A teacher in Karnataka innovates to bring farm labourers’ children back to school
Had it not been for his love for teaching, Kotresha Bavihalli would have become a journalist and happily settled at worst in a district headquarters in Karnataka.
But his fascination for teaching drove him to Belagurki, a remote village, in Sindhanur taluk of Raichur district.
A postgraduate in Hindi with B Ed, Kotresha had a flair for writing. He was very good at translation from Hindi to Kannada and vice versa.
In 2004, when he was first posted in this village school, upon arrival, he was totally upset. The school was a single-room shed with asbestos sheets that did not fully cover the roof. Except for walls, there was nothing.
There were about 110 students on the rolls but would never show up at school. Nevertheless, he launched his career as a teacher from the village, where newspapers were unknown.
Even during winter, after 11 am when it gets warmer, children would find it difficult to sit in the classrooms, as there was no proper roof.
They would eagerly wait for an opportunity to escape from the school. And he was the only teacher for all classes - from Standard 1 to 5. It took no time for him to get disillusioned with a school with erratic students.
Before giving up, Kotresha wanted to study the village and talk to the parents about the school. No cooperation was forthcoming. Parents were least interested in sending their wards to the school. They told him that children at home or on farms were more helpful than at school.
Though he loved teaching, what would he do in a school where both students and parents are equally loath to the idea of the school?
Fed up, 23-year-old Kotresha requested the authorities to shift him to any school where there were children interested in learning. But his request was turned down by the authorities.
This refusal to entertain his transfer petition forced him to seriously think of ways to change the attitude of villages towards the school.
Belagurki is a village of about 550 households with a population of 3000. 60% of villagers are labourers. Engaging the children on the farm work would supplement the family income.
So the parents often viewed school as unnecessary interference in their lives. “Upon studying the situation, l found an interesting reality of farm labourers’ life. The dilapidated shed had failed to etch the idea of school on the minds of the people.
The building constructed like any small room did not enter their consciousness as a place of learning. Then I decided to change the image of the school and see the result,” Kotresha said taking pride in his discovery.
How could he change the image of the school?
He discussed his objective with like-minded friends and pooled a lakh of rupees to purchase an acre of land. His idea was to donate the land to the school and get a few more classrooms constructed in order to give the place a semblance of a school. Even though the land was ready, persuading the officials to sanction the funds for the construction of rooms was another phase of struggle in his career.
“It took six years to get the three rooms sanctioned. At the same time, I started planting saplings. The school was upgraded first to sixth class then to eighth class. By the time the rooms were completed, the school had acquired a garden-like appearance with impressive greenery. I was hopeful that the new version of the school would attract villagers’ attention and help them change their negative attitude towards the school. The feedback from the village was encouraging,” he said.
Now having got the school environment transformed, Kotresha had embarked on the next phase, a very crucial phase, of his mission of disengaging the children from farm labour. He experimented with another novel idea to decrease the dropout rate and attract new children to the school.
He started a Kannada magazine called Pencil and made all his students writers and journalists. He tickled the creative talents of every child in the school and encouraged them to write and draw whatever they could. He launched the first printed magazine by the students in the area with his own money in 2013.
First, the magazine reached the households of students of the school. He slowly improvised the content by adding columns on interviews, local cultural events, festivals, medical camps, VIP visits, etc.
“With four pages, with local news capsules, drawings, poems from our students, the four-page Pencil soon became a household name. Parents had proudly started reading the writings of their children in addition to knowing the information about the happening around them. In a few houses, the children would read out the Pencil to their parents. Though it is a monthly magazine, it soon became a byword in the Belagurki and surrounding villages. Even other schools had also started requesting copies. Our monthly had become the largest circulated magazine in the area,” Kotresha recounts with elation.
He trained the students in interviewing the local artists, farmers and village elders.
A batch of 10 students has been given coaching in editing the scripts. Printing cost for 500 copies has always been borne by Kotresha himself.
“Enthused by student-journalism and hyper-local content sometimes people come forward to donate some money on the occasion of birthdays in their family. Depending on the quantum of the donation we would dedicate a page or the whole edition to the family,” he said.
In the first 10 years, since he took up the responsibility of the school, the village is so transformed that the school and magazine had become part of village life. For the benefit of semi-literate people, a Pencil Corner has been set up where all the back editions of the magazine are kept. Anybody can take home the magazine for leisurely reading and deposit it later.
The responsibility of taking care of the Pencil Corner is entrusted to the students on rotation.
After 10 years, Kotresha had been shifted as CRP (Cluster Resource Person) to supervise 30 schools in the area with a 3-year tenure.
After the tenure, the villagers came to know that he was being posted in another location. They opposed the move. They launched a small agitation in which every villager took part. They met the then minister Venkatarao Nadagouda and persuaded him to post the teacher in their village school.
Now the school, with tall trees and their lush green foliage, is the most attractive school in the area. But the Pencil could be published only once in two months.
“Growing family commitments has forced me to take this painful decision. At the present rate, I cannot afford to spend Rs 4000 to Rs 5000 a month in the magazine. So I have no option but to make the monthly into once in two months,” Kotresha said.
However, there has been all-around recognition for the wonderful work of Kotresha in the department.
“We are proud of the Pencil magazine. Kotresha and his team did path breaking work in keeping the students engaged. It’s a model for every school,” said Mallikarjuna Swamy, Principal, DIET (District Institute of Education and Training), Raichur.
Sindhanur Block Education Officer Vrushabhendrayya Swamy said Kotresha demonstrated that by keeping the students engaged in creative activities like Pencil, one can make schooling more enjoyable.