Door Step School’s endeavor to reach the underprivileged and deprived communities living in urban setting led to the establishment of Community Learning Centers (CLC) right at their doorstep. Each CLC along with its satellite centers serves a large number of communities living in its vicinity, providing the school-going children - study support, access to books, and a quiet place to study; for others - a chance to go to mainstream schools; and for those who just cannot go to school - an opportunity to get literate.
Although the CLC is similar to the Educational Activity Center (EAC), it has more amenities in its main center. Computer training, e-learning facility, science lab, sports, and various other volunteer-based activities are also conducted by or in partnership with the teachers. The CLC is open for longer hours to serve the children effectively.
It is just 8:30 in the morning and Lakshmi has already opened the Community Learning Center in Dattawadi and is getting ready for the first batch of students for the computer course. She is busy cleaning and tidying the center and ensuring there is power supply; and just in case there isn’t, she has to decide which alternate lesson plan to follow.
Soon after, at about 9:15 AM, Nisha, Anjum, Vrushali, Chhaya, Mangal, and some others can be seen walking around calling out to children in various locations of Dattawadi; Punam, Savitri, Zarina, and Monica are doing the same in the by-lanes near Shivaji Housing Society; and Shubhangi and Kunda near Vaiduwadi in Hadapsar. All these ladies are teachers at the three main Community Learning Centers and their satellite locations, the latter enabling a deeper reach into the communities they serve. Like all the other Door Step School teachers, they play multiple roles in their line of duty. Their day starts like the ‘pied piper’ - attracting all the children and escorting them to the center; and then they transform into ‘life coaches’ who ensure the children learn happily a number of things; and finally ends at 5:30 PM when they hand over the mantle of responsibility back to the actual parents and head for their own homes!
The teachers have various reasons for choosing to work for Door Step School. Some like Mangal, Vrushali, and Nisha live in Dattawadi and are familiar with the local people and their problems; Anjum, Zarina, and Monica knew about Door Step School as they have also grown up in the area; and others like Savitri, Punam, and Lakshmi liked teaching and wanted a job! No matter what the initial reason was, now they share the passion of doing their best to ensure all children in their area are identified, enrolled in school if required, and attending school regularly!
"Working in the community areas has its own challenges," says Mangal who has a Diploma in Education and is with DSS since 1994. "All slums are full of out-of-school children. These children lack suitable role models and hence do not see the importance of attending school regularly. They find easy ways of earning money – begging is very common and many children, although enrolled in school, are found at traffic lights and outside shops indulging in this activity. Some of them help their parents in selling various items at traffic lights. So engaging them in educational activities is very challenging." She has been working in the Shivaji Nagar area for about 12 years. "At first when we started a satellite center near the District Court, it was in the open.. but there was a good response. A number of 5–10 year olds attended our class. We enrolled them in the nearby school and although many did not complete school, some of them did attend till Grade X. One has completed his post graduation and a few others have completed high school; but all are working and have responsible jobs and have kept in touch with me. Now, when their employers praise them, I feel very happy, because when they were in school, nobody except Door Step School staff praised them!’ she adds emotionally and wipes a runaway tear.
Vrushali also nods her head and adds, "Their irregular attendance and wayward behavior does not endear them to school staff! In fact, our biggest challenge is to ensure that they attend school regularly. We conduct a number of parents’ meetings, keep interacting with the parents and children, but it is still an uphill task. On the other hand, some children really surprise us! We started a new center on Sinhgad road. After a number of teething troubles, just as the children got used to the idea of going to school and had settled down, their entire community shifted to Hadapsar! But this time the children called us to inform that their parents had identified a school in Hadapsar and they would be continuing school without any interruption. They also invited me to their new home and school! I was so happy that I treated my family to ice-cream!"
Challenges come in various shapes and sizes! The CLC in Hadapsar is relatively new. Kunda, Shubhangi, and others spent a lot of time preparing teaching aids, charts, etc. to set up the center. They had gone house to house in the surrounding area to tell parents and children about the new facility. Most of the parents gave a luke-warm response that upset the DSS staff. However, within two days, the number of students went up to more than 300! "Then the challenge was how to keep them constructively engaged!" exclaim Kunda and Shubhangi in unison. "It was a test of our training as well as our experience. Now we have made groups and a schedule for them so that no one wastes time and there is optimum utilization of facilities."
Savitri is working with DSS since 2004 in the Vadarwadi area. "The local people here are very orthodox. They do not allow girls to study beyond Grade VII and they are married off very early. But now with constant interaction and awareness programs, there is a change in the attitude of the girls themselves who insist they want to study further. They talk to us about all that happens at home and ask for our advice. The few who study and get good jobs serve as role models and motivate other children." Monica quickly adds, "Many students and their families are very proud of Savitritai and appreciate her contribution to their community."
So, what motivates these teachers to keep working in spite of such challenging situations? "It is change… and that is inevitable!" chorus the ladies! "The best description of change is when our ex-students come to meet us and tell us of what they are doing and how they are in turn influencing others. Some of the girls whom we taught are married and have children of their own; and they are determined to send their children to school. Some are even working as teachers with Door Step School or take tuitions at home," elaborates Mangal.
The regular refresher training also gives them the confidence they need while working in the community. "The information about the Right to Education (RTE) Act further strengthens our views and gives us an edge while talking to parents. I have learnt the difference between just wanting to do something and actually doing it, from Door Step School and I am improving every day just by experience," Anjum puts her thoughts in apt words. Just then Vrushali makes an important observation, "Qualifications of a teacher are not as important in the field as the knack of handling people, especially kids. I think all kids are very talented and we have to be able to identify their special skills and encourage them to keep them in school. They crave for appreciation and attention because they don’t get it at home!"
The Computer lab is a major attraction for all the children with an optional fee of Rs.50/- per month. Lakshmi recounts nine year old Veerbhadra’s determined effort to pay from his saved ‘tiffin’ money. "I encourage children to sit and do whatever they can; and with a little guidance, most youngsters learn quickly." And the same is true for the teachers – all are encouraged to be computer literate.
Sports and science activities conducted through the CLC widen the experiences of the children as well as the teachers, exposing them to new learning opportunities. Participating in the annual sports meet has considerably expanded their general knowledge of sporting activities on the whole. "Now I know the rules of various games and the famous people associated with each game," smiles Zarina. 'During the Olympics, we had a quiz every day. Children love to play kho-kho, kabaddi, and throw ball; and everybody including us loves to do lezim." Adds Monica and their shared laughter speaks more than their words!
The teachers also escort the children to ‘Quest’, a science lab where the children get hands-on experience of various aspects of science. The escorting teachers are also encouraged to participate. As a result, some of them put up an impressive science exhibition to demonstrate various principles of science in daily life. The children were motivated to do something better than their teachers when it was their turn. "And that is the best award for a teacher, isn’t it?" asks Nisha with a knowing smile.
There are many activities organized by volunteers from India and all over the world. "They treat us with great respect and ask us many questions. We invariably use a smattering of English and a lot of body language to communicate!" smiles Savitri. "We learn many things along with the children; now I want to learn English," she adds hesitantly knowing she has said it many times before! "Our interaction with various volunteers has made us aware of different aspects of many countries - art and craft, languages, food habits, dress, and even some of their problems!" observes Shubhangi and adds, "My family is very jealous of me because I get to meet people from so many countries!"
Zarina narrates an interesting incident that has motivated her to do her job very sincerely. Just before 26th of January, she was supervising the speeches and songs the children had prepared for celebrating Republic Day at the CLC. As the class is conducted in a shared facility, some of the senior people from the community were also present. On 25th of January afternoon, she received an invitation asking her to come along with the DSS students for the flag hoisting ceremony in the community. Just as the celebration began, there was an announcement on the public address system requesting the DSS teacher and students to come forward and hoist the flag! This was followed by the speeches and songs prepared by the DSS students. They were very excited and honored. The parents of other children were so impressed that soon their children also started coming to the CLC for guidance.
Chhaya has a rather unusual incident to tell. Once while escorting 7-8 children on their way to school, she was crossing the busy road near Shivajinagar. It so happened that her husband along with his seniors was waiting at the same traffic light in a vehicle. When her husband waved and mentioned it was his wife, the senior officer was very keen to know more about her work. He was so impressed with the details that he invited Chhaya to a social awareness program held in their office and felicitated her and asked her to talk about her work. "Door Step School has given me the confidence to speak in front of a room full of strangers and more important, the conviction that I can do any work that I believe in!"
So what does it take to be a good Door Step School teacher? ‘A willingness to learn and work sincerely’; ‘Having faith in the capability of children’; ‘Having faith in yourself’; ‘Just smile and keep doing your work’; ‘Perseverance, patience, and positive attitude’ ….. and their discussion continues.
May they continue to do their duty with the awareness and maturity that lies hidden behind their unassuming nature; and may their work bring about the change they not only dream of but are also sure of!
- Written by Archana Vyavaharkar, based on inputs from Door Step School Teachers
(This article is a part of Teachers' Month series by Door Step School, Pune. For other articles in the series, please visit http://blog.doorstepschool.org/search/label/Teachers%27%20Month%202016.)