In which Levin Stamm talks about his volunteer experience in a government school in Pune

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Hundreds of children in uniform stand on a gravel field in front of a dreary concrete block and sing the Indian national anthem. They are pupils of a public school in the midst of the 7 million metropolia of Pune, three hours’ drive from Mumbai. The morning ritual’s peaceful atmosphere is deceptive. As soon as the students enter the building, loud chaos arises. Despite being named after Maharashtrian resistance fighters, things at the schools rarely go heroically. And the addition of the name “E-learning” refers to some malfunctioning computers and televisions that stand here and there in the classrooms. This is where I spend my days as an overwhelmed teaching assistant.

Meanwhile, inside the building, the daily struggle for attention is raging. Teachers and students seem to bring the chaos from outside into the classrooms. Some teachers speak with threatening voices to their protégés, others have already given up and left the students to their fate. Productive work happens, but productivity is subjective. The reasons are numerous – and run deeper than the dilapidated infrastructure. 

India is young. More than half of the inhabitants of the world’s second-most populous country are under 25 years of age, more than a quarter 14. Of the more than 170 million school-children, more than a third attend a private school, usually the ones who can afford it. A veritable industry has emerged, which sells access to quality education, for a high price. The children at the end of the socio-economic ladder are left behind in a hopelessly underfunded public education system that is still based on the colonial heritage of the British.

 

English mastery is a prerequisite for professional success in India – the well-paid jobs are only to be found in international corporations. Thus, the public school system is also completely geared to the colonial language: Language of instruction, textbooks, examinations; everything is in English. And yet: the majority of pupils will only have beginner’s knowledge by the end of their compulsory schooling. Half of the fifth graders can’t understand a text for second graders nor are they able to solve a simple subtraction calculation. A look at a typical lesson shows why. The teacher, often only possessing limited English knowledge himself, writes on the blackboard, the pupils copy into their notebooks without understanding the material, let alone analyzing it.

But the state prefers to look away. A teacher recounts how she regularly forges the results of state examinations in order to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Education. She has no other choice – the school would lose its fundings otherwise. And: Due to the focus on English, most students have only a limited command of their own writing system, Devanagari, and thus of India’s official language, Hindi, which means that a large part of India’s cultural heritage is in danger of being forgotten, while the children exit the school system, not properly knowing English or their own language.

If you leave the school area and walk for a few minutes along the main street and its never-ending traffic, you will notice the numerous poor barracks that stand next to luxurious buildings of western corporations. A short distance away is one of the largest high-security prisons in South Asia, whose “shadow casts a gloomy atmosphere over the entire district”, as a teacher at the school says. Most of the students live in this environment of stark contrasts. Most of them live with numerous members of the extended family in the smallest of spaces, without any privacy. No place to study. They look after their younger siblings, while the parents slave away in the wealthy neighborhoods for a pittance. Homework is no longer a priority. 

They talk about violent fathers in a drunken frenzy, the parents’ financial ruin, the death of family members. The family problems weigh heavily on the children’s narrow shoulders, making learning difficult. Faced with the hopelessness of their homes, they often lack confidence in their own abilities and the belief in a better future.

Reflecting on my six months as a teaching assistant in an Indian government school, I believe that my students have actually taught me more than vice versa. Deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of those bright girls and boys – against the odds that make their lives look like an insurmountable mountain of challenges – I have had the opportunity to see the immense latent potential of each of them. Having experienced the amazing work of my Teach For India colleagues, I am inspired to believe that a brighter future for these students is indeed possible. Enabling a system in which this potential can be fostered will take time and hard work – a long struggle, but definitely a worthwhile one.

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