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A WHOLE NEW EXPERIENCE

A for annoyed, B for burdened: What a sudden shift to online classes means for India’s teachers

Itika Sharma Punit
By Itika Sharma Punit

Co-editor, Quartz India

For nearly six weeks now, Delhi-based nursery school teacher Meghna Saxena (name changed) has spent over five after-work hours a day only on calls with a colleague.

The duo brainstorms ideas and plans for their online classes over the Zoom app. A couple of hours more goes into gathering and preparing the items and props. By the time she’s done, it’s often late in the night.

At 11am, ready with hand-puppets, paper stars, and smiley-face cutouts, Saxena hosts a dozen four-year-olds in a virtual classroom. An hour later, her throat is sore and spirit low as fatigue takes over.

“Much of the hour-long class involves parents dragging the toddlers back to the computer screens and trying to get them interested in what’s happening,” Saxena told Quartz. “These kids don’t understand half our activities even in the real classroom. A teacher on a computer screen would hardly make sense to them.”

Yet, she or her colleagues can’t take these online classes lightly. For one, the kids are joined by their “quick-to-judge” parents who want “value for the fees paid,” Saxena said. Besides, the school vice-principal often shows up to monitor the teachers. “If I mispronounce one word, she stops the class to correct me.”

Saloni Kumar (name changed), who teaches English to middle- and senior-school students at a popular school in Gurugram near Delhi, is usually awake till 3am almost every night correcting assignments on her laptop or iPad. “During the classes, I have no way of knowing who is paying attention and who is not. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown if this continues. My body and brain are tired,” the 34-year-old said.

Saxena and Kumar are among the hundreds of teachers across the country who have been abruptly pushed into the uncharted “online classes” since India went into lockdown on March 25 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Theirs are also among the many examples of how exhausting and demotivating the experience has been for the grossly overworked and terribly underpaid tribe of teachers in India.

Woken up online, rudely

From coping with basics like internet connectivity and India’s notoriously undependable power supply to more structural issues such as curriculum and teaching methods, educators have come under tremendous stress since India’s schools began shutting down sometime in mid-March.

A colleague of Saxena’s, for instance, did not have a spare computer at home and could not buy one because of the lockdown. She has been teaching up to 45 students at a time through her smartphone, on which she struggles to even see the kids, let alone impart lessons.

Indeed, what happens during some of these online classes is potentially destructive rather than constructive.

In recent weeks, YouTube has been flooded with videos of “online classes gone wrong.”

These show students smoking, playing abusive videos, and logging in with odd names such as “Mia Khalifa” and “Sheela ki Jawaani” (“Sheela’s youth”) while the teachers are trying to teach.

Teachers struggle to take control of the situation as unruly students make the most out of this whole new experience.

Payal Ratna (name changed), an 11th-grade math teacher at a Bengaluru-based school said her students kept on “kicking her out” of the call every 10 minutes during the first few classes. “One day someone simply blocked my ID so I could not join back at all. This happened with several other teachers,” she said. “Then the school decided to start recording each call and warn the parents.”

Kumar also had some of her students log into the virtual classroom while eating food or speaking over the phone. She simply asked them to leave, finish their meals or calls, and log back in.

Ramya Harish, a middle-school teacher in Dombivili near Mumbai, was both exasperated and amused as her students kept doodling on the screen, knowing pretty well they won’t be caught. “The kids are savvy enough to handle gizmos, yet not mature enough to understand the situation. They double down on their usual classroom naughtiness online. After the first few days, I disabled Zoom’s screen-sharing option for them,” Harish said.

And yet, these technological inroads are also what keep the field bubbling in the private education sector in India with an estimated 350,000 schools and 8.7 million teachers.

“Today, the potential of edtech has only been unlocked for India-1, which is possibly 10 million households across the country. This is a tiny part of the estimated 250 million children that we have in our school systems,” said Bikkrama Daulet Singh, managing director at Central Square Foundation, a non-profit working to ensure quality school education for all children in India. Singh cited the example of one of India’s leading edtech app, Byju’s, which has only 3 million paid users.

Conditions in the government sector, on which a majority of India’s children depend, are likely to be worse. Two state-run school teachers who spoke to Quartz for this story said they felt anxious and guilty for their students losing out on precious time as they cannot afford the luxury of e-classrooms.

What’s the point even?

As private school teachers, rarely trained in online classrooms, struggle to keep their heads above water, they also wonder if all their troubles are worth anything.

“This can never make up for the real deal (classroom studies),” Kumar said.

The syllabi of several national and international boards include skills that cannot be taught virtually, explained Shashi Banerjee, principal of Shiv Nadar School in Noida. “What we are missing out on (in online classes) is how the child is growing as an individual. If you look at a typical report card, it will assess communication skills, vocabulary, critical thinking, scientific aptitude,” Banerjee said. These attributes are hard to assess remotely. “All this (virtual teaching) is okay for the short-term. If you’re teaching and learning only through a device for the whole year, this is not how it’s done.”

If all this was not demotivating enough, some teachers are now faced with salary cuts.

At least one school on the outskirts of Mumbai paid its 50-odd teachers only half the salary for April. They have been told not to expect any salary at all for May. “They have cited reasons like parents not paying fees and funds being stuck due to the lockdown. The bottom line being, we must work for free,” said one of the teachers at the school.

The Covid-19 lockdown will surely end someday. However, their stresses and scars will remind India’s school teachers of their own coronavirus battle for a long time to come.

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