In MP’s Singrauli, one teacher’s dedication was the only hope for students

In MP’s Singrauli, one teacher’s dedication was the only hope for students

In MP’s Singrauli, one teacher’s dedication was the only hope for students

With a blackboard strapped to his two-wheeler, Sharad Pandey had travelled to around 15 remote villages to bring the classroom experience to students with no access to online education

Singrauli: Most of last year, a middle-aged man with a blackboard strapped to his motorcycle was seen making the rounds of Singrauli’s remote tribal villages, after schools were ordered shut during the Covid-19 pandemic. For Sharad Pandey, a science teacher at a government middle school in Shahpur, Waidhan tehsil, providing the classroom experience to his underprivileged students was paramount, and he was dedicated to the task of covering 12 to 15 remote hamlets.

“No amount of online teaching can replace the power of classroom teacher-student interaction and the learning that takes place in this context. The classroom experience cannot be skipped,” Pandey said, adding that remote learning did not allow for social interaction, a critical ingredient of education.

Blackboard mounted to Pandey's motorcycle (Photo Credits: Prabhatesh Tripathi)

Singrauli, India’s energy hub in Madhya Pradesh, is dotted with coal mines and thermal power plants, but its villages still lack even the most basic facilities. The roads, many still untarred, make accessibility to these villages a struggle, whereas shoddy mobile connectivity and lack of other necessary resources made education near inaccessible to students in the wake of the pandemic.

Pandey’s student Rakesh and his two friends would cycle down to their study corner just outside Banauli, one of many villages part of Pandey’s initiative. For these teens, Sundays had been hardly any different from their weekdays, since the state government had ordered the closure of schools. It had become a routine then to reach their study spot to get a stable data connection on their smartphones.

Between 10 am and 11 am, these schoolboys would sit on either side of the road leading to Banauli, trying to access their lessons on the WhatsApp groups created under DigiLEP — the state government’s ‘Digital Learning Enhancement Program’. In 2020, the Madhya Pradesh education department launched DigiLEP under the banner of ‘Hamara Ghar - Hamara Vidyalaya’ (Our Home, Our School) to promote the idea of acquiring education at home. 

However, for Rakesh and his friends, the roadside had turned into their school. Nevertheless, they had managed to be part of the 31.8 percent of children from the 1,499 surveyed villages in Madhya Pradesh who had regular access to a smartphone for online classes.

Pandey acknowledged that despite platforms like DigiLEP,  it had not been easy for school children in rural Madhya Pradesh. Even earlier, he had been aware of the poor network coverage in these remote regions, and that not all would be able to agree on a roadside ‘study spot’ with connectivity away from their homes.

“Most students opted for pre-recharged cell phones, and some had their own laptops,” he added. “But some only had one phone in the family. There were also students who had no phones at all in their houses.”

Last year, when teachers had ordered students to stay home and study through their mobile devices, 14-year-old Muskan from Gadh village was left confused. 

“There was no internet coverage at home. We had to go outside even for a phone call,” she shared her plight. 

Belonging to the Godh community, a Scheduled Tribe, Muskan was just one among thousands who faced such hardships in these tribal villages.

Attendance register of tribal students part of Pandey's mohalla classes (Photo Credits: Prabhatesh Tripathi)

In August 2021, a survey titled ‘Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education’ conducted by School Children: Online and Offline Learning found that even though pandemic-enforced restrictions had pushed for remote learning, it had backfired in the form of education disparity.

A crucial finding of this survey — conducted on 1,362 students from across 15 states and union territories — was that 49 percent of the rural population did not have a smartphone. And in the households that did, only 15 percent of rural children could use it to study regularly; the primary reasons for the disparity were poor connectivity, lack of funds for internet services, and that most families had just one smartphone that belonged to an elder member of the house.

Furthermore, the study discovered that the impact was even more severe among students from marginalised communities — only 4 percent of children from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities from rural areas were able to study online regularly.

Sharad Pandey teaching tribal students in a mohalla class in Singrauli, MP (Photo Credits: Prabhatesh Tripathi)

To correct this imbalance to a certain extent, Pandey had taken upon himself the responsibility of teaching the marginalised tribal students of Singrauli’s villages. When the online teaching model was introduced, “initially, most students had no idea what to do, while the parents thought it was just a holiday”, he explained. These challenges, he had thought, would compound to a future problem of high rural illiteracy, which is why he had decided to “step out and teach them offline”. With a blackboard mount welded to his motorcycle and a bluetooth speaker, he started mohalla classes. He began with the villages of Gadh, Harrai, Gahil Gadh, Banauli, Navjeevan Vihar and Telgaava, mostly inhabited by people from the Godh and Bhil Scheduled Tribe communities.

“It was very tough to reach out to children. Social distancing was mandatory, so I had to choose open areas with a limited number of students,” the Good Samaritan recalled the challenges. 

Pandey said that at first, he had provided these students with notebooks, stationery, masks and sanitisers at his own expense, and later, village locals had extended help.

His mohalla classes, or community classes, would commence at 9 am every day, with 25 students in each class. Science remained his primary subject, but Pandey would teach English, as well. These students were intimated about their upcoming classes on WhatsApp and via phone calls in case of lack of internet. In total, around 120 students had been part of Pandey’s mohalla classes, of which 65 percent were girls from classes 6 to 8.

Pandey distributing notebooks to the mohalla class students in Singrauli, MP (Photo Credits: Prabhatesh Tripathi)

Furthermore, Pandey’s offline classes had been of notable help for the girls in these villages, who had been engaged in gender-specific chores at home since schools were ordered shut. 

“When a teacher arrives, the parents are forced to send the girls to class,” he explained. 

For instance, a girl from the Saket community, a Dalit community, had dropped out after Class 8 because her parents did not allow her to continue her studies. But after routine interactions with her parents during his mohalla classes, Pandey was able “to convince them to let her study” whenever he would come to teach.

“She became a regular student, with her name back in the school register,” he added, proud.

Pandey is pleased to know that his efforts had borne fruits. All the students from his mohalla classes had passed their assessments.

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