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  • Joanna Härmä

When both money and excuses are plentiful


Photo: the kitchen (?) in a government school near us in 2006


It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, that a private school teacher in search of a fortune, must be in want of a government job. The job can be just anything – sweeper, whatever – as long as it is on the government civil service payroll, at the usual inflated salary, and a job for life. I have mentioned in previous writing that we have lost teachers to the allure of becoming civil service sweepers and office peons (and sometimes even teachers). I have also written about this issue since one of my doctoral study interviewees made the situation crystal clear by telling me that teaching at her private school was just ok, and that she hoped very much to get a government job as soon as possible so that she would be paid much more and not have to do any work. Not less work, but any work.


She was not off the beam in her wishes. Here in Uttar Pradesh the starting salary of a government school teacher is Rs 40,000 while you can get a private school teacher for lower grade levels at Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 per month. The workload for private school teachers is also undoubtedly much greater than for government teachers. Who (except for someone who was more focused on actual engagement with the children in their charge and imparting some learning) would not rather be paid much more for much less effort?


There is one such government school teacher who is working in a neighbouring village to us, who used to work at our girls’ school that is part-fee-paying and part charitable (depending on the situation of the parents). She is one of the few who actually comes back to see us from time to time, and she was quite a good, motivated teacher. But as with everyone else, she tried and tried to secure this government job and ultimately succeeded, at a school I visited as part of my doctoral field work.


Gaurav asked her how she is doing at her current school and how things are going there. She complained that the children (in this area these are sure to be the poorest of the poor for this area, but this is not such an abjectly poor area by any means), her pupils, come late and attend erratically. There are 67 students enrolled and four teachers posted to the school – providing a favourable pupil-teacher ratio indeed.


Her next complaint was about the mid-day meal and what a distraction it is for the children (there were similar complaints during my doctoral research). In this area it is highly unlikely that the meal means the difference between hunger and satiation for these children, but when children are expecting to get their lunch through whatever means, if it is late, there are likely to be impacts on their concentration. The key problem here is the cook, who turns up late no matter what they do to try and get her to come on time. Two days of the week the children get daal and roti and this takes quite some time to prepare. On these days, the children are fractious and distracted and don’t focus, and the lunch is served at the end of the school day. The menu items for the other days of the week are quicker to prepare and so it is not such a problem.


Gaurav asked her how much she earned. The answer: Rs 43,000 per month after all taxes and deductions – that is, her take-home pay. This is an astonishing salary for this area. Gaurav calculated that to buy biscuits to tide the children over until the tardy lunch was served would cost about Rs 3,200 per month for these two days per week. Divided by four teachers this is a drop in the buckets of their salaries. Gaurav suggested that this might provide a partial solution to the problem, if parents are unwilling to send snacks with the children.


Now for the attendance issue: the village has just four small streets or alleyways, and can be covered on foot in short order. The four teachers posted to the school could walk a street each and gather up their pupils and herd them to school. They could kick things off by just taking a few days (no teaching happens anyway, so why not?) to visit all of the households of their charges, and talk things over with the parents. They could try to win them over and then make it a daily thing, for as long as needed, to walk the streets and gather up the children and bring them to school.


To these suggestions our old teacher had no reply. Presumably all this looks a bit too much like hard work. No one is there to enforce anything; to encourage them to encourage the families and the children to attend. Yet this sort of basic community engagement work should be considered a core part of the job because of the educational background of the parents concerned. Presumably expecting them to consider making even a tiny financial sacrifice to circumvent the lunch problem would be considered above and beyond.


I asked Gaurav if we can go there to that school and collar our old teacher and see if she will go with us to talk to the parents and to round up the children. I mused that perhaps our suggestions might not be well-met by her colleagues who might hold it against her if it meant them having to make some effort, but I am hoping for the best. Perhaps it could even be interesting to a teacher to actually teach, if the parents could be persuaded to send the children on time, and maybe even with a snack or a reasonable meal beforehand.


Some people might cry foul at the idea of a teacher making a financial sacrifice, but I am reminded of the teachers in the United States who report buying materials for teaching with their own money (on salaries much smaller when taken in context). I am also reminded of the state government official in Enugu, Nigeria, who showed Gaurav a stack of receipts for all of the things he had had to buy himself just to be able to do anything at all in the office, in the absence of any budget whatsoever for office supplies or anything else to help him do his job. He said he hoped very much to get reimbursed for these – a pen here, a ream of paper there, adding up to quite a bit in the end. It was quite pitiable, and again, his salary was much smaller in terms of purchasing power, than our old teacher who is now paid handsomely by the government to do precious little.


I have mused also that it isn’t supposed to be this way – us non-government types going and bothering government employees about how to do their jobs and all (or just to do their jobs at all) – it is meant to be the government who comes and regulates us and ensures we uphold quality and equity. What parent in their right mind would stick their neck out to eschew the private schools all around them to send their child to this school that our old colleague now works at, where teachers don’t care and the parents of the enrolled children do not raise hell over the lack of teacher effort? Of course, inevitably the parents would say that the children don’t attend regularly or on time because the teachers do not teach and we find ourselves with a chicken-and-egg situation.


Who will break the stalemate? Let’s see what our school visit brings…

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