Teachers Of A Different Kind

Every month, during the first few days, groups of 8 to 10 teachers, gather daily for a 5-hour training program, in a small room located in the slum just outside the Kalwa Railway Station.  Dressed mostly in modest sarees, with one or two in salwar kameez, they sit upon mats spread out on the floor, and follow with rapt attention, the lessons given by a teacher-trainer (usually a senior teacher from their own ranks). Standing beside a blackboard, the instructor demonstrates how they are to cover the prescribed syllabus for the children in their classes during that particular month.  These teachers are then to go out and teach what they have learnt, in 'balwadis'(nurseries and K.G.), and classes from Stds. I to VIII, using textbooks prescribed in the neighbouring Municipal Schools. They are trained to teach various subjects like English, Mathematics, Hindi, Marathi, Science and History, to children in slum areas scattered all over Mumbai.   Now and then during the training sessions, they stand up, alone or in groups, and move about rhythmically to the tunes of lively action songs, which convey better the meaning of what they are to teach.  They are also invited to come up to the blackboard and write words and letters clearly, or to work out problems in Mathematics.  The idea is to teach them how to make learning a joy and pleasure for their pupils. These teachers themselves live in slums or close to slums, along the Central, Harbour and Western Railway lines.  They conduct classes, daily, in abandoned sheds, small huts, vacant spaces near temples, and, at times, even under trees! Classes are located in the 'bastis', from Khardi in the North to Matunga and Chembur in the South, along the Central Railway Line.

The teachers we are speaking about are actively involved in the Reach Education Action Programme (REAP), started in 1987 by Fr. Trevor Miranda, S.J., with just one class. REAP gained worldwide recognition when it bagged the international "Opus Prize", awarded by the Marquette University, USA, in November, 2005. Together with this award, the same University also conferred an honorary doctorate on Fr. Trevor for his contribution to the cause of children's education in India. This initiative has now grown to include over 250 classes catering to thousands of children: rag-pickers, child labourers, slum and rural children.  The aim of REAP is to bring literacy and basic education to as many children as possible, who would otherwise not be sent to school, and surely end up working or begging in the streets.  Thus, these simple teachers are instrumental in bringing opportunities for education to the very doorsteps of hundreds of slum children in the city.

The only facilities that these teachers have in their classrooms are a small blackboard, some chalk and a duster. The children (around 25 in number) squat on mats spread out on the floor.  Sometimes, the rooms are poorly lit and, often, there is a lot of noise in the surroundings.  In the rainy season, with all the dirt and slush around, it is not easy to reach some of them, especially those perched quite high along steep hillside slopes where one is likely to slip and fall easily!  Yet, the teachers manage to conduct their classes, for 4 hours every day, with a lot of joy and enthusiasm! They are strict about attendance and mark it daily on the printed sheets provided.  Apart from teaching their classes, the teachers are responsible for making a survey of their particular area before the academic year begins, to find out how many children are out of school, the number of drop-outs, and how many would attend classes regularly.  Constantly keeping in touch with the parents is a must to make sure that the children come to class daily.  Personal interest in each and every child, in order to motivate them, is indispensable for the classes to be run successfully.   In the rural areas, these teachers have often to trek 3-4 kms., in the heat and the rain, to reach their classes - not an easy task by any means! Yet, they do it daily and with joy.

REAP uses a group of some of its seniormost teachers to act as supervisors.  Their job is to go round all the classes in the particular Zone allotted to them and ensure quality teaching-learning. Detailed reports are then submitted by them to the Kalwa office, regarding the number of students attending each class, the attendance of the teachers, plus feedback on the teachers' performance.  They also conduct classes if a teacher is absent, solve problems that the classes may face with the neighbours, and report on the feasibility of continuing the classes. There is generally a very cordial relationship between the supervisors and the teachers, since the former have had the experience of teaching in the same circumstances earlier, and understand the problems faced by the pupils and teachers.  The reports of the supervisors are scrutinized by the authorities and regular feedback is given to all concerned at meetings held every month.

Given the enormous difficulties faced daily by REAP's supervisors and teachers alike, it is indeed remarkable that there is such a high degree of commitment, enthusiasm and joy among them. The children are taught with a lot of patience and kindness, while the teachers themselves show great eagerness to learn the subjects they have to teach.  If we are to educate the masses in this country and to make education available to each and every child, we shall need thousands of teachers like these in all parts of the country.  Merely passing the 'Right to Education Bill' is not enough.  If this Bill is not to remain only on paper but to become a reality, more and more young people, like the teachers and supervisors of REAP, will have to come forward and dedicate themselves to the full-time education of children who just cannot attend regular schools.  On cannot think of Sixth-Pay Commission salaries here. What keeps the enterprise going is just the motivation which springs from a common vision to make a difference in the lives of these underprivileged children who have been left out of the system.  On an occasion like Teachers' Day, while we remember teachers in well-established schools and colleges, let us also salute these unsung but highly committed teachers, who work day-in and day-out, for the uplift and education of neglected children in our city slums and rural areas.

-Joseph M. Dias,S.J.