Part I: The Single Teacher Schools Of Tamil Nadu
A single teacher classroom in Krishnagiri districtPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

Part I: The Single Teacher Schools Of Tamil Nadu

From Krishnagiri, the story behind why public education system in Tamil Nadu may be on its last leg

With more than 300 schools running on single teachers, Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu is a case study on how the future of coming generations are being ruined thanks to state apathy.

Hundreds of vacancies remain unfilled, while students and teachers struggle to get and impart a basic education.

The big strides Tamil Nadu had been making in the socio-economic and educational indicators over the past decades seems all set to move in the reverse direction.

Schools which once produced doctors and bureaucrats are now producing students who are unable to read or write, leave alone passing class 10.

In this series, The Lede investigates why.

The Single Teacher Schools

In a rural Panchayat Union Primary (PUP) school teaching classes I to V, the only teacher, Sivagami*, travels for one and half hours by bus every morning to reach the nearest town. From there, she travels seven more kilometres on her scooter, which is parked at the bus stand, to reach the school which falls under the Veppilappalli block of Krishnagiri district.

“Once in school, I go around to gather the students from their homes,” she says, insisting on anonymity as “the department is dirty.”

Though apathetic towards the needs of the students and the schools they study in, the education department is said to be very vigilant and active when it comes to handling anyone who raises unwanted ‘furore,’ say local activists.

They cite the case of an earlier protest which had been taken out by the teachers over lack of teaching staff. It did not end well for the teachers. The Lede has decided to change the names of teachers who spoke to us so as to protect their identity.

Sivagami goes on. “The parents here never push their children to attend classes. If I don’t go, you will find the children playing around the house or climbing trees and hunting for small animals in the village. It is unique to my school as the students hail from a previously nomadic community. In other single teacher schools this problem does not exist.

Once I gather all the students, I have to get the entries done, mark attendance & enter data online, all before 10’o clock.”

And it is then that that her real struggles begin, she says.

“There are 44 students spread across the five classes. And I am the only teacher. Managing them itself is difficult. To make these students sit calmly without fighting with each other is a challenge. I make them all sit together and teach them as best as it can be done,” says Sivagami.

Students of varying ages and levels are all put together under a single teacher
Students of varying ages and levels are all put together under a single teacherPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

But ‘the best’ is a jumbled ensemble of knowledge and distractions dished out at the same time without an attentive class in session.

In most schools The Lede visited, students belonging to different age groups and class levels were all lined up and seated on the floors of the same class. While the teacher taught one level, the others were told to do something else.

Two or three sentences into their class, those sitting idle or given work would start getting restless.

The collective noise levels would rise before hitting a peak and the teacher would pause to shush them all. This is what teaching means in these schools.

“Yesterday my son who is in second standard was happily back home from school saying the teacher taught his class nothing,” says V Markandan, a parent whose child is studying in one of the understaffed schools in Krishnagiri.

V Markandan, whose son studies in a single teacher school
V Markandan, whose son studies in a single teacher schoolPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

“She taught only fourth standard today, he said and sat content,” Markandan says laughing. “This is the situation. They taught him nothing. He just packed his bag, wore a uniform and went to school and returned. I couldn’t become anything in life because I couldn’t get a good education. We want our children to grow up well, but there is no means to ensure that,” he says.

“We cannot blame the teachers either. They are human beings after all. How can one person handle so many classes?” he asks.

And since all the students are seated together, the students are often confused as to whether what is being taught is for them or someone else. One lapse of concentration and the child may miss the teacher switching class.

In this collective din, students finds it difficult to concentrate. Even if they do, the teachers find their hands too full to cover everything.

“It is impossible to teach them all the content as is required. The same teacher has to teach 23 subjects,” says Sivagami who handles 44 students. “Except for classes I and II, all the other classes have five subjects each which need to be taught separately. So if you evaluate objectively, a teacher is able to focus fully on only one class while for the other classes, at the most 40% attention can be given,” she says.

“We are now prioritising on the classes nearing public exams,” she continues. This means, those lower down end up being neglected. Parents say it is painful to see the plight and to be unable to help them out.

“There is no way for us to give special attention to fast learners and slow learners individually,” says Sivagami. “This affects both their development adversely. We are aware of that. The fast learners don’t develop as well as they could have while the slow learners start to lag even more,” she says.

Another reason which pulls the fast learners behind are the added responsibilities that comes with their learning ability - peer teaching duties.

Peer Teaching

The teachers, with no means to handle everything by their own, appoint the fast learners as leaders and part-time teachers.

“What we do is, we take help from fast learners amongst the students to help with the slow learners,” says Akhila*, a single teacher of a school falling under the Shoolagiri block of Krishnagiri.

Thus while the teacher attends to the other classes, the so-called fast learners end up looking after the rest of their class or school as the situation demands.

Sometimes this includes taking younger students to toilets, helping them with washing up, lining up and more, all during the class.

“But this means that the fast learners are held back by their peers,” says Sivagami M.

“But what else can we do? We are teaching five classes at the same time. It is physically not possible. The effort is to keep the students from running out of the classes,” says Lakshmi*, another teacher heading a single teacher school in Veppanappilly block of Krishnagiri district.

And students running out of the classes and schools itself is a common sight in many of the single teacher run schools. With no one to provide oversight, they are their own masters more often than not.

The cook and the organisers sometimes help in keeping an eye on the students. But they cannot teach.

Teachers On Deputation

“In case the teacher has any physical ailment or illnesses which requires rest, there are no alternative arrangements which can be made easily. This is a bigger problem,” says Sivagami.

For additional help the department uses teachers on deputation who are basically teachers posted in nearby schools which have excess teachers.

Excess, because those schools might be having an additional teacher who could adjust in the absence of the other teacher. In effect the rotation disrupts two schools.

“One has to find other teachers from nearby schools who are willing to come to the school on deputation, to cover for us,” says Lakshmi. “Even if it is possible to find someone or the other for a day or two, short notice substitutions are difficult and more often than not we find ourselves pulling ourselves to work owing to the headaches involved.”

“The deputation system is most worrisome as often teachers are pulled out of schools having two teachers and 100 students,” says Saravanan associated with the District Child Protection Unit in Krishnagiri. “When someone is taken for deputation, their school effectively becomes a single teacher school,” he says.

In one of the single teacher schools in Beemandapalli, when The Lede visited, the school had only one teacher who had been sent there on deputation. This was to replace the Head Master who was the single teacher there, who had been called for training in Krishnagiri.

The teacher on deputation was handling the 34 students who attended the school and were seated on the floor of two separate classrooms.

“I have been asked to come sit here for a few days,” she informed The Lede. “I don’t know anything about the school,” she said, refusing to divulge even her name. It is with such teachers on deputation who work as wheels on rent that the single teacher schools system is being run in Krishnagiri.

Visiting teachers are unable to demarcate fast learners from the slow learners in a short span of time, and the individual attention lags further. But that is not the only problem.

In a school which has 70 students and one teacher, the Headmistress, Vanathi* who has been serving the school for seven years informed that the teachers who are put on deputation do not always come to allotted schools as they will have the studies of their own students to look after.

“Even when they do, the lack of continuity means the same lessons have to be taught again,” she said.

Stretched And Spread Thin

“Apart from the academic responsibilities, the teachers have also to look after other administrative tasks as well as try to factor in additional deputations and trainings. This further stretches the teachers,” says Sivagami.

With the census nearing, their duties are bound to grow manifold.

Another problem associated with a single teacher handling everything is the resultant boredom for the students.

“There is no time for us to help these kids with any extracurricular activities as one just keeps moving from one class to the next without breaks. This leads to decreased interest amongst the students in studies,” she says. “They are being made to sit from morning to evening in the same classroom holding their books whether the teacher is teaching them or not. This causes boredom. Also, they get tired of seeing the same teacher. Not everyone can like the same teacher. In turn they lose interest in school itself.”

Art by students in a single teacher school in Krishnagiri
Art by students in a single teacher school in KrishnagiriPhoto credit: Jeff Joseph

A few teachers The Lede spoke to said they hire help by paying Rs 3000 to Rs 4000 a month, sometimes out of their own pocket if the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) contributions prove insufficient.

But schools serving marginalised communities find it an impossible arrangement to make.

“If you look at the single teacher schools in the backward regions which serve marginalised communities, there will not be any efforts from the parents’ side,” says Sivagami. “This means that all school related work of the students such as classwork and homework have to be completed at the school itself. This requires allotting more time than is normal.”

“Now that public exams are being introduced in classes fifth and eighth, the pressure is even more on the teachers. Do we teach the other students or prepare those appearing for exams?” she asks.

“My school has 70 students and more than sufficient infrastructure but without any teachers, we are not able to even use the classrooms we have,” says Vanathi. Behind her, classrooms lay locked and bolted while all her students sit in a single room with a teacher on deputation inspecting a section of them.

The school previously also housed a high school which has since moved to a newer building.

“I was told to convert the school into an English Medium school and now I have to work even more. What do I do? Where are the teachers to teach these many children?” asks Vanathi. “In Kuriyanappalli middle school, there are no teachers to teach the primary section for the past ten years. The four middle school teachers are taking turns to handle the lower classes as well.”

In essence it means four teachers teaching eight classes and 90 plus students. “Nobody cares,” she says. “A similar case also exists in Madhasantharam middle school where too there are no teachers posted to teach the lower classes.”

Such schools are the norm in Krishnagiri and everyone seems well acquainted with the idea as to treat it as normal.

There are 300 such understaffed schools in the district as per information passed on by an official working in the district Chief Education Officer’s office (CEO).

The teachers who bear the burden scoff at the word ‘work’.

Reasons Behind The Existence Of Single Teacher Schools

“One teacher for every 30 students is what they are following,” says Akhila, a single school teacher. That those 30 students are spread across five classes seems not to matter for the government. That such a policy is being allowed to continue is itself absurd.

For instance, the class Lakshmi teaches have students numbering 7, 12, 10, 6 and 10 in classes I, II, III, IV and V. Common sense would demand at least three teachers but Tamil Nadu policymakers decided otherwise.

“They don’t even post additional teachers when the number of students go higher than 50,” says Lakshmi. “The many who had earlier taken postings here have sought transfers and moved out to their native places causing further staff shortage. How were those transfers allowed?” she asks.

“The government should make it compulsory for the teachers who get job here to serve for a fixed number of years,” says Sivagami. “A system as is in place for doctors to compulsorily serve rural places has to be put in place,” she says. “What happens otherwise is that they stay for as long as it takes them to get a transfer out of the more rural areas.”

“There are surplus teachers in many schools across Tamil Nadu while there is acute shortage in the lesser accessible areas,” says Sama Kalvi Iyakkam general secretary Chella Selvakumar. “People from Kanyakumari and Salem take postings here but move out at their first chance. This has to be stopped.”

Administrative Apathy

When contacted, the teachers insisted that The Lede first get permission from the AEO (Assistant Education Officer) so as to enable them to speak more freely.

The AEO Veppinapally in turn while accepting that there were many schools in the district which had only a single teacher, told us to get written permission from the CEO (Chief Education Officer) who is the highest authority in the district.

The CEO refused to talk to The Lede and directed us to speak to the DD (Deputy Director) seated in Chennai as “he knows everything.”

Upon repeated questioning, CEO told The Lede that “the issue of single teachers in school existed in only one school. Government is hiring teachers in thousands and it will be through very soon.” But he never explained why the government had to recruit new teachers if the shortfall was only in one school, as he claimed.

When contacted, the Deputy Director of Elementary Education Gunasekaran in turn told The Lede that since he was not involved with the recruitment responsibilities of the teachers, he would not be the best person to speak with. “I am only handling administration,” he said.

When contacted, the School Education Secretary Pradip Yadav directed us back to the CEO saying he will be better placed to brief the media.

“Arrangements have already been made,” he told The Lede. “I have told them to recruit teachers as needed. I don’t have time to go into all the details. You should speak with the CEO.”

“Official apathy is a major reason behind the plight of the schools,” says Chella Selvakumar, Vice President of the Sama Kalvi Iyakkam which has been fighting for children’s right to education in and around Salem, Erode, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri.

“Moreover at best these people can inform their political bosses about the shortages here. The decision has to come from the political class,” he says. “Everybody knows that there is acute shortage of teachers in Krishnagiri but nobody wants to take any action. The government is hand in glove with the private schools and wants to withdraw itself from providing services such as education. It is a policy decision,” he alleges.

“It is the marginalised sections who cannot afford to send their wards to private schools who will suffer. Others will switch their kids to private schools. That is what the government wants. The government is not posting teachers to the schools here as it will incur additional spending. If the government were to post teachers here wouldn’t they come?” he asks.

“Such shortages are even more acute in the hilly areas of Javvadhu, Tiruvannamalai and other remote areas around Erode, Salem and Dharmapuri. But the government seems to be saying that there is no need of teachers in these places.

Teacher recruitment has been stalled for the past five years. Government is trying to withdraw from its duties towards public education. It is unconstitutional. Now they are trying to introduce public exams in classes 5th and 8th. There are no teachers to teach and they want these students to sit and fail exams. Students are being forced to drop out,” he said.

“It is the government policy. Nobody is opposing either. Many of the NGOs who used to work in the field of education have been affected by the hassles caused by FCRA related harassment. What has the government done?” he asks. “They had announced that there are no single teacher schools in the state. What happened to that? We are filing a PIL soon,” he said.

The District Child Protection Officer, Saravanan agrees. “At the end of the day the decision has to come from the political side.”

Meanwhile according to the ASER 2018 report published in January 2019, nearly 59% of Class V students and 89% of Class III students were unable to read a Class II level textbook in rural Tamil Nadu.

As the years pass by, the quality of education that the children of Tamil Nadu receive has been seeing a fall.

In Krishnagiri, it is glaring.

(This story was first published on 30 January 2020. An error has been corrected. PUP was incorrectly expanded as Panchayat Upper Primary instead of Panchayat Union Primary. The error is regretted.)

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