Teachers are viewed as mentors of young people in the classroom, responsible for moulding the new generation into future leaders. India with its guru-shishya tradition has especially placed teachers at the helm of all learning and this importance is also reflected in the 2020 New Education Policy (NEP) as well, where the teacher is seen as being at the “centre of fundamental reforms in the education system”. While there can be no denying the role of teachers in the education transformation process, however it is one that we need to also reimagine urgently. Over the last few decades there has been widespread acknowledgement of teachers being influential stakeholders in the ecosystem around the child and yet there is a need to transform the traditionally defined role of a teacher into that of educators who are empathetic and non-judgmental and are building safe spaces for children. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 emphasizes inclusive and equitable education where by 2030, all UN member countries in the world have signed up to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” If India needs to live up to the SDG 2030 commitment, there needs to be greater focus on how we are enabling and aiding teachers to build inclusivity and equity in the classroom, where teachers are partaking in difficult equity-related discussions with openness.
The Department of School Education and Literacy in 2021 developed an indicative and suggestive NEP Implementation Plan for School Education — ‘Students’ and Teachers’ Holistic Advancement through Quality Education (SARTHAQ)’. This includes ways to ‘achieve an inclusive and equitable education system so that all children have equal opportunity to learn and thrive so that participation and learning outcomes are equalized across all genders and social categories by 2030’. While it is heartening to note that inclusion is an integral aspect in the SARTHAQ plan, how this will be achieved remains largely within the realms of ensuring enrollment among Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDGs), access to schools and academic outcomes. Unfortunately, and significantly, it does not include the role of teachers in enabling equity within the classroom. Even if one looks closely at the NIPUN (National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy) Bharat guidelines the focus remains on building teacher capacity to help children acquire foundational skills. While all these measures are important, the Indian education system needs measures that work at both systemic and individual levels to equip teachers to be enablers of equity in the classroom.
Building the capacities of Teachers in empathy-based pedagogies can go a long way in helping teachers to realise their own prejudices, understand conscious and unconscious biases that play out in classrooms, as well build their understanding around adversity and its impact on children. There is also a need to acknowledge that teachers themselves need to unlearn old ways that do not serve young people as social norms, social identities of teachers and systemic influences play a decisive role in the perpetuation of discrimination in classrooms. Would it then be possible to enable an intersectional lens in the way teacher development programmes are crafted? Could we support our teachers in enabling equity and inclusion in classrooms by building their ability to be more compassionate and empathetic? Imagine Teacher Development programmes that enables teachers to unlearn and recognize the myriad intersections of caste, gender, religion, socio-economic status, etc. and its impact on young people on an individual level as well as at a societal level.
Teachers when equipped with requisite skills to promote equity in the classroom will ensure that inclusion becomes the norm, where every teacher will be able to wholeheartedly embrace the diverse social identities, backgrounds, and experiences that students bring into the classroom. Arguably this calls for an urgent rehauling of existing teacher preparatory training curriculums to steadfastly include sessions that allow for facilitation of self-exploration where issues of caste, class, privilege and all such systemic and social inequities is made possible. Such equity-based teacher preparatory workshops can help teachers in enabling equity in classrooms, especially for the traditionally marginalised children.
Equity in classrooms is more than ensuring equal access, it necessitates the creation of a safe space for children to be their whole selves, and that means going back to the drawing board to relook at classroom practices and old norms that no longer serve children. When teachers become empathetic educators who facilitate classrooms with compassion, that is when children coming from diverse social identities and adversities, feel welcomed, feel safe, and can learn, be happy and thrive.
Suchetha Bhat is CEO, Dream a Dream, a not for profit working towards empowering young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity and flourish in a fast-changing world using a creative life skills approach.