Published: 26th February 2021
With board exams looming, Govt school teachers in Tamil Nadu turn to rushed rote learning, excessive testing to help kids pass
Classes for +2 students only started on January 19 and now a month later, the government announced the board exam dates, so instead of teaching, the teachers are conducting test after test
Shock, Stress, Panic — Teachers in Tamil Nadu government schools are battling all these emotions as they get +2 students to prepare for the board exams starting on May 3. Last week, the Tamil Nadu government announced the dates for the exams and this took many teachers across the state by surprise. Having to cram 11 months of work into two months has caused a lot of teachers to take on unimaginable pressure and who else will face the brunt of this pressure, other than the students themselves?
Classes for grade 12 students only started on January 19 and now a month later, the government has announced the board exam dates. When we interviewed teachers just as schools reopened, many told us that they hoped that the exams would be held in June or July. The teachers were worried that students were only just getting used to getting back into classrooms, so they needed to devote time to motivating them to get back to routine. Many had also lost touch with their books because they did not have proper access to online classes, which is why teachers were preparing to start lessons from the beginning. But at this point, teachers are unable to go through with their plans, even before completing portions, they are holding tests for the students.
Online classes were a massive failure
A teacher from a school that is well past Tindivanam said that the online classes were a complete failure. “It did not benefit 99 per cent of the students. That is what I have realised. We put so much effort into adapting to new technology and organising classes but it has been a massive failure. We managed to cover more than half the portion but the students barely remember what we taught during those classes. Even the 'first rank' students haven’t been able to consistently follow whatever we’ve been teaching. Only one per cent of the students have benefited from these classes,” he explained. So whatever agenda the teachers set out to execute when schools reopened, have all mostly fallen flat. “I’m just doing whatever the higher officials are telling me. I did make a plan before coming but I’m not able to follow it. Now whatever we are being told, we are just doing,” the teacher said, disappointedly.
The other teachers we interviewed also have the same story, they also did make some plans but now none of those plans are working out. “I wanted to start the lessons from the beginning but the higher officials said I couldn’t. They said whatever was taught during the online classes, we have to assume that those parts have been covered. So whether the students understood or not is not in our hands,” he added. So now teachers have been told that tests will begin, this week or the first week of March, “They just want us to hold as many tests as possible in the time that is remaining and through those tests they want the students to learn. I don’t know how that will help but I don’t have any other choice.”
Only input, no output
Another government school teacher tells us that at the speed at which they are going, there is no way that they are going to see any proper learning outcomes. There is pressure to feed in as much information as possible into the student, which is quite possible, he says. “We can run through the chapters but just because constant input is happening doesn’t mean that there will be any output. We have no idea if students will be able to reproduce what they are learning,” he said. In his school, the first term exams are due to start on March 6, “My colleagues and I were in complete shock when we heard the board exams are starting on May 3. What we are supposed to do in 11 months, we are being forced to do in two months flat. This is severely affecting us because it puts us under so much pressure but this is also pushing students into depression. And if there is so much pressure on us, of course we’ll end up putting that same pressure on students,” the Physics teacher tells us.
Has reduced portions benefitted students?
Now, the Tamil Nadu reduced the syllabus for the students by 40 per cent to help students cope with adversities caused by the pandemic. However, the teachers find that this may not help too much. One teacher told us that all the easy parts of the portions have been cut off, which means everything that the student is meant to learn is all the hard stuff. Another problem is that after they went through the portions, the teachers don’t feel like every subject has exactly 40 per cent cut off. The third issue is consistency — there is no continuity in the syllabus and teachers are finding it difficult to jump from one chapter to another randomly, “For example, for my subject, there are two chapters from the first volume and three from the second. At least if we had been informed about the cut before, I could have prepared but because we came to know so late, it becomes very difficult to teach. When there’s no continuity, how do you make a student understand,” the teacher said. When it came to carrying out classes on the TV channel too, the teachers say the chapters were not broadcast with any consistency and nobody can expect that students could have actually benefited from classes through a TV.
In some schools, students are still not coming to school regularly and are still not in the right mental state to cope with so much pressure. Not all of them have the chance to go back home and do homework too. A Villupuram teacher says since more of his students come from villages, they are all struggling with problems at home — unemployment, mental stress and even struggle for basic necessities. Even a small sample test on their return stressed the students out as they continued to battle the effect of the pandemic, the teachers said.“On top of this, trying to study double the portions than usual every day and prepare for daily tests is too demanding. The children have no break. All teachers want a centum but it looks like it will be very hard this time. Even very intelligent students who are rank holders are struggling. They are all just concentrating on question banks, there is no time for any other kind of preparation,” the teacher said.
Preparing for the exams with the question bank is not new, it is being done for generations. But the teacher says that for those students who aim to get ranks, they usually devote time to learning preparing for unusual questions as well, they do extra preparations. All that is not happening this time, “There is no chance of extra preparedness, the kind you need to top exams. The more enthusiastic ones are also at a loss this time.” For the slow learners, matters, as expected, are even worse. “We don’t have special classes or evening classes. There’s no time,” a teacher said.
Bright students and slow learners - the great divide, now thrown wide
Another disappointing result of all this hurry is that teachers are also forced to divide students based on their learning ability and pick who gets better learning. “In our school, for the bright students we’ve been holding lectures and we clear doubts. For the not-so-bright ones, we only train them on the questions, we are not focussing on the lessons,” a teacher says. Proving how the pandemic has been especially disastrous for students who may be burdened with other problems or don’t have as much privilege as the others.
This is also going to have an impact on students preparing for national entrance exams like NEET, another teacher pointed out. “Students preparing for NEET need to learn the full syllabus. By cutting the syllabus, we may help them with the board exams but what about when it comes to national exams? A student from our school is eager to get a seat after last year a student of ours managed a seat through the 7.5 percent quota. He is very eager to prepare but where is the time?” he questioned.
Tamil in a hurry? Testing times ahead
Language also cannot be taught in a hurry, a Tamil subject teacher we spoke to says that some chapters need more time than the others, “In a normal circumstance, I would take one month for one particular chapter in the book because that chapter contained information that would be needed for all future chapters. But we can’t teach with the same kind of plans.”
But now teachers are just pushed to conduct test after test, whether they approve are not. Purely through the tests, the students are expected to train themselves for the exam. If questioned, all the teachers are going to say they finished the syllabus, “All of us will say that we completed the syllabus, but teaching is one thing and learning is another. Teachers can find a way to complete a chapter within the given time but who can say that a child has learnt? Who is benefiting from all of this,” the Tamil teacher asks. Of course, the teachers agree that every teacher’s experience is different and some might be doing better. Shanti G, a Chennai teacher says her classes are going as planned and she is managing to conduct revisions before the test, “I think my students will be able to manage just fine,” she says. However, for many other teachers, the speed at which they are having to prepare their students is a complete nightmare and because they are under such pressure, the students too are most likely in shock, stressed out and panicking.