If I had told my younger self that I would one day set out to write about grassroots level education, bottom-up change, and long term impact, I would have scoffed. Set in my aspirations of pursuing a career in journalism, I was not sure what I had planned out in my head, but being on the other side of the teacher’s desk was definitely not it. If only I knew.
In the last six years, the classroom haunted me. Time and again, I found myself walking into them, again and again, and again. I walked into them as a volunteer, as a government representative, as a well-wisher, and finally, a year ago, as a full-time teacher and “language expert”. From the mountains in rural Ladakh to the plains in the deep south of Tamil Nadu, I soon came to seek out the classrooms, and as classrooms are wont to do, they taught me important lessons time and again.
As a graduate in Development Studies, I have spent an embarrassing amount of time discussing, debating, and (our personal favorite) deconstructing the “issues” behind our “growth models”. For hours we would roll the ball between us to no avail. Where did the problem lie? In the way, the policies were framed? In the implementation? In the many steps in between? Yet today, I am more than ready to put the theory aside. For me, the real importance of grassroots level education lies instead in the stories, of boys and girls and teachers and students in the country’s classrooms. If only we cared to listen, they would tell us why we should take a single-classroom school seriously, why even the most innocent of coloring exercises can teach us more than any academic debate ever has. Today, I will tell you stories from every classroom I have been in, and you will tell me the importance of grassroots education.
My first experience in the classroom was in January 2012 in an underprivileged private school in Chennai. The students were largely the children of daily wage laborers, a fact that came alive when the principal told us “every day when they leave, we don’t know if they will come back or if they will ever go back to school.” It was a sobering note to begin our engagement as we tried to evaluate the school’s library (or lack thereof) and enthuse the children to read. I remember enacting Rapunzel once, complete with nonsensical replacements for names that only ten-year-olds can come up with. They loved it! At the end of it all, I pointed them in the direction of the books, saying they could look at the pictures and piece together the words from those books there, and we left, our work is done for the day. The next week, when we came back, we were told a story that astounds me to this day. A dozen of the children had pooled together one rupee each to photocopy one copy of the book between them, bargaining with the shopkeeper for the rest. Twelve kids, twelve rupees, one English book. When I walked into the classroom the next week, they showed me pictures they had drawn and attempts at retellings. By engaging in their classroom, we had given those dozen kids an opportunity to tell a story, with the promise that someone was listening. Grassroots education is important to Indian Rapunzels waiting to be heard.
The year after, I was in rural Ladakh, working with an organization to help set up libraries in rural government schools. The “library” was a wooden shelf filled with a standardized set of a hundred books, a cataloging system, and a student-management code. Just as the year before, I was engaging the children in exercises to make them feel connected to these alien books, and one such was an art activity about their ambitions. The socio-cultural milieu of the school was such that most boys aspired to enter the tourism industry and most girls were slated to be teachers. At a stretch, some others may become farmers and a motley few drivers, but that was it. When we asked them to draw, I got answers that blew me over. I want to be a scientist, a girl told me, stuttering over the word but crystal clear in intention. Another wanted to be an astronaut, his picture complete with the dome-shaped helmet on his cartoon head. We picked out books for them with equivalent protagonists and they settled contentedly into their corner, their minds probably already many steps ahead. As for me, I was stunned that they knew those words, those eight-year-olds living in villages where electricity was still a precious commodity. Yet those books took them places we couldn’t, beyond the trappings of their immediate environment of broken benches and shared slates. Grassroots education is important for that future scientist and that to be an astronaut.
Today, I work full-time as a teacher of English as Second Language in a rural school catering to the students of the local tribes. Just the other day, when someone asked my kids what their fathers did, the answers came fast – brick kiln worker, electrician, plumber, land broker; each a story of a parent working hard to keep the kids in school. My first students are just gearing up to give their IGCSE ESL exams and are the most spirited bunch I have ever seen. Ask them what they want to be? You will hear about ornithology, law, ayurvedic medicine, app development, writing lyrics. You will hear of “occupations” their families have never seen thus far, that they have only seen in the books and movies around them. But you will hear the conviction in their voice as they ask me for permission to use the computers in the staff room “to search about my ambition” or ask if I know anyone they can talk to. Grassroots education is important for that bird watcher and attorney and Top 100 songwriter in the making who sits in my classroom today.
Yet it isn’t just the students who are impacted by intervention at the most direct level. During my time as the representative monitoring the implementation of Sarva Siksha Abigyan-Mid Day Meal Schemes in government schools in Tamil Nadu, I heard the stories of many of the teachers. They tell us to use Activity-Based Learning, one teacher said. They say assessments are not good and we should not conduct exams. But the parents of the children want to know about ranks and marks, not stars and “improvement.” So we do both. The reality of national-level policy making does not take her voice into account, does not realize that someone with thirty years of teaching experience just does not feel equipped to jump from chalk piece to jigsaw puzzles overnight. Grassroots education is important to make sure these voices of experience and wisdom are heard, addressed, and accounted for.
Every day, we hear of unemployability and soft skills and how we are on the verge of losing out on our demographic advantage. We hear of how the “standard” is “dropping” because of our need for competition and rankings. We hear of “facts” being misrepresented in textbooks and opinions masquerading as Truth, capital T and all. We crib about how policy can fix all this, how if we just took a hard stance on many of these issues, things will fix themselves. This is where the grassroots come into the picture.
Education in the country today is at a crucial juncture. If we want our students to grow up into employable, skilled, but more importantly intelligent adults, we need to invest in them. While their desks and uniforms and blackboards are definitely integral to the learning experience, grassroots education is fundamentally an investment in individuals, their stories, and dreams, their questions and curiosity. The commitment to grassroots education is a commitment to ask questions that matter, answer queries that confound, and be present in direct, sometimes messy, but always gratifying ways. The commitment to grassroots level education is explaining homophones in class; talk about the difference between ‘pair’ and ‘pear,’ and being willing to deal with “you mean like Bluetooth, Ma’am?” without batting an eyelid. Because there is no textbook in the world that teaches you how not to blink stupidly at that.
It is my belief, one that has only gotten strengthened with time, that anyone who hopes to work at the policy level, empowered to tell that teacher in that classroom that she should use building blocks instead of a Math notebook, should mandatorily spend some time in environments directly impacted by these policies. Talk to those kids. Share a cup of tea with the teachers. Find out where there is such a large gap between ‘talking it’ and ‘doing it’. In that process, you will inevitably invest in the individuals around you, just as they invest in you. Your worlds will expand, your vocabularies will grow, your opinions will get remolded. And just like the story of a man throwing individual starfish into the sea, you will make a difference to one, two, half a dozen students somewhere, somehow. Grassroots education is about throwing each starfish into the sea and teaching it to dream of crossing the oceans one day.
About the Author:
Yashasvini Rajeshwar identifies most strongly as a writer. With over ten years of experience in journalism across national media and multiple magazines (including writing for The Hindu), her current work centres most often around gender, education, youth affairs, and disability rights. Apart from her commitments as a freelance writer, she is currently a full-time teacher of English as a Second Language at a school for first-generation learners in rural Tamil Nadu. She also works as the Head of Communications and Media at Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation as well as the chief content developer at BeingYou, both platforms working towards creating a more equitable, accessible, inclusive society. She writes of her teaching escapades here and all else here.