We are continuing to neglect primary teachers at our own peril. Even after 70 years of Independence we have not learnt this important lesson. It was Freud who had awakened the world to the significance of the first five years of life. Indeed, he successfully demonstrated that the early childhood years are crucial to the foundation of the adult personality. A recent study carried out by the Institute of Education in England found that the quality of early childhood education was even more important than family background — though a stimulating home environment certainly helped. But since economics seems to be the driving force behind all our national policies, our policymakers should keep in mind Amartya Sen’s frequent warnings that India is still paying a price (in terms of economic development) for the serious neglect of primary education. “The low coverage and low quality of school education in India extracts a heavy price in the pattern of our economic development,” warned the celebrated Nobel laureate in economics.
Having been warned by experts that even in the 21st century the quality of our school education is sadly wanting, we must make up for lost time by concentrating on early child education. Firstly, we need to understand that we have to engage the very best minds in pre-primary and primary classes. It is a warped logic that makes employers pay primary teachers much less than those teaching secondary classes. Young people must be encouraged to take a degree in teaching at this level and be appropriately trained to be able to teach this age group with competence. Exceptional skills, important personality traits and specialised knowledge are required if people wish to teach young children. By paying a pittance to our primary level teachers, we are succeeding in driving away much needed talent from this section.
What are the qualities that are essential in a primary level teacher? To begin with, they must be blessed with endless energy and enthusiasm. They also need to be very, very patient and know how to handle a heterogenous class full of children with varying but extremely short attention spans. No matter what the everyday challenges may be, a cheerful demeanour is a must for those who teach children. I have seen the kind of magic a good teacher can weave and how she (it is almost always a “she”) can transform a class of unruly three or four-year olds into doing her bidding. It is no wonder that Robert Fulghum’s bestselling book was entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in the Kindergarten. The author even lists the things we need to know and practice in life. Among these are: sharing, playing fair, not hitting people, putting things back where you found them, cleaning up your own mess, not taking things that belong to others, saying “sorry” when you have hurt someone, washing your hands before eating and so on. It is therefore plain that everyone ends up learning an impressive range of life skills, which include how to get along with people, how to avoid trouble, the basic principles of hygiene and even how to balance the ecosystem.
Perhaps we don’t realise it, but these life skills and habits are equally, if not more important, than mastering the three “R”s. As for initiating little children into the formal world of words and numbers, I think that it is one of the most daunting tasks imaginable. What with the illogical spelling and pronunciation of English words, the mystery of numerals and counting and then getting small children with unformed motor skills to first hold a pencil correctly and then to manoeuvre their little hands to form the required shapes — it is nothing short of a miracle that the primary teacher brings about. As the child progresses through the next few classes, the primary teacher deals with more complex matters while dealing with widely varying abilities and multiple-intelligences. Handling difficult parents is yet another extremely difficult task that comes with the territory. In view of the demands on them, do we care about these teachers the way we should?
First of all, they are looked down upon because they are not associated with higher studies. This is not true of other countries where highly qualified people choose to teach primary school children. Many spend years in research and in writing papers on these young minds and different pedagogical approaches to educating them. Indeed, many of the world’s educational thinkers and reformers have written on early childhood education and the best methods of teaching at this stage. The Montessori method and Froebel’s kindergarten approach are widely known and practised. Closer to home, Rabindranath Tagore has written prolifically and deeply about children’s education. Yet, we in India still haven’t shown any desire to invest in the primary teacher. It is generally felt that just about anyone who is literate can teach small children. Even in established schools, it has been observed that people with general educational qualifications but with no special training are made supervisors or heads of the primary department. But anyone who interacts closely with nursery and kindergarten teachers is bound to realise the wealth and depth of knowledge and the hands-on experience that are needed to teach at this level. As I write this piece, I am aware of the damage that is being done to little children by nursery and play schools that have mushroomed in the unorganised sector. Little children are made to do tasks beyond their years and, horror of horrors, they have book lists and syllabuses because they have to be prepared for entry into the “big” schools.
Enough of performing monkeys and “programmed” behaviour. It is time that we trained our primary teachers and left them to bring up our children to be spontaneous, imaginative, creative and, most important, civilised beings. It is also time that we acknowledged that our primary teachers are an invaluable component of our education system. Let us invest in them.