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The Education System is not the Problem; the Education Culture is

This was written soon after I finished my Teach For India Fellowship. A collection of my memoirs, reflections, and learnings is filed here.

Our culture conditions us to think that teaching is a job for the ones who missed out. For every accidental teacher who can never have the skills, mindset, and commitment to teach, there exist two, or probably more, deserving, capable youngsters who never considered it because it was below their dignity to be a public school teacher. They could earn well, they could actually change the face of Indian education: but their misinterpreted dignity lets them, and us, and our children, down.

My class. I taught for two years in a municipal primary school serving a low-income community in Shahdara, Delhi.

My class. I taught for two years in a municipal primary school serving a low-income community in Shahdara, Delhi.


Having completed my Fellowship with Teach For India, it would be a grave injustice to my work if I do not share the legacy of my learnings with the outside world. And, while the practice of listing problems without bothering about concrete solutions does not really appeal to me, I am going to do just that. Having observed the municipal school system in Delhi for two years, I feel what many of us tend to see as problems are not actually the primary problems. By the time this post ends, you will know why real teaching is the hardest thing in the world, as well as why they tell you it’s the easiest.

A very convenient myth that dominates the understanding of a wide section of well-aware, concerned citizens, is that government school teachers do not teach, and they are the reason behind the poor levels of public education in India. Not entirely unobvious, but not as big a lie either as the previous statement is, these teachers are victims of a larger horrible culture, not the cause, and almost definitely not a part thereof. Their only mistake is, their victimhood finds itself just adjacent to that of the ultimate victims: the little children, and hence they are the easiest targets. Once you blame teachers, it’s easy to think that solution lies in good skills training and good monitoring/inspection – but these solutions would work only if teachers were the problem in the first place. The problems are cultural first, and skills and commitment much later (ref. infographic below).

To shatter your myth number two: if being an amazing teacher is magic, then knowing your subjects well is not the wand that will perform it; it is no better than an ineffective twig. And oh, well, that glorifying phrase “having good intentions to change the world” is also not that wand. If each factor that contributes to being a teacher of impact were to be ranked in order, two items would be at the ceiling fan, and everything else you think is a factor would be lying on the carpet. No other factor would occupy the air in between. Those two items at the top are: 1) belief in child, 2) belief in self. And, if you don’t know, the word “belief” is too strong in itself to ever require that glorious adjective “unconditional”; of course it’s unconditional.

what good teaching is not
good teaching

The problems that ail the education system in India are more cultural than skill/commitment gap.

Teaching is a job fuelled by inner mindsets much more than self-motivation, salary, will and intentions, love and concern for children, or knowledge of your subjects. And that’s why, real teaching is hard. A teacher who does not believe in the child but knows the subjects well shall spend hours explaining things to the class but won’t take seconds to give up on an unyielding child. A teacher who has the best intentions to change the system but does not have the belief in the child and self will give up when she sees that the child will almost certainly be married off in the next two years and hence it’s no use. A teacher who loves kids but does not believe in them will succumb to emotions and hence lower her expectations from them – thus never letting the child reach his or her potential.

Success in teaching requires you to breach a goalpost much more impenetrable than granite: belief, and the human mindset. Belief breaks more barriers than love, intelligence, concern, intentions. Belief empowers you to make yourself accountable as a teacher: belief empowers you to innovate and research for better methods to make sure the child learns. Belief enables you to go to the child’s parents and change their mindsets on girl child, child marriage, and child labour. Belief enables you to love the child, as well as have the highest expectations out of the child. Belief keeps you away from punishing the child and getting impatient with a child who listens to himself more than you. To sum it up, belief makes you find ways. Because it’s your job. Because there’s always a way. Kids are never at fault. Teachers may also not always be at fault: even if committed, they may just be uncreative or untrained to find those ways, and hence they give up.

Coming to the government school teachers, who I acquitted of all guilt without giving reason: these teachers teach the children at the lowermost strata of the society. Belief in such children is more important than it is anywhere else. A teacher who does not believe in a child going to an international school does him little harm; the child is likely to end up well anyway. A teacher who does not believe in a child from a disadvantaged background makes sure that she doesn’t even put the effort. They tend to feel that even if they raise the bar of the best they can do in class, the best that the child can get in life will remain limited.

To some extent, this is true: problems these children face are not one, but many: and education is only one way to uproot them. But, so what? While they have been trained to teach, they have not been trained for mindsets. I would bet at Teach For India, we hear ten times more statements that instill the requisite mindsets for successful teaching, than actual technical skills that go into class. That is why we are able to do what we do.

Once we counter the belief problem, other factors inevitably come in:

1. How much time do these teachers have to teach? Teachers in municipal schools are part-time clerks: the very efficient system requires them to date parents of all students inside classroom multiple times a year: spending January distributing funds for uniforms, April for books, once for girl child scholarships, once for SC/ST/OBC/Minority scholarship, once for stationery, and oh, it does not end. During these rituals, little kids, depending on their hyperactivity levels, make a good use of time to put their neglected childhood up on display. Teaching ends up being a nice escape from an otherwise highly clerical job: signatures, stamp pads, registers, and cash.

2. How many students do these teachers teach? Student–teacher ratio is a big problem in our country. It ends up being a cultural problem: a teacher with fifty kids tends to lose her grasp on the children who need her the most, leading to a widespread national culture where we teach the brightest and ignore the weakest. Much like our socio-economic scenario, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer: the weak ones find solace in violence and dreamland.

3. What is good education? Most municipal schools in Delhi consider this as an accurate definition of a good education; hold your breath, my dear reader: “a quiet classroom”. A principal who walks around the school is likely to be looking for quiet classrooms and angry teachers instead of busy classrooms and teaching teachers. Such medieval expectations are again a socio-cultural problem. We, as a society, have been conditioned to believe:

  • 1) good education is being able to score good marks,
  • 2) discipline means being quiet and obedient without reason,
  • 3) respect means the art of not questioning an adult (I call it an art, because not questioning is just unnatural, and children in India have to master the art to not question quite early),
  • 4) children are lesser individuals, adults know more, but ironically:
  • 5) if the child fails to achieve, the mistake is his and not the teacher’s,
  • 6) there is only one way to learn: the verbal and linguistic way; a hyperactive child is spoiled and can’t do anything,
  • 7) there is only one way to correct a child: be angry and punish,
  • 8) freedom of children is more dangerous than an India chained by the British Raj.
Also read  Being a good teacher is about much more than just teaching well


In this context, here is an excerpt from my post Exploring Excellent Education:

We have conventionally been imparting education that follows a tradition and hopes for an “IAS, doctor, engineer”. A planned vision, on the other hand, enables us to impart an education that aims for a certain goal, and works towards it by planning towards it. So, while a noisy classroom where students are clueless and the teacher relaxed may not fit in the conventional scheme of things, it probably does, in the context of a teacher whose vision requires him to facilitate experiences that build independence among the students.

Teachers lack training in how to interpret good education. They do not know how to go beyond the conventional understanding of education. And when they dare to have an interactive learning classroom, the principal knocks on the door and asks them to lower the noise levels. The second big problem after the lack of mindsets is: lack of vision. Where do we want our students to be? What is good education in the context of the child we teach? As long as the vision of education is to create IAS officers, doctors and engineers, of course a teacher catering to low-income kids is likely to give up; she may think that vision will never come.

An open-ended approach means children are trained by prescribed ways; the why behind teaching a certain thing goes no further than “because that’s what we do!” A vision-oriented approach, on the other hand, results in children being trained with reasons – reasons that can be shared with children to invest them more; after all they are partners, not subordinates.

A lack of well-formed, independent, non-traditional vision leads us to have teachers and principals who might be committed, but are not leading us to a new India. And an old India, with all its wisdom of 5000 years, is definitely not the need right now, when we can compare ourselves with how the West has transformed the life of the world within few centuries: all with a better education culture. We MUST question where we are making the mistake; and once we start pondering, all thoughts will lead us to question our poor education culture which keeps on devaluing the child.

So, once teachers are trained for mindsets, they need to be trained for a contemporary, contextual, yet progressive vision that is different from what convention prescribes. Today, while our curricula based in National Curriculum Framework (NCF) are quickly moving beyond tradition, our teacher training still lags behind.

4. What technical skills does good teaching require? Armed with the right mindset/belief and a student vision, the last requirement is good teaching skills and commitment. Since we all agree on this anyway, let’s skip a discussion about it.

5. What are the other challenges?

(a) Teaching is thought of to be a student–teacher relationship (or often just the teacher; students are ignored), whereas it consists of four parties: school leader, teacher, student, parents. The role of parents is more important in the more disadvantaged strata, because the teacher needs to fight mindsets and economic divide in order to make her teaching fruitful in the long run. And, if a teacher thinks that she can go and scold the parents on the day before the girl who she worked hard on is getting married, it’s obvious they won’t listen. Investment is a long process, and empathy is a key value to practice for teachers. It may be easy to give up on these parents and not understand where their mindset stems from: lack of empathy will take us nowhere. Since the school culture discourages community visits for the fabled “fear of safety” and the myth of “bad hygiene and poor localities”, the teacher prefers to not work hard instead of having to later make sure that the hard work bears long-term fruit.

(b) There is little or no training for school leaders (principals).

(c) While most teachers have received formal training before they start their job, there is little on-the-job teacher training. Even if there is, a proactive improvement system is found non-existent. Inspections are limited to (1) checking if children can wish the inspector “good morning”, (2) checking if fourth grade kids can recite a memorized poem (a nursery rhyme would serve), (3) checking if the school administration can provide them good tea and snacks. This colonial, hierarchical treatment of inspection is ensuring we are satisfied with too little. Inspection immediately needs to be replaced by a continuous-feedback-and-improvement, and not monitoring mechanism, where “trainers”, not “inspectors”, are involved in student learning as much as teachers are, and are not seen by teachers as objects of fear, but partners in education, with only one party in mind: students.

(d) There is a widespread lack of purpose among our teachers. Our culture regards teaching as an easy complement to child-rearing for young women. Without a passion for teaching, it’s needless to say that it’s not going to work. Victimizing students by doing a job you don’t really want to do, nor have the mindset to do, is a crime you have no right to commit.


As I have introduced a number of tough filters to be able to be a good teacher, it is possible that you think that while we’re facing teacher shortage, I’m just reducing the likelihood of us having good teachers. But, the truth is, our culture conditions us to think that teaching is a job for the ones who missed out. Public school teachers are paid well enough. For every accidental teacher who can never have the skills, mindset, and commitment to teach, there exist two, or probably more, deserving, capable youngsters who never thought of it because it was below their dignity to be a public school teacher. They could earn well, they could actually change the face of Indian education: but their misinterpreted dignity lets them, and us, and our children, down.

I hope the next time we seek a revolution in Indian education, we know that we must work towards a change in Education Culture, not the Education System. Reforms in the Education System will soon follow. And having read about the problems, if you are still confused about the solutions bit, re-read the paragraph just preceding this one. For there is no other solution that can truly take us forward.

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