Hey, teacher, don’t leave those kids alone

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Ashraff Unnissa of Alahalli vanished two years ago. So did Shanthamma, who was last seen in and around rural Yediyur. Then there’s Geetha HR, who has clean vanished from her place of employment in Kodihalli.

Pic courtesy: IIJNM

All three are members of an elite yet dubious Karnataka club: Bangalore government school teachers with some of the worst absenteeism records in the state. They are gone, forcing their colleagues to pick up their long-forgotten class load.

Never gone

But in the twisted logic of the educational bureaucracy, they are not forgotten. Since their bosses in the district offices haven’t purged their names from the employment rolls, they can’t be replaced. Their schools just have to manage by having their colleagues rotate into the empty classroom or by borrowing teachers from other schools.

The cases of Unnissa, Shanthamma and Geetha are the most extreme in a government school system that, like tens of thousands throughout India, is burdened with chronic teacher absenteeism. Every day in Karnataka, one out of five teachers is not in class.

Pic courtesy: IIJNM

Leave

Although teachers work a 235-day year, they fall under the same Karnataka Civil Service Code as government officials who work the full year. Teachers are entitled to 49 days, or 20 per cent of the year, in “authorised leave” to attend workshops, take personal days, enjoy local holidays and work in elections. If a teacher is pregnant, she can take an additional 135 days, wiping out 80 per cent of her classroom time at full salary.

Compare this to leading city-based private schools, where teachers get 12 days of authorised leave and 60 days of maternity leave.

“It should not be assumed that since you are working in a government school you can take as much leave as you want,” said Rita Dhruve, a senior instructor at the Cathedral Composite Pre-University School. “I think the system stinks if a teacher takes 49 days of authorised leave and then tries to cram the entire syllabus in the remaining working days. Can you imagine the plight of the children? The whole system rots.”

Faulty system

Experts agree that the government educational system cheats students by the rulebook.

“Teachers are accountable for the performance of children,” said Ujjwal Banerjee, an independent educational consultant. “The children will not learn anything if teachers are absent constantly. The overall performance of a class is affected when teachers are absent regularly.”

World Bank findings

Karnataka’s overall teacher absentee rate of 21.7 per cent is still better than the national average of 25 per cent absenteeism found by a recent World Bank study (see chart).

India’s rate was “quite high compared to other countries” like Indonesia and Peru, which registered 19% and 11% respectively, the study found. The World Bank blamed India’s absenteeism for the fact that nearly seven out of every ten primary school children cannot read a simple paragraph.

A second check of 10,000 teachers in 2,418 Karnataka schools confirmed that most government school teachers were gone with permission. Only 0.6 per cent  were on “unauthorised” leave—meaning they had no valid excuse and were gone for more than four months, according to the 2008 study by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the reform arm of the Karnataka Education Office.

The number is relatively tiny and the teachers stop receiving their regular pay. Yet they continue to fill a spot on the school’s employment roster.

Example

Geetha HR was the Maths and Science at the Government Primary School in Kodihalli. After her four months of maternity leave elapsed in December 2006, she did not return.

Education officials at the local Block Education Office (BEO), responsible for hiring and firing teachers, said they “could not find her at her old address,” located some seven kilometers away. They added that without being able to contact her directly, the education department hasn’t been able to officially terminate her and make way for a teacher that would show up. The alternative would be a “lengthy procedure” that includes placing newspaper ads and waiting for months.

Greener pastures

Pic: Krishna Merchant, Pic courtesy: IIJNM

As it happened, IIJNM students learned of Geetha’s whereabouts in three hours after obtaining her address. Leaning on the front door, her mother-in-law said that Geetha had taken a teaching job at a private school, closer to home.

Geetha was reached by telephone in Shimoga, where she was vacationing at the time. She expressed little concern about the public school students she left behind.

“If one teacher is absent, it will not affect their education,” said Geetha. “You tell me how can they suffer? The other teachers can easily fill up one teacher’s place.”

Ashraff Unnissa used to teach in South Bangalore at the Urdu Senior Primary School, a typical two-story government school where each classroom teems with nearly 60 restless boys and girls.

“Some of the other teachers take her class now and no new teacher has yet been appointed in her place till now,” said Principal Asmat Unnisa (no relation). “We have to manage with the number of teachers that we have, as we are not authorised to keep any temporary teachers.”

Missing

Another ghost teacher is T Shanthamma who has been missing from the government primary school in Yediyur since early 2007.

“The headmaster has been sending letters to the BEOs, but still a permanent teacher has not been appointed,” said Jnana Joseph, who teaches English at the school. “If I have a leisure period then I have to take the Physical Training class, and as a result I don’t get time to prepare for my next class.”

As a result, she said, the school children are stuck in their “suffocating classrooms all day, especially during summer.”

Blame game

While the schools make do, education officials at the various offices say the other is responsible for purging the rolls of AWOL teachers.

“We are not the authority,” declared Y Yellappa, Gazetted Officer at a BEO office. “The Department of Public Instruction is responsible and we have already informed them.”

Shown a copy of the law that stated his office is responsible for appointing and dismissing teachers, Yellappa called it a “new regulation.”

The regulation was put into effect in 2001, eight years ago.