How 10 young women overcome challenges in Rajasthan as Shiksha Sambal Fellows

In a life-changing experience, the women from Delhi’s outskirts taught in rural Rajasthan through the Shiksha Sambal programme.

Published : Apr 20, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

A class in progress under the Shiksha Sambal Fellowship programme.

A class in progress under the Shiksha Sambal Fellowship programme. | Photo Credit: Vidya Bhawan Society

For a group of 10 young women, just out of college and hailing from peripheral areas of Delhi the chance to teach in a rural school in Rajasthan turned out to be an experience of a life time, and so too for the students they taught.

There were hurdles to be crossed, first at home so that they could make the journey to Udaipur as Fellows (2022-2023) of Shiksha Sambal, a programme run jointly by the Government of Rajasthan, Hindustan Zinc Limited and Vidya Bhawan Society (Udaipur). They were to teach underprivileged students in schools in some of the most backward areas of Rajasthan.

For the parents, the “safe” option for their girls was to teach at a place near home: they would have enough time to look after their families while also getting a reasonable salary and the prospect of a decent husband. Of course, this was just what their in-laws too would want. 

A Shiksha Sambal Fellow working with students at a school at Agucha in Bhilwara district.

A Shiksha Sambal Fellow working with students at a school at Agucha in Bhilwara district. | Photo Credit: Vidya Bhawan Society

After a lot of pleading with their parents, asking their friends, teachers and seniors to intercede on their behalf, they were ready to make the journey to Udaipur, where they would spend a few weeks. However, they did not get to experience the wonderful city of lakes for too long; within a month they were sent to remote villages in the districts of Ajmer, Chittor, Rajsamand, Udaipur and Bhilwara.

The reality of rural Rajasthan was a shock even to these girls who grew up on the edge of poverty, in lower middle class or poor families in Delhi areas such as Najafgarh, Kotla Mubarakpur, Nangloi, Burari, Gokulpura and Jahangirpuri; one from Jhajjar in Haryana and another from Rajsamand in Rajasthan. There was no assured power supply, which meant limited use of phones and almost no online work; no coolers; no decent roads; transportation only when the bus decides to come and not when you need it; no cooked meals.

Also read: Language in education

The young graduates in Elementary Education (B.El.Ed of Delhi University), some of them even postgraduates, could not be faulted for wondering what they had got into. They had aspired to become nurses, mathematicians, historians or physicists, but without avenues to achieve them through counselling about higher education opportunities. For the parents, their daughters had to be graduates, for that was the requirement of the marriage market, and a B.El.Ed was just fine. 

Their first encounter in the schools seemed out of a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction act: just about everyone—students, teachers, community members and field personnel—looked at them, sizing them up as if they were objects of wonder. It was not as if they wore fancy clothes or used make-up; in fact, they took extra care to look “normal”, wearing salwar-kameez or sari.

Why are you still not married? That was the first question to them. Then followed: “What are you doing here? Don’t you have a family to look after? How can your parents allow you to come like this?” The context soon became clear to the Fellow-teachers: in every middle school class (VI to VIII, students aged 11 to 14 years) more than half the girls and often even the boys were married.

The next important question was their names. To answers such as “Geeta Kumari”, “Sneh Lata”, or “Sarita Devi”, the follow-up was: “No, no, that is your name. What is your samaj? What is your caste?” The name was the route to finding out their caste. Responses such as “No caste” or “We don’t know” were unacceptable. The villagers wondered how the girls would get married without knowing their caste. And how their parents could marry them into just any caste?

Shiksha Sambal Fellows working with students at a school in Agucha, Bhilwara district.

Shiksha Sambal Fellows working with students at a school in Agucha, Bhilwara district. | Photo Credit: Vidya Bhawan Society

The Fellows soon found that caste was a major source of discrimination in the schools. For instance, most teachers were of the view that students of the Meena tribe were born dull and that Bhil students were good only at tending gardens and that is what they should be doing in school, too.

Shiksha Sambal was started in 2008 in the belief that innovation in education can help change people’s attitudes in the lowest rungs of rural society. Under the programme innovative interventions happen in 66 middle, secondary and senior secondary schools located in some of the most backward areas of Rajasthan. The project engages with 14,000 students, 160 teachers, six field coordinators, 64 field personnel and over 20 resource persons, including senior faculty members from Vidya Bhawan’s Education Resource Centre (ERC). The focus is on conceptual clarity and building communication networks among resource persons, students, teachers, State and district education officers, field personnel, parents and the community.

  • Rama Kant Agnihotri speaks to Shiksha Sambal Fellows of 2022-2023, all young graduates or postgraduates, who share their experience of teaching in rural schools of Rajasthan for a year.
  • The challenges they faced were formidable, but they managed to overcome them through their grit and dedication and made a difference to the children’s relationship with education.
  • Their own backgrounds were not privileged at all and the decision that they made to travel out to Udaipur and then to the rural schools required an effort of will.

Language factor

However, for the Fellows the language of communication threw up many challenges. Hindi is the language of the Hindi heartland—Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand—or so they were told. But they were in for a surprise when the students began conversing among themselves and often with them too: they could not understand a word. Depending on the district the Fellows were in, the language of communication would have been Mewari, Marwari, Bagri, Bhili or Nemadi.

After that initial moment, the Fellows soon learnt to negotiate the new environment and established a rapport with the students, teachers, field personnel and the community. The ERC was at hand, helping them build bridges across different segments involved in the project. While the experience of being teachers boosted their self-esteem, the fact that some of them could even send home money saved from their stipends gave them great joy. During the time spent with the students and other residents most of them picked up bits of the local language, too.

Also read: Education in the time of pandemic

Each Fellow had a story to tell about how she built a rapport with her students. And they derived the greatest satisfaction when at the end of the term the students, some of them with almost zero level of literacy and numeracy in classes 6 and 7, were capable of some reading and writing and elementary arithmetic. It was the QED, or quod erat demonstrandum, moment for the Fellows.

The students, on their part, were perhaps beginning to see in the Fellows their role models in action. Whenever they made a mistake or did something naughty in class, they expected a slap and were surprised when it did not come. “Why don’t you punish us?” they often asked. All Fellows reported that corporal punishment was rampant in rural schools. There was no awareness of The Right to Education Act, 2009, which forbids physical punishment and mental harassment.

Chaotic classrooms

The students were difficult to control in the classroom for the Fellows initially. Even in a class of 10 students, they would make sounds of animals and birds. In one class, one student would start hooting the moment the Fellow turned to the blackboard. She tried to counsel him after class, but in vain. Then she decided to visit him at home. She found that his father had died long ago and he lived with his uncle who was preoccupied with making a living. She realised that the student needed a sympathetic listener and affection. The strategy worked. The student stopped hooting and made significant progress.

“The Fellows soon found that caste was a major source of discrimination in the schools.”

Another Fellow narrated her story: “In the beginning, students gave no respect and would disturb the classes with unruly behaviour.” She, too, decided to visit their families. In one case, she found that the father was drunk most of the time and would beat up the children. She realised that her student was deeply attached to his mother. So she spent hours talking to the mother and the student, and that effort changed the atmosphere in the classroom. She worked intensively with her class, providing slow but considered inputs. The results were apparent in the difference between the Baseline and Endline tests. The poems and stories that the Fellows used as texts to work on produced the best results, as did peer group activities.

Normally, two Fellows worked with a class. One focussed on sharing a lesson and giving tasks gradually, while the other helped students who lagged behind. Soon they realised that it could be counter-productive to insist on working on a topic given in the syllabus. They kept the syllabus aside and instead addressed the interests of individual students. A student who could not even write the alphabet started taking interest in classes once space was created for what he was good at—drawing and doing tangram puzzles.

Also read: Digital divide deprives have-nots of proper online education

The classroom experience was a revelation for the Fellows, who were treated as substitute teachers and asked to handle subjects that did not have regular teachers or that the teachers simply did not wish to take. Most of the teachers, it seemed, had only one target in mind: finish the syllabus through guide books.

As for the schools, the less said the better. Infrastructure was mostly in a shambles; most schools did not have enough classrooms and the ones that were there were not well maintained. No school had a functional library. Toilets were invariably in a bad condition, and in most schools teachers kept the toilet they use locked. Boys generally preferred to use the nearby surroundings, but girls had no option but to use the dirty toilets with no water and, often, doors that did not close properly.

Notwithstanding these challenges, when it was time for the Fellows to leave at the end of the school year, it was with a sense of joy and achievement. The students, teachers and field personnel had also grown fond of them.

Rama Kant Agnihotri retired as Professor and Head, Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi, and is currently Professor Emeritus at Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur.

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