FOR almost 60 years, India has been celebrating Teachers’ Day on September 5 to mark the birthday of the country’s former President, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. From cutting cakes and lauding teachers winning state or national awards to students donning the role of teachers, the day has been marked in myriad ways. But for two consecutive anniversaries, the celebration has been muted. In fact, most teachers and students haven’t come face-to-face in a brick-and-mortar classroom because of the pandemic.
Since classes have been mostly held online, the ‘fun’ around Teachers’ Day is clearly missing. “I hope that by the next Teachers’ Day in 2022, we will have students and teachers in our classrooms and life will be the same as before the pandemic,” says Vandana Lulla, principal of Mumbai-based Podar International school.
When it became clear in March last year that the pandemic was here to stay and schools and students had to make alternative arrangements for academic sessions, the concept of online learning came into being, and it caught many off-guard.
“Teachers like to see students in front of them, interact and feel the vibe of the classroom. When the online class began, many of us were not comfortable with this new instructional medium, but we had to adapt,” says Alka Awasthi, principal, Mayoor School, Noida in the National Capital Region of Delhi.
Add to that the internet disruptions, inattentive students, and the lack of ‘personal touch.’ No wonder that a survey found a whopping 84% of teachers finding online teaching a challenge.
Some schools were better prepared than others for the new situation. “Our school has been paperless for over 10 years now. Hence it was pretty seamless as our teachers and students are used to mobile devices, but remote learning was new, and it needed some time to adjust,” admits Lulla.
Online learning made teachers rethink how they delivered the subject matter. They had to condense their teaching material while tossing out chapters they felt were unnecessary because of shorter classes.
It may be more than a year in the new format, but some hurdles seem insurmountable. “Making every student keep their camera on is our biggest challenge these days,” laughs Awasthi. “We are facing this problem in higher classes. Teachers would like students to be in front of them rather than seeing their pictures or their initials on the screen,” she adds.
Teachers also admit that remote learning has taken a toll on many children’s academic progress, especially in lower classes or the ‘foundational years’ as academicians like to call them.
“The minds of children of nursery, kindergarten and class one are extremely activated. Their physical and mental faculties are being developed at this stage. There is no substitute to classroom learning. I feel that there will be a bit of learning loss at this level because of online classes,” admits Dr. Ameeta Wattal, principal of Delhi-based Springdales School.
While bridging this gap would be easy in educated, well-to-do families, what about the underprivileged children, Wattal asks.
That is very much a reality. A majority of the estimated 1.5 million schools in India, could not have online classes. There are more than 250 million school-going children at the nursery, primary, secondary and senior secondary levels, and only a small section of this huge number could access online classes during the pandemic.
Take the case of Manasa Vidya Kendra in Bengaluru’s JP Nagar that caters to the working-class population in the area. With people losing their jobs and means of livelihood because of the pandemic, the school has seen numerous dropouts as many parents couldn’t afford additional mobile devices for their children. Some preferred to discontinue schooling as they couldn’t afford the fees. “Holding on to students we have in the higher classes by speaking with their parents and asking them to let their children attend online classes was the biggest challenge,” says S Preethi, school administrator.
As students return to school, some things may become part of their lives, such as masks, hand sanitisers, and thermal guns. While some educationists and parents are concerned about students’ “learning loss” and express fears that they could fall behind because of the disruption, some experts say that there may be gains that teachers and parents may be overlooking. The pandemic has given many children the time to build up relationships with their extended family members or even their own parents.
Some children could explore their hidden talents. They are writing, reading, making videos, cooking and doing many other things during this time. Teachers also say that students who were considered shy in the classroom environment are showing more forthcoming in online classes.
But the other side is also true. Because of the children being confined to four walls, many have become irritable.
As the pandemic wanes, schools hope that students will flock back to classrooms. But there will be some parents who may be reluctant to send their children to school. And schools may have to prepare for this too. “A sort of a hybrid system will be put in place where even those who want to learn from the comfort of their homes can follow the teaching in the physical classroom,” says Awasthi of Mayoor.
But the inequality chasm among the well-to-do and not so well-to-do schools and children will remain in India, and that will be the more significant challenge for schools, technology platforms and policymakers.
“There is no doubt that the pandemic has changed teaching methods forever. And lessons from this pandemic will be with us for many years to come. But what cannot be replaced is the classroom teaching and good old teacher-student bonding,” Lulla says.
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Kumara has been a professional journalist for over 15 years with stints in The Telegraph and Reader’s Digest. He grew up hating maths and physics. He is a post-graduate in history. Kumara believes that cricket and Seinfeld have answers to most questions that life throws at you.