Returning to school 17 months later
As children return to the classroom after an unprecedentedly long gap, many among their teachers realise that teaching will be tougher. And there are others who assume that it will be business as usual. In fact, they have already started teaching from the point ‘where we left it’, meaning where they were in their online classes. Teachers who stick to the syllabus no matter what happens in the outside world, like to identify themselves as teachers of this or that subject. They see their role purely in terms of the knowledge they enable children to acquire. They view the purpose of education in terms of success in examinations and, consequently, in life. With a sense of purpose so firmly held in their minds, such teachers stay clear of the personal life of children, especially its emotional aspect. We can understand how such teachers define learning — in terms of the prescribed syllabus as articulated in the textbook. There is no harm in acknowledging that teachers of this sort form the majority in the profession.
Though in a minority, there are other teachers who realise that education is more than about completing the syllabus to prepare children to face examinations. These teachers know that their success as teachers depends on how they relate to children, no matter what subject they teach. For this reason, they worry about their children’s emotional well-being. When a child is not feeling well, such teachers ask what is wrong. They recognise individual differences and engage with children as persons with specific habits of mind and behaviour. For such teachers, the world outside the school matters because it makes an impact on children, their spirit and enthusiasm for what they are being taught in the classroom. For teachers of this kind, the long gap caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic in their daily routine interaction with children has made it problematic to resume teaching. They know that 17 months without teaching in a physical classroom has made a strange impact on themselves as well as on the children they teach.
Several obvious reasons can be cited. One that has been widely discussed comes under a poorly conceptualised title: ‘learning loss’. If small children cannot read at the level they had attained before the pandemic struck, this can hardly be described as a loss. The terminology of loss and gain seems natural in our times, but it is unsuitable for discussing children and their development at school. When they are small, children do not easily retain for long what they had picked up unless it is put to daily use. This is just as true of the facility in reading as in intellectual capacities to comprehend, analyse and judge. However, the facility once acquired returns when its need is created again — under circumstances that are not threatening. And that is where our systemic conditions pose a problem.
These conditions encourage teachers to be impatient and short-tempered. It is not easy for people who have never worked in a school in our country to grasp the nature of the stress teachers chronically face and absorb. It is so general that it cannot be attributed to any one source, such as a principal or parents. The pressure to perform is a factor of the ethos and the ethos does not distinguish between smaller and older children. From the day a child enters school, he or she comes under this pressure. A minority of teachers realise that it is unsuitable for growth in the primary years, but these teachers have little influence on others. The wider social culture and government norms relentlessly push the child from the first month at school towards higher levels of performance.
One suspects that this pressure will shape the classrooms most children return to after the COVID-19 gap. Many among them will find it difficult to join in at a higher level of efficiency in solving problems in math or language than they can feel comfortable with. This will be seen as a sign of weakness and the usual remedies will be applied to suppress such signs. The remedies endemic to our system are increased drill, coached collective answer-parroting and harder preparation for tests. Each one of these remedies will be counter-productive for the child’s development when classes resume and regain the dreaded full steam.
Among teachers I have placed in the second category above, i.e., those who try to relate to children individually and not just teach them, there will be some who can reasonably guess the kind of psychological problems children might be facing as a result of the long COVID-19 closure of schools. The total withdrawal of a space so intimately linked to childhood must necessarily have been hard to endure for a lot of children. These would include children who might not have greatly enjoyed their daily chores at school and the curriculum, as well as many children who might have taken online in their stride, despite the relentless stress it brought them.
Impact of the online mode
Digital learning is known to bring with it certain addictive behaviours that may persist at school and take new and disturbing mutations. When children return to school, they may well feel off-balance, experiencing the uncanny sense of deprivation that hits the mind after an ordeal is over. For teachers to assume that such children will simply carry on with the remaining syllabus will be quite wrong, although this will not become obvious till later.
Online teaching had extremely limited reach in most regions, and even more limited value for its receivers. The idea that teaching simply switched to online mode was little more than a myth. That there was nothing else that could have been done was another myth. Why schools were the absolutely last priority for reopening, lower than shopping malls, says something about the importance attached to education. In several other countries, every attempt was made to help schools function, after periodic closure. Nor were primary teachers in other countries given other duties, at airports and vaccination centres. Why mid-day meals were stopped along with teaching is hard to explain. Nor is it possible to calculate the loss incurred by hunger. No estimate has yet been made of the number of children who have left school altogether.
Now that schools have at last reopened, the educationally better off States, for example, in the South, need to recognise two new priorities. Both concern aspects of children’s psychological comfort generally ignored in our system. If given some attention, it will enhance both children’s and teachers’ readjustment after the long gap they have endured without each others’ company.
Space for these priorities
The first of these two priorities is a space for the arts: music, painting, theatre and dance. Aesthetic experience has great healing powers, especially when it is not too focused on performance or ceremonial purpose. If State governments and private schools can devote resources and time to this otherwise marginalised area, they will make the resumption of routine life at school more nourishing. The other priority for school resumption is the reorganisation of this year’s curriculum. The ‘where we left it’ approach will not do for any stage of school education. A linear syllabus coverage approach does not serve children well even in normal times. The post-COVID-19 situation is far too complex to respond to the wooden pedagogy stuck to the chapters of the prescribed textbook. A team of subject-specialists and teachers must sit together to look at the syllabus designed for every grade level and deliberate on ways to reorganise it for this unusual academic session.
Krishna Kumar is a former Director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). He is the author of the book, ‘Smaller Citizens’