The forgotten teacher: Review of ‘A Matter of the Heart’ by Anurag Behar

Parables about ordinary people doing extraordinary work in government schools across India.

Published : May 04, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

The students of the Harijanawada Primary School in Suryapet, Nalgonda, Telangana, attend classes under the canopy of trees. A file photograph

The students of the Harijanawada Primary School in Suryapet, Nalgonda, Telangana, attend classes under the canopy of trees. A file photograph | Photo Credit: SINGAMVENKATARAMANA

The title of Anurag Behar’s book about school education in India comes from a remark his father had once made. Sharad Chandra Behar, a retired civil servant who had devoted the major part of his career to improving public education, had said: “The heart of the matter in education is that education is a matter of the heart.”

A Matter of the Heart: Education in India
By Anurag Behar
Westland Books
Pages: 377
Price: Rs. 599

Anurag Behar is one of India’s leading figures in the social sector and philanthropy. As Chief Executive Officer of the Azim Premji Foundation, one of the world’s leading philanthropic institutions, he leads an organisation of a thousand people, working in 100 districts across several States. He was also first Vice-Chancellor of the Azim Premji University, played a key role in drafting the National Education Policy, and has spent over two decades in efforts to improve school education in India. A Matter of the Heart is a collection of his essays and columns about education and the quest to build a better future for all of India’s children.

The book’s narrative opens in Kanivekoppalu, a village in Karnataka’s Mandya district, where Behar interacts with a school development and monitoring committee (SDMC). As he criss-crosses the country visiting schools and talking to school communities, Behar listens carefully to the words of those he meets on his travels, be they teachers, children, or community members. In almost every chapter, we hear the voices of the people of India. Their words are wise, insightful, and deeply felt. “Sabki apni raay hoti hai, sabko sunna chahiye (Everyone has their own opinion, we should listen to everyone’s views),” says a small child in a village school in Udham Singh Nagar in Uttarakhand. The alumni of another small village school take a 10-hour overnight bus ride to tell Behar about their dedicated and modest teacher: “He is the God we believe in.” In another tiny school, shrugging off the story about obstacles and difficulties—“Mushkilen ginane se kum nahin hoti (Problems don’t become any fewer by counting them)”—a teacher urges his colleagues, gently, “Pyaar to karke dekho (“Just give the kids lots of love, and see what happens).”

These are not stories but parables that Behar shares, as he tells us about the ordinary people doing extraordinary work in these schools. In one village school in Chhattisgarh, he discovers a lovely practice: any child who is absent, even if for just a day, has to write a nice letter saying what they did while they were absent and read it out at the school assembly the next day.

In a mountain village, a destitute woman, defeated by the suffering that life has thrown at her, answers all of Behar’s queries with “Kya faayda? (What’s the use?)”. Until a village boy comes to help her with her everyday needs—because he can, and because someone should. And that too, as Dewey showed us long ago, is the work of education: not just individual success, but also to build fraternity and social commitment.

A lonely struggle

The teacher’s struggle, we realise from the descriptions in these pages, is a lonely one. It is all the lonelier for being almost invisible to the rest of us. And yet, Behar reminds us, these teachers are nothing if not “ziddi”, stubborn, and persistent.

Every day, teachers climb up the mountain slopes, trudge along sand dunes, visit homes to check on absent children, and ensure that infants who come with their siblings also get something to eat while they are in school. Teachers try to learn English on their own, so that they can teach their students. Finding no building or classroom, one teacher sets up a makeshift school under the shade of the largest tree in the village. Another teacher, posted in a village of snake catchers, learns to catch the reptiles himself in order to relate to the community. And, when a single parent has to travel to a faraway settlement for a few days of daily-wage labour, the teacher even takes the man’s children to his own house, to keep them safe at the end of the day. When Behar asks a teacher what drives her to do what she does for the children, she replies, simply: “What else do they have?”

Tireless, matter-of-fact, these teachers embody intrinsic motivation. “In the hot and green plains, every day, the teacher goes to his student’s house. He picks him up because the child has no legs, seats him on his bike, and together they go to school. The child is a part of the school, he is not different. Everyone makes it happen, but the teacher is at the centre. When school ends, they go back together on the bike.”

And in a thanda (hamlet) government school in Gulbarga, Asha Hegde and Shobha, one a primary schoolteacher and the other an anganwadi worker, convince the panchayat to give them land for the school building. The panchayat finally gives them a site, but it is in the water channel; undeterred, the two women make sure the school building comes up on stilts. All the while, the schoolteacher has encouraged her anganwadi teacher colleague to study further: from being an 8thpass, to completing her 10th, and then 12th, and then obtaining her degree. The community refers to Shobha with respect as the anganwadi ‘teacher’, but Behar observes that she laughs it off: “In the government employee hierarchy, an anganwadi worker is way below the schoolteacher, let alone the head teacher.”

  • A Matter of the Heart is a collection of Behar’s essays and columns about education and the quest to build a better future for all of India’s children.
  • Behar argues that public education and public goods matter. Teachers and schools can change the world.
  • Often policy is about controlling and monitoring teachers rather than enabling them. He argues that this should change.

False narratives

Behar points out that popular narratives about the state of public education need to be far more nuanced and informed. In a chapter titled “The False Narrative of Teacher Absenteeism”, he writes about a study taken up by the Azim Premji Foundation across 619 schools in six States. Contrary to the popular narrative of 25 to 50 per cent teacher absenteeism, the study found an absenteeism rate of only 2.5 per cent. “The kernel that has been used to feed the frenzy of teacher absenteeism is the overall number of teachers out of school. Absence from school for legitimate reasons has been conflated with absenteeism meaning rank truancy. This is done inadvertently and also deliberately…. It vilifies and demotivates teachers, who are the most important actors in education. It often leads to ineffectual policy actions, all about controlling and monitoring teachers, rather than enabling and supporting them.”

“The teacher’s struggle, we realise from the descriptions in these pages, is a lonely one.”

This approach of suspicion and mistrust can lead to dysfunctional policy actions. I am reminded of a problematic randomised experiment conducted by some researchers at a set of schools run by an NGO in Rajasthan, where children were given cameras and asked to take pictures of the teacher and other students, to monitor teacher attendance. The teachers’ financial incentives were then linked to the pictures taken by the children they were teaching.

In Behar’s words: “Public education and public goods matter. Teachers and schools can change the world. Good people can change the world, even if bit by bit.” These stories are dispatches from the frontlines of the struggle for education for India’s poorest children. They point to what States need to do to improve the functioning of 1.3 million government schools in our country, and to give children better futures. We must begin from a steadfast belief that all children can learn; and we must commit to letting them learn at their own pace, in a spirit of joy and inquiry. We must improve the quality of teacher education and professional development; we must trust and support teachers; and we must give them autonomy and dignity.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS.

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