when you don’t have to?”

Example 3: A girl in this college and a male professor were working together on something in the computer room. The principal (female) walked in and told the girl she shouldn’t be wearing sleeveless tops to college because “how would Sir concentrate?”

Example 4: An adorable 4 year old girl in one of the Municipal schools used to wear halter-neck tops and the like sometimes (they didn’t provide uniforms for kindergarten students). The teacher made a note to inform her parents not to dress her in such a way as it would lead her into “wrong things”.

  • Hygiene: Several of the schools I worked with, even the ones under NGOs, did not have soap. Children in these schools usually sit on the ground (since there are no desks and chairs) and often use clay, glue, etc. during Art and Craft lessons. We teach them about how hand-washing is crucial to prevent spread of diseases and the importance of soap. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical?

The hygiene situation in general is also rather disturbing. In one of the schools, we could barely breathe because the stench from the toilets nearly choked us. In another, there was a giant pile of garbage and an open gutter running right outside the school. Agreed,  the aim of the NGO is to teach kids, not cleaning up localities. However, should NGOs also focus on things like these (clean environment, cleanliness in schools, etc.)?

Should there perhaps be stricter standards in evaluation of teachers, before hiring them? This isn’t restricted to developing countries. Perhaps there should be regulations at a national level that require teachers to undergo training to make sure they don’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes or condone wrong behaviour.

Should NGOs in the education sector also consider broader factors, like hygiene of surroundings, quality of meals being provided and so on?

It’s a debate I often have with myself and I would love to know your take on it. Thank you for reading!

– Smriti Ganapathi