“Education is not preparation for life; it is life itself”
– John Dewey
Banerjee et al (2008) in their paper “Pitfalls of Participatory Programs: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Education in India” admit that the most expensive and important resource in a school is the teaching staff. But I find their contention that lack of teacher effort is the main problem afflicting schools in Uttar Pradesh disparaging and lacking empathy to the constraints faced by teachers.
The premise that teacher absence is based on a lack of incentives and motivation often slips into painting teachers as lazy individuals that are dragging education systems down. I also remember this caricature of the teacher constantly asleep at their desk only to wake up to beat their students with a ruler from “Poor Economics” by Duflo and Banerjee. I can only talk from my experience in a potentially very different context, and although I have come across high classroom absence rates amongst the teachers I worked with, those absences were rarely caused by laziness. Teacher absences in the school I worked at in The Gambia were for myriad reasons: unreliable travel infrastructure, inefficient government bureaucracy, commitments to attend birth, marriage and death ceremonies, Malaria, only being able to buy shoes from a weekly market, and runaway goats. Yes, lazy and unmotivated teachers exist, but absence from the classroom in many contexts is rarely a symptom of an unwillingness to teach.
One proposal has been to only hire teachers from the local community to teach in local schools but while this may combat some issues of motivation, monitoring and travel constraints, the unintended consequences of a system that prohibits the freedom of movement of a professional teacher would far outweigh the benefits.
Their contention that teaching is not an innately difficult task is predicated on the successful teaching of one skill by a trained volunteer over a short period of time. Proving that one small, albeit crucial, element of the job of a teacher can be done by a volunteer with minimal training does not prove that the job of a teacher is easy. Teaching in a low income country in the global south is not easy – large class size, a disparate spectrum of abilities and knowledge, inadequate infrastructure, inconsistent societal norms on corporal punishment, a wide ranging curriculum, and heat all contribute to the difficulty – and this difficulty is not adequately rewarded.
Should we argue for a systemic reform of what can be expected of teachers in rural schools? Ken Robinson has argued for a paradigm shift in “Western” education systems that were built on an industrial model and many education models in LIMIC’s are modeled on this same industrial paradigm of education. Teachers, as well as students, are victims of this paradigm. Shifting the paradigm is necessary, particularly in rural schools, as the constraints and needs are so different but it won’t be easy and it must be embraced at both the government and community level.