India's best teachers 2021: This Odisha teacher won the National Award for increasing school enrollment, battling social issues through music

As a child, he was told to leave education after Class 10. But it was that one teacher who made all the difference for him. Now he continues to do the same for others
Ajit Kumar Sethy conducting classes through music |Pic: Ajit Kumar Sethy
Ajit Kumar Sethy conducting classes through music |Pic: Ajit Kumar Sethy

From Odisha's Ganjam, one of India's cyclone-prone districts, this primary school teacher just won the National Award to Teachers after changing the face of the government school he has been teaching in for the last 13 years. "When I joined that school, everything was a mess. It was unclean, there were no toilet facilities. It was infrastructurally in shambles," says Ajit Kumar Sethy (47), who took it upon himself to improve the facilities in the Government Upper Primary School of Kanamana, under the Chattarpur block of the district, where he is the headteacher.  "I gathered all the parents and school alumni and reminded them that school is their temple and it is in urgent need of improvement," he says.

This was a crucial moment. Sethy warned all of them that there are only 50 students left in the school, and if this number goes any lower the school would shut. 

He explained that the Odisha government had a scheme whereby any additional money that is contributed to the improvement of schools would be matched and that they would double that amount.  Sethy reached out to the panchayat sarpanch and reminded him that he is an old student of the school. "I told him 'Sir, you're an old student. How can you forget your own mother?'" And then he started fixing the water supply, the garden and the school building for which he managed to raise lakhs of rupees.

Every teacher who is considered for the award has to give a presentation, and Sethy says that the jury was very impressed when he told them about his work. However, he didn't seem overly excited about the win. "I don't feel like it is a big thing. Yes, I agree that it is an achievement but I would be happy only when my students win such awards," he says.

What was the outcome?
Improving the infrastructure was just a small step for Sethy. His ultimate mission was to increase school enrollment. "I started visiting people's houses in the village. I told them about the improved infrastructure, I told them about the mid-day meal scheme that'll save them money," he says. This also encouraged other people in the village to contribute stationery for the children. Within a year or two the school's numbers went from 50 to 108.

His music is what makes a difference
Sethy writes songs for social awareness. In fact, before joining the school as a teacher, he worked with an NGO that aimed at addressing issues such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse and children's education in Malkangiri and Rayagada. "Most of them were labourers who would earn peanuts. But they would spend most of it on alcohol which led to physical and mental abuse of the women at home," Sethy says.  And then, while in conversation with Edexlive, he broke into a song in a voice that perhaps only folk singers can produce. "The song tells the story of a sharabi who was getting a bottle of alcohol from the wine shop and while on his way, he sees many alcoholics fall in a gutter. He then reflects upon himself and promises that he won't drink," he says.

In recent years, Sethy has also generated awareness by singing about the ills of child marriage, which is a project done in collaboration with the district authorities. When the jury asked Sethy how he incorporated his music into teaching, he told them that it is how he believes children learn better as it is "joyful". Sethy broke into a song once again and demonstrated how he would teach children languages, by singing. "If they sing the song and enjoy it, the person can better understand the was is being taught."

What about the COVID crisis?
It is a known reality that most children who are enrolled in government schools across India come from weaker economic backgrounds. "We had to visit children at their homes in the evenings. We were a group of four teachers," he says. Not many of his students have access to mobile phones. In fact, he himself cannot use a computer. "I was making all the videos on mobile phone via KineMaster," he says. He adds that the government's National Education Policy can be a problem for students and teachers like the ones in Ganjam. "Even other teachers I know cannot handle technology well," he says.

'Wanted to be a teacher because my teacher changed my life'
Sethy grew up in extreme poverty and he is the only one in his family who went to school. "My older sibling asked me stop my education after Class 10," he says. But it was the emotional, mental, and financial support of one teacher that helped Sethy study his way to a master's degree. "This name, Ajit, was not given to me by my parents. My teacher gave me this name," he says. That child who was told not to study, rebelled. He is now perhaps one of the best teachers in the country and continues to change the lives of many.

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