One teacher wants a roof, another wants health care
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After receiving the award, when asked what he'd do to improve his school if given full freedom and complete financial support, his response was succinct and prompt. "That's easy. I'd give my students a roof over their heads," said Yaqoob, who teaches Kashmiri and Hindi at the Government Middle School in Budgam district of Kashmir.
At present, his students, most of them well below the poverty line, don't have a fixed classroom. A large part of his work as a teacher involves "arranging" rooms where they can study peacefully, without being disturbed.
"The political tension in the state has, predictably, had an adverse impact on education, especially in government schools. Students don't want to come to school and there are many dropouts. I made it a point to visit these families to try and figure out why it was happening and how it could be stopped," said Yaqoob, who was awarded for his contribution towards ensuring national integration.
After the awards ceremony, most of the 336 teachers returned to the central Delhi hotel where they had been housed. Outside the hotel, photographs from the event were spread out on the pavement — scattered signs of recognition, proof that what they had been doing for so many years had been noticed and appreciated.
"The government makes all these policies. It pours in money. But at times, I feel like all of this is without any direction. But when you're given an award like this, you feel that all of it hasn't gone to waste," said Arunangshu Lodh, who teaches English at Bodhjung School in Agartala, Tripura.
Lodh lost his vision when he was just five years old, when an accident on the football field led to retinal detachment. Undeterred, he continued his education and went on to do his graduation and post-graduation in English Literature, before becoming a teacher.
"Ninety-five per cent of the girls in my school are from tribal communities. Teaching them is a unique challenge, one that needs trained teachers. But the problem in Tripura is that teachers are often not trained. There is only one government institution in the state that has a B.Ed, course," he said, adding that in a state like Tripura, where poverty is rampant, training teachers should be a priority.
Poverty is something that a number of the awardees have to deal with. Like Inti Abraham Victor Babu, headmaster of the Municipal Corporation Primary School in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh.
"My school is in an urban area, but most of my students come from the slums. The health of these children is a big concern... The problem cannot be solved by money. Most of these students are from very poor families and their parents often don't want them to study. That needs to be changed," he said.
Laxman Bhai Chandaji is the headmaster of Adarsh Vidyalaya in Patan district of Gujarat. He said that in a state that has otherwise seen marked development, the development in Patan — a district that borders Rajasthan — has primarily remained confined to the urban areas. "Most of the students are from OBC categories and from impoverished families. In some cases, they are the first ones from their families to attend school," he said.
Chandaji received an award for his use of information communication and technology in teaching. He and his students have created a software that teaches optics and the science of refraction to students in Gujarati through the use of interdisciplinary, interactive methods.
In the hot and dry district of Dujod, Rajhasthan, Shri Shricand, who teaches at the Government Secondary School, recounted a similar tale of partial development. "The development has been restricted to urban areas. In rural areas, education still has a very long way to go. More students need to see the inside of the existing classrooms," he said.
Sangkit Lepcha, from Sikkim's Mangan district, has been teaching for the last 34 years. "I have been selected for my consistency and my work in north Sikkim," she said.
Asgar Ali, a teacher at Purva Madhyanul Vidyalaya in Bulandshahr, said his focus has been on educating girls. "There are more girls in my school than boys. In the past few years, a lot of development has happened, but mindsets still have to change. A lot of work still needs to be done though. For instance, my school still doesn't have a boundary wall, which is a problem," he said.
Gagan Bihari Panda, from Tumusinga village in Dhenkanal, Orissa, teaches at the PU Vidyapeeth. "Most of my students are well below the poverty line. For them education isn't as easy as it is in the city. This award has given me courage to continue with my work," he said. On being asked if he plans to stay in Delhi, Gagan Bihari smiled politely and said, "No, there's a lot of work to be done."