Published: 19th February 2020
S Giridhar's book talks about India's most inspiring government school teachers. Do you know them?
S Giridhar, COO, Azim Premji Foundation, talks to us about his latest book Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers: The Heroes of Real India that gives us an insight into the great work done by them
When talking about institutions that work closely with the government in implementing various grassroots-level programmes to improve the quality of education in India, one cannot miss the Azim Premji Foundation - a not-for-profit organisation that has been working since 2000 with the elementary education system in rural government schools. Today, the foundation, with 1000-plus employees, has field institutes in 40-plus districts across six states and one union territory (Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Puducherry). It has always strived to work with teachers, improving their skillset and capacities and also interacting with them on all levels. And this is evident in the book Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers: The Heroes of Real India, authored by one of its early founding members, S Giridhar, the current COO, which was recently published by Westland Books. But this isn't Giridhar's debut book. His other passion is cricket and he has co-authored two acclaimed books on the sport, Mid-Wicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar and From Mumbai to Durban: India’s Greatest Tests.
This recent book, according to the author, is a tribute to heroic government school teachers that emerged from his in-depth field study of over 110 schools across five districts in Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Karnataka and interactions with teachers in those schools, and it also 'draws from his rich experiences and his observations working on the ground'. "Having visited many schools across India as part of my fieldwork, I found that in over 75 per cent of the cases, the teachers were indeed special. At the end of each day, as I transcribed my handwritten notes, I relived the time I spent in the school and the conversations with the teachers and children. I marvelled at the indomitable spirit of the teachers and my notes seemed to take a life of their own," he says, adding, "Our conversations provided scintillating insights into their lives, hopes, difficulties and frustrations. They were open and forthcoming and giving of their time and themselves. I observed their work and tried to understand their perspectives on education and whether these translated into equity and quality in the classroom. We spoke about pedagogy, children and learning and their own growth as professionals, over time. I was also accorded the privilege of getting a glimpse of their everyday lives and routines. It is because of their generosity that I have been able to collate these stories. If I have not succeeded in drawing insights from every school that I visited, the failing is mine." Excerpts from a detailed interview:
Why do you believe that these teachers' stories need to reach the larger public?
Public education – a strong functional government school system – is crucial for India. Even in the most developed countries, it is public education that is the backbone. As I say in the concluding lines of my introductory chapter: 'The reality is, that for at least 60 per cent of our children, the government school is the only lifeline. It is only when the children who are completely dependent on government schools, receive equitable quality of education that we can hope to progress towards the ideals enshrined in our Constitution'. There is an overriding narrative in the popular press where only the negative aspects are highlighted. What we need is to appreciate the challenges that teachers face, the circumstances and environment they operate in, the support that they need both academically and administratively in order to perform their role. In the course of our work at Azim Premji Foundation, one has seen hundreds of teachers so committed to their roles, doing their best for the children in their care. No one seems to know or care about them. People must recognise that we have heroes in our government schools. The heroes in my book show what miracles they perform on their own. And I am using my book and stories of heroic teachers to kindle such hope and belief.
The book is a compilation of the author's first-hand observations
How much effort has gone into this book?
To answer this in terms of strict timelines – my first field visit for the study was in March 2017, the last visit in November 2018. During this period, I visited over 110 schools and met around 250+ teachers across most blocks in five districts across Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Karnataka. But I also had recourse to my numerous visits and experiences from the earlier years. The writing was happening almost simultaneously, the book evolved organically. My field diary runs into hundreds of pages. At the end of every visit, I would write the individual teacher stories and identify some common threads and patterns. That is why from May 2017, I wrote a series of articles that were published in the media, talking about these strands that were emerging from the study of outstanding teachers and along the way, one realised that these could all possibly come together as a book. Six years ago, I had no idea I would ever write a book. Then, my first cricket book happened because I teamed up with a friend and colleague, Raghunath. We loved the experience so much that a second cricket book followed. And now, this book on heroic teachers. Each of these has been a journey of learning, of fun and also fulfilment. This book is like a pilgrimage. The thing is that Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teachers is striking a chord with many people, so many are writing to say how inspired they are by these unsung heroes.
Could you describe your writing process in detail?
The writing process is something that I have followed earlier too. I luckily make good notes, take down exact words that people say. I then have certain markers and incidents that add warmth, flesh and blood to the narration. That is how I wrote up around 70 teacher case studies and from these, I selected forty teachers for the book. My challenge was to try and make each of these forty stories as distinct and interesting as possible. Here, I think my decision to organise the stories under five distinct attributes or strands was helpful. Even after doing this, I got help from my colleague Shefali Tripathi Mehta, a writer and author in her own right. It was she who suggested that I write an overview commentary at the start of each of the five chapters. In the writing of this book, I had to eschew all thoughts on me as an author and focus entirely on the teacher, the hero of my book.
Since you have immersed yourself in these government school ecosystems, would you consider your views and ideas about the teachers as entirely subjective or were you able to maintain objectivity?
There is nothing subjective there. My book is about the good teachers I met and observed and interacted with. The ecosystem they work in, their challenges, the innovative solutions they come up with – all these are what I have studied and presented. I do not hesitate to ask the question, ‘Are children learning better?’ and also answer this question through these stories. Even as I am objective, any reader can also see my appreciation and admiration for these teachers. I, after all, was meeting teachers from a pool of very good teachers that had been recommended to me for my study.
How different was writing this book when compared to your other two books?
The cricket books involved research and lots of discussions and meetings with legendary cricketers and sportswriters and written in partnership with Raghunath, my close friend and colleague. In the case of this book on heroic teachers, I was helped enormously by many colleagues on the ground who know the schools and teachers very well, having engaged deeply with them for years. The pleasure of writing is the same whether it is cricket or education. In both fields I am no expert, I just soak myself in the beauty of the game and the work on the ground with schools.
What do you want the reader to imbibe from these stories?
I want the readers to experience, along with me, the wonderment of interacting with heroic teachers in government schools, observing them at their work, understanding their challenges and marvelling at their commitment, resilience and ability to continuously develop themselves. I wanted the readers to see the burning belief of these teachers that every child can learn.