A WhatsApp Teachers’ Day: How Government School teachers across Tamil Nadu are coping with not seeing their students

These teachers have to hear that their students are finding it hard to even get three proper meals a day and so how are they supposed to go with their online classes, as if everything were fine?
Teachers' Day 2020
Teachers' Day 2020

For the first time, probably since its inception, students and teachers will not be seeing each other on Teachers’ Day. No dances, no singing, no tiny gifts, no greeting cards, no poems, no laughter and giggles, this September 5, teachers and students will maybe see each other through a screen or on a WhatsApp call or they won’t see each other at all since large sections of children continue to miss online classes because they have no access to it. And while not seeing each other on Teachers’ Day can be quite saddening, going months without going to a class, not seeing their teachers, feeling like the whole world is passing by as they remain stuck can all have a deep impact both on students and teachers.

In 22 years, this will be the first time that PK Ilamaran, a teacher at the Chennai High School will not be meeting his students. Unlike all the previous years, he won’t get pens and pencils with little notes as gifts. “It is quite heartbreaking that we will not be seeing the children this year. A classroom means nothing if there are no children in them,” he said, sadly. R Ramesh, a teacher at the Government High School, Konnathur recalls last Teachers’ Day, when the students and teachers exchanged places, “The students become the teachers, they mimicked us, used words we use the most, imitated our actions, the way we talk and so on. That’s when we know what we are like and I enjoy this ritual every year. I always loved giving them the stage and we both have so much fun during this period. So I’ll miss that the most this year.”

Teachers and that special connection

And that's a feeling that's almost universal. “If we’ve won an award for teaching that year, we’ll hand over the award to the children that day. Allow them to hold it because after all it is only because of them that we’ve even won it,” K Ramesh from Government Higher Secondary School, Kunnathur said, smiling.

“Some students will stand near the door waiting for us and surprise us with balloons and greeting cards, I’ll really miss that,” G Suresh from a Municipality School in Tirupur tells us. This time, the teachers are still expecting wishes but all via WhatsApp — and that just isn’t the same. 

Sri Bhagavan was in the news two years ago when a picture of him surrounded by huge crowds of children crying and holding on to him went viral. He himself can be seen in tears in the picture. Bhagavan had just been given a transfer and the news had reached the children, who were devastated and refused to let him go, quite literally. Bhagavan did eventually have to take that transfer and moved away, but one doesn’t have to be a genius to guess that the man created the same impact in whatever classroom he walked into. So this Teachers’ Day, Bhagavan is a heartbroken man. Unlike other schools, the one he works at hasn’t been able to provide students online classes — just the TV lecture that is provided on the TN Government channel.

That pandemic effect

So he hasn’t seen his children in months now, “I remember these kids, they’ll start preparing for the day a week ahead, get their charts and colour pencils ready. Any chance they get they’ll work on their little greeting card or they’ll draw pictures and give it to me. Or they’ll stitch me something or make some craft with flowers. Or with what they can afford, they’ll buy me a set of red pens. Teachers’ Day is really like a festival for us. I’ve always kept these gifts with me. This time, it’ll be particularly difficult for me personally,” he tells us. 

Students refusing to let Bhagavan leave

Bhagavan feels bad for his students, he says they call him sometimes and tell him that they miss going to classes, that they can’t wait for classes to start again. “It was easy for private schools to switch to the online mode because they have all the gadgets they need. Here, our children are telling us they have not been able to even afford three meals a day properly, where are they supposed to go get money to recharge their phones? If there are two, three kids, how will they share the phone? It’s even more painful when their parents call me worried because the kids have missed so many months and ask me if there is any way I can go to their homes and teach the children,” Bhagavan said. The other teachers also get similar calls, “They ask if they can send their kids to my house or if I can go to theirs. They also ask if we can teach them from the beginning when they are back in school. They are scared they’re falling back and sometimes even cry because they feel the others have finished learning and they haven’t even started,” says G Shanthi from a Corporation School from Maduvankarai. 

Shanthi has been taking online classes from June 1 but like scores of other teachers, she only ever used her phone prior to the pandemic to make calls and watch the occasional video. Ilamaran has been doing training programmes for teachers during the pandemic and he also says that most teachers that he trained only knew how to make calls, send messages and watch videos on their phones. They had no other use for them — so even downloading apps, knowing where to even find them, going to the playstore, and then learning which buttons to press were all things that the teachers were only now learning. So for Shanthi, learning how to use technology to reach out to her students was quite overwhelming and three months down the line, she still struggles with some processes. 

“For the first two weeks, I kept on and on asking ‘Can you hear me?’ ‘Can you understand what I’m saying’, I would keep asking over and over again. Because I can’t see the students’ faces. In the class I can see them, I can make out if they are understanding or not, or they can immediately tell me they can’t understand. Here they just keep quiet, some will call me later on the phone and ask but otherwise I have no idea if they are actually learning. And initially I didn’t know that the back camera was better that the front and I didn’t know how I could show them the notes, for Math they need to learn how to do the steps and I don’t have a board to teach them, so I had to show them through notes I had write,” Shanthi said.

PK Ilamaran, K Ramesh and Shanthi G

Getting used to digital ed

But she has no other option, so Shanthi says she keeps learning everyday and tried to take her help from her family members or her colleagues, “Sometimes I’ll ask the students to show their notes on video so I can see if they are doing it correctly but they tell me they don’t know how to send me. The thing is I can still ask my colleagues how to move this or do this or that. The students’ don’t have the same opportunity because they can’t ask each other. If they are sitting in a class together, they can ask each other what to do, here they are embarrassed and they can’t understand what to do,” she narrates. 

Ilamaran says that because the students remain on mute during the session, there is no interaction. And without interaction, the teachers can’t really get through to the students. “Then there is signal trouble. Both for teachers and students, I’ve been seeing students having to sit on their terrace and on trees to be able to get signal properly. In many cases, teachers didn’t even know how to switch on the computer. These are all very new and overwhelming first time experiences,” Ilamaran said. So in his training sessions for the teachers, he first starts to teach by instilling a confidence and motivation in them, “They need to first believe that it is easy. That it is something they can easily master, it’s all about changing their mindset. But sometimes, some quickly develop an interest and begin to get motivated. But nobody can immediately get it, it is quite a challenge,” Ilamaran explained. 

So after they kind of master a phone or computer, figuring out the apps again are troublesome for the teachers, “On Zoom, they need to know how to schedule, how to send an invite. Then again the Google Meet is different. So each one takes time to learn how to operate and get confused.” In some instances, these teachers/trainers have found great success, “We conducted a session for some teachers in Pondicherry and just with one day of training and the feedback we got was so heartwarming. For me watching a computer continuously and teaching for 3-4 hours straight wasn’t great because I had eye pain and headache. But that is part of the game,” Ramesh said. 

That nagging feeling

But even as the teachers try and become more well versed in handling these online classes, they constantly at the back of their mind worry and feel guilty about all the children who are missing from the classes. Shanthi’s school has children coming from the outskirts of the city too and they have no way of attending the classes, “They call me in tears and ask me if I was willing to teach them from the beginning when they return. And I’ve promised them that no matter what I’ll start from the beginning. But they worry that they can’t keep pace with the others.”

“At 4.30 every morning, I used to send out a question on WhatsApp to the 12th standard students. They needed to prepare the answers and come to class. So even if they didn’t have mobiles, the students would come early to school and teach each other. Now I know that I can’t do that because that would mean only those with mobiles would be able to learn the answers. I miss this routine,” Ramesh said. The teachers are now hoping the government will allow micro classes to take place, so they can meet at least a few of the children, “We are thinking maybe we can go near their villages and call five students. All the teachers will come and teach that group, the entire day. And the next day, it can be another batch,” Ilamaran feels. 

Doomed if you meet, damned if you don't

Ramesh, however, worries that since most COVID patients seem to be asymptomatic, it could be dangerous for the other kids and this is a risk they are afraid of taking too. At the end of the day, the children’s health is more important than anything else, they all feel. “Which is why I think that these online classes are completely unnecessary,” Bhagavan says, “My students have been told that the classes will be run on TV but you need to keep students interested in the class. How many will choose to watch TV? Is it fair to treat these students differently from the ones who have mobiles? I just want the children to be safe, for their families to be safe. Is the class more important than their lives? Instead, we could have just dropped this idea and allowed children to take a break and learn other things. How can we allow them to feel so bad, make them suffer because they cannot afford mobile phones. Children are killing themselves, we read in the papers everyday.”

G Suresh

The teachers say that reading about these suicides day in and day out has taken a huge toll on their mental health as well. They feel like they are not doing enough, but there’s isn’t much they can do either. Another teacher whose school hasn’t been able to take online classes is G Suresh, who teaches in the Municipality School in Tirupur. As soon as the lockdown was announced, he immediately took down the phone numbers of all his students, put them on an excel sheet and every other day calls to enquire if they are okay, if they’ve eaten, “The other day I went to an SC colony just close to the school, to see if I can see them. And hordes of kids ran to me. One student had drawn a picture of me with the WhatsApp picture on my display.  Then I went to four more areas where I knew lots of children stayed and I met them. Just seeing me made them so happy and it made me so happy too. I’m sure they are learning other things about life,” he hopes. 

That first day feeling

“You know what I miss more than Teachers’ Day? The first day of school. You know, just that one day, we don’t take class. We all just get to know each other and each one tells stories about where they went on vacation, mostly it would be to their village to their grandparents’ house. The stories will all be so lively, some will say they were waiting to come back, some would say they didn’t want to come back. But it would be just lovely to listen to their stories,” Ramesh recalled. “But this year, nobody was able to go back to their villages, no vacations. Now a lot of their parents are unemployed too and they’re finding it difficult to put food on the table,” he adds.

So, this year, as much as they would miss the performances and the gifts, these teachers are worried and are praying that their students are eating well and that they are healthy mentally as well as physically. “Usually for Teachers’ Day, the last 15-20 minutes, I’ll allow the children some free time where we’ll talk and have fun. This time, the students have told me that even if it is online, they still want those 15 minutes. They want to take the time to wish me and share some laughs. I’ve decided to give them those 15 minutes this time too,” Shanti says with a smile. 

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