Reimagining Teaching in India

10/25/2013 04:05 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

How many of you considered being a school teacher choosing your career path? Do we often think of school teaching as a last resort, or a barely acceptable choice for those who have tried their hands at other professions and not tasted success, or for those seeking a 'healthy work-life balance?' Perhaps it is time we ask ourselves, why we discourage our best and brightest students from choosing a career in teaching.

India currently faces a shortage of 1.2 million teachers according to various estimates. Pass rates in the Teacher Eligibility Test have hovered between 1-10%, reflective of the quality of candidates that we attract to the profession. Perhaps we are setting our expectations too low. A mere 50% in graduation is sufficient to write the Bachelor of Education (Bed) entrance exam in India. In countries like Finland, South Korea and Singapore, contrastingly, 100% of teachers are recruited from the top third of the graduating class.

Poor teacher quality is a catch-22 situation in India - till we restore dignity to the profession, we cannot recruit high quality talent, and till we make teaching a viable career option we cannot restore dignity to the profession. Both processes need to be simultaneous, and reinforce each other. We also need to revisit some of the underlying causes behind the perception of school-teaching not figuring in the upper echelons of professional choices. Unfortunately this mindset has seeped into the core of a teacher's life-cycle in India.

To begin with, our pre-service and in-service teaching programs are lackadaisically outdated. Unlike other practising professions such as medicine and law, our newly-qualified teachers are not administered any sort of apprenticeship. Most government school teachers work under abysmal conditions without any support system during service. Opportunities for career progression are also harrowingly low.

Some problems are also exaggerated due to informational gaps. Despite the popular perception, school-teaching is now a fairly well-paying profession in India. Teacher salaries have risen considerably after the 6th Pay Commission, so much so that the ratio of average teacher salaries to the national per capita income has risen from 3 to almost

5 or 6. This ratio also accounts for contract teachers, who are usually less qualified and less paid than regular teachers. As a contrast, this ratio is 1 in Bangladesh and 2 in Pakistan.

India should also a concerted policy effort to run a national service campaign on the lines of the campaign run by the UK government in 2000 to recruit quality talent into the profession. This campaign took a strategic approach to recruiting teachers, by segmenting and targeting different categories of candidates, who may have been considering the profession. It undertook extensive market research into their motivations and inhibitions in choosing teaching as a career.

Creating opportunities for lateral entry into the profession can open doors to a wider range of motivated individuals with quality work experience in other professions who may choose teaching as a second career. The UK, USA and China have experimented with this model, wherein classroom teaching is supplemented with an in-service training program for the trainee teachers for a specified duration of time.

We also need to provide our teachers with better support structures, like professional networks where they can discuss their challenges, share lesson plans and other learnings with each other. Trainee teachers in their first year of service in Finland are required to be a part of subject teacher forums, where they engage in planning, action, evaluation and reflection and are modelled after the methods a teacher uses in a classroom. China also follows a similar practice through Teacher Study Groups.

In India, teaching is a stagnant profession with next to no opportunities for career progression: a teacher is promoted to the position of a school principal based on seniority in age. If we want to take the aspirations of our teachers seriously we need to define a clear career path with separate tracks for leadership, like content specialist and teaching. Singapore has instituted a similar model.

A well-thought out system of awards where deserving and performing teachers are recognised by the state can also incentivise teachers and prove to be more effective than attractive pay packages. This will not only strengthen the morale of teachers but also encourage more innovation in their teaching methods.

Finally, there are successful models that have been able to recruit high quality teachers, which we can leverage. For instance, 'Teach for India' which is under the umbrella of 'Teach for All' has shown that it is possible to engage high-calibre college graduates in a 2-year teaching stint in low income schools.

Lee Iacocca, former president and CEO of Chrysler said, "In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honour and the highest responsibility anyone could have."

India, then, is years away from being a rational society. As we celebrate World Teacher Day, we need to revisit the way we look at the profession; we need to find ways to attract motivated and bright people to take on the task of shaping young minds; we need to reimagine teaching.