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A class apart

A class apart

Publication: The Sunday Express
Date: August 30, 2009
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/election-news/a-class-apart/508888

Introduction: An NRI couple who returned to set up a rural school, a retired teacher who gets dropouts back to school, a 8-year old who traded her corporate job to volunteer in a municipal school, an 82-year old whose love for teaching doesn't seem to dwindle. Ahead of Teachers' Day, The Sunday Express meets extrsordinary teachers who are happiest when when in their classrooms


Shiv Sahay Singh

'Headmaster'Datta's hostel ensures children don't drop out of school

LESS than a decade ago, 'headmaster' Manojit Kumar Datta would go around brick kilns, production units and farms in Dingakhola and nearby villages in Howrah district, asking children who dropped out of school if they would like to get back to their books. Now, Datta saves himself the trouble-children who can't afford to study beyond madhyamik (class X) simply turn up at the hostel Datta runs for them.

Villages in Shyampur block of Howrah district are among the most backward in West Bengal and children often drop out after class X to earn for their families, working as farm hands, carpenters and brick kiln workers. But the 60-year-old teacher has brought back about 100 of these students back to school.

The hostel, a bare, brick structure, is attached to the Gujarpur Shibganj Bishallakmi High School in Dingakhola village. It's here that Datta worked for several years before retiring as headmaster in 2008. He set up the hostel with his savings and retirement money. And the money he got from the President, when he was presented with the National Award for Teachers in 2008, also went into the hostel.

About 27 class XI and XII students of Bishallakmi school stay at Datta's hostel, where he takes care of all their needs-fees, books, food and even new clothes for Durga puja. He has also set up a vocational centre at the hostel. But Datta wants to do more. "I could take only 10 boys this year. I don't have the resources. Moreover, I am still waiting for my pension money," he says.

Datta, who graduated in chemistry and did his masters in Bengali and history, worked at a defence establishment some 30 years ago before deciding he wanted to teach. It's something he hasn't had enough of-not even after his retirement. So Datta continues to takes classes and stays next to the school, away from his wife and daughter who live in Kolkata. He travels about 90 km every weekend to be with his family. Datta doesn't mind the trouble. What keeps him going are his students and the stories they bring him, long after they have left his hostel. Like Biswajit Pramanik, who worked for months in a tailoring shop before coming to Datta's hostel and continuing his class XI. He is now pursuing electrical engineering at Jadavpur University. Or Sourav Knarar, who dropped out of school when he was in class IX because his thatched house had collapsed. For months, the boy sought refuge in the hostel and came out with a stunning 82 per cent in his class X exams.


From a corporate job to a municipal school


In her bright pink T-shirt and jeans, Meghana Desai begins her day at work. She sits cross-legged on the floor and starts with her favourite "Jack and Jill...". The children around her join in and it's soon a shrill chorus and a roll of several little arms as Jack comes tumbling down. That's a little warm-up routine for Desai, 28, a teacher at the 'Late V.B. Gogate English Medium Municipal School' in Narayan Peth, Pune.

Till December 2008, Desai, an MBA, lived another life, as deputy manager at Religare's corporate services division. She worked long hours and took home a packet of Rs 4.5 lakh a year. Now, as a teacher and volunteer with Teach For India (TFI), Pune, she carries home squeals of "good evening m'am" and little hugs from the children she teaches.

"I work for less than half of my earlier salary, but there's a huge difference in the levels of work satisfaction between the two jobs. While I was working in the corporate sector, the emphasis was on taking home the salary at the end of the month. However, over time, I realised that it was important to be in a job where I could give back something to society, something that would contribute to my personal growth and creativity as well," says Desai.

Though she had a tough time convincing her family about her decision to volunteer at TFI, Desai now knows it has been worth it. TFI, an initiative funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, amongst others, has been modelled after the Teach for America programme and is actively supported by a host of companies, including Thermax and McKinsey & Co.

After the Jack and Jill routine, Ketan, Prajakta, Rakesh, Anushka and Nutan settle down with their notebooks. Throughout, they speak to Desai in fluent English. "I think I have inherited my love for teaching from my grandfather, who was a teacher," she says.


A lecturer who gave up a college job to set up a school for girls in her village

Manoj Prasad

Shamima Khatoon taught Urdu at the Ranchi Women's College for a few years before deciding to quit. She left the college to set up a school. In a year or so of leaving her job, Khatoon founded the Shamima Urdu Girls School in Itki, 25 km from Ranchi, in 1974.

Education was a cherished goal not just of Khatoon but of her husband Maulvi Alhaj Jamaluddin Ahmad, a teacher and a social activist, and her father Shaikh Sahju Mian who had set up a primary girls' school in Itki way back in 1922. Khatoon followed in her father's footsteps, using her saving to buy an acre of land for Rs 85,000 for the school. Khatoon has also authored a book on her great-grandfather, freedom fighter Shaheed Sheikh Bhikari.

The school, which began functioning from a three-room hut with 10 students in 1974, now has 409 students and 10 classrooms, where students can study up to class X. It follows the CBSE curriculum, has students from all communities and doesn't refuse any student. "We give our students books, uniforms and sometimes even stationery to ensure that they attend classes," says 82-year-old Khatoon.

The effort Khatoon has put over the years is paying rich dividends now. This year, for instance, of the 130 students who took the class X exams, 15 students got grade I and no student failed. Of the 80 students who enrolled in class 1 this year, no student has dropped out and attendance is nearly cent per cent.

The villagers can't thank Khatoon enough for setting up her school. William Tirkey, a daily wage labourer, is one of them. His daughter Suman, who had left a government school, will now take the class X examination next year as a student of the Shamima School. Says Javed Jamal, headmaster of the Shamima school, "We lack in resources, but we take care of every student."

Khatoon, who runs the school primarily on donations, wants to get computers for the school. She is now mobilising funds from villagers. Meanwhile, she has ensured her family legacy will be carried forward. Her three sons-Aslam, Javed and Anjum Jamal-are all teachers.


She quit her IT job in Minneapolis to teach mathematics in Delhi

Chinki Sinha

RABEENA Singh had just completed her masters in mathematics from IIT, Delhi, in 1999 when she landed a job at TCS, a multinational. The money was good, and after working for a couple of years in India, Singh moved to Minneapolis. But then, that wasn't her place under the sun. Most nights in the US, she would wonder if she was cut out for a corporate job. "I guess I wanted to teach," she said.

When she returned to Delhi five years ago, Singh told her former teacher Ameeta Mulla Wattal just that. Wattal-who had taught her at the Convent of Jesus and Mary before she went on to become principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road-offered Singh a job as a mathematics teacher. It didn't matter that Singh didn't have a B.Ed degree-she got one two years later. "Mrs Wattal believed in me and gave me a much-needed break," said Singh, 32.

After getting married in 2002-the same year she moved to the US-Singh and her husband Ashwin Chandra sat down one day and decided to do what they thought they could do best. And they returned to India in 2004-she, to become a teacher, and he, to train to be a pilot.

When Singh came back home from her first day at school, she was full of stories-of how she had walked into the classroom, nervous as she glanced at the children, and how they smiled, then clapped, and all was well. Day after day, she would tell Chandra about the students and the jokes they cracked at school.

"He saw I was happy," says Singh. "It was obviously working for me and then he took his decision, too." Chandra left to train as a pilot-something he had always wanted to do. "He will be returning from the Philippines soon."

Of course, Singh's paychecks from the school had a few zeroes struck off. "I don't care. It was a conscious decision," she said. It was a decision Singh came to after many nights of tossing and turning and remembering her teachers at the Convent of Jesus and Mary-Mrs James, with her geometry box and logic skills, and the compassionate Mrs Tripathi, who told her to "keep my heart in the right place" at a time when Sikhs were being hounded in Delhi in the riots of 1984. Singh was in class III then and couldn't understand the situation.

Singh's students at Springdales School will tell you how they run to her with their dilemmas and their achievements. Devika Sachdeva, an eleventh grader, recited a poem she had written in front of the school assembly a year ago. Everyone clapped, cheered and congratulated. And everyone forgot about it. But Singh remembered and encouraged her to participate in competitions. When Singh went on maternity leave last year, Devika wrote a letter to her. It was a poem for Singh. "She laughs and she tells us jokes. She is fair and she always helps the weak students," Devika said. Last year, on Teachers' Day, the students made cards for her. These, Singh says, are the little things that make getting up early to go to school every day worthwhile.


An architect and a consultant from the US woo tribal girls back to school


Aparna Kadikar and her husband Pankaj never thought their short walks on the beach would translate into a lasting idea. Aparna, an architect from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and Pankaj, who did his MBA in management and finance from the University of Texas, shifted from the US to Tithal in Gujarat in 1997 and today run a school that woos tribal girls back to school.

"Before we left India, we had decided we would come back and do something meaningful in life. So in 1997 we came back and bought a house in Tithal," says Aparna. On their many walks on Tithal beach, they became friends with a retired teacher from Mumbai, Jayant Desai, who had made Tithal his home. They had long conversations with Desai on improving education in Dharampur and Kaprada talukas and on encouraging tribal girls to study. "After we met Jayantbhai, we realised that all three of us had something in common. We held brainstorming sessions on the pitiable condition of schools in the region. We then started travelling in the region and interacting with students," says Aparna.

After spending almost seven years studying the education system, Aparna, Pankaj and Desai set up the Kedi Residential School for tribal girls in 2006 and formed the Kaivalvya Trust a year later. Today, the school has 120 students, mostly dropouts or those who were not given admission elsewhere. The school runs classes VII to X and the first batch of students will take their class X exam this year. "Class VII is basically a refresher course because some of our students cannot even write the English alphabet properly. We don't have marks or a grading system since we only monitor their growth. Studying here is not a burden, it's more about fun. Now the first batch of students is ready to appear for the board exams and we are sure that they will do well," says Aparna.

Initially, convincing parents to let their daughters study was tough. "Forget about getting their daughters admitted to a hostel, they were even hesitant in letting them continue their education. But today, the situation has changed to a great extent," says Pankaj.

"When we started the school, we would hunt for students as we took only those students who were either dropouts or had not got admission in any other school. But today, there are parents who insist we admit their daughters. However, we have restricted the students' strength as we would not like to compromise on the quality of education," says Aparna.

The students too are happy. "I like this school so much that I came back on the very day my parents got me married and sent me to my in-laws' place in a nearby village. I want to become a police officer," says Geeta Chaudhari, a class X student.

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