Vijayam Kartha is a nationally recognised educationist, trainer and advisor in the field of education and social impact. She is part of ‘Initiatives of Change’ , a worldwide movement of people who believe that personal change leads to societal change. She strongly believes in the power of value-based quality education to transform society, as well as the teachers’ crucial role in nation-building. With like-minded educators from IofC, she is pursuing her dream of ‘Reinventing Schools, Rebuilding the World’. Vijayam Kartha started her career as a Librarian and grew through the ranks of Teacher, Assistant to Principal, Vice-Principal becoming the Principal, at a comparatively young age. She went on to become one of the Founder Trustees-cum-Director/Vice-Chairperson of the Kerala Public School Trust, a chain of nine schools. In her roles as the Principal and Vice-Chairperson, she focused on building a harmonious balance between academics with compassionate responsibility towards our society, environment and ecosystem. Some of these activities included: A village development programme, rural school adoption, free education for slum children in the English medium school campuses during its free hours, camp schools for out-of-school tribal girls, environment conservation activities, etc. For her work and contributions in the field of education and social impact, she has won several national and local awards, some of which include: National Award for Teachers by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, Sarvothama Acharya Award from Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, New Delhi, Award for Outstanding Woman Social Worker from the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce Ladies Organisation (FLO), New Delhi, Award for Best Green School Chain, instituted by the Centre for Science & Environment, New Delhi, Vijay Gujaral Award for Vocational Excellence in the Field of Education from Vijay Gujral Foundation, New Delhi, and appreciation from the visiting teams of World Bank, UNICEF and Jharkhand Education Project for the work done for slum children. She has also won accolades from local organisations such as the Rotary and Lion’s Club, and NGOs.
In conversation with Amit Sengupta of Hardnews.
Teaching school children is perhaps one of the most difficult and toughest assignments in a teacher’s life. It is almost like a divine calling, an inner longing, something deep and beautiful. So, what was it which drove you towards children’s education?
I believe it was predestined. It was like an inner calling. I always dreamt of being a teacher. Right from my childhood, I remember role-playing as a teacher. Sometimes, I would pretend to be a Headmistress and would issue notices through a peon! I was also lucky to have several excellent teachers who inspired me in my childhood.
You have conducted the great experiment of an evening school for extremely poor and working-class children in a famous and elite morning school in Jamshedpur. What inspired you to start such an experiment?
Just like most of us, I too dreamt of a just and fair world. It saddened me to see that most of the marginalised children did not have access to quality education. The Kerala Samajam Model School (KSMS) in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, where I was the Principal from 1991 to 2000, was started with the motto of ‘quality education at an affordable cost’, coined by our visionary chairman, late APR Nair. The year was 1991 and as a part of a survey of the government’s Total Literacy Mission, I had accompanied my students to the slum just behind our school. I was very curious to see how people lived there.
To my dismay, I saw that most of the children did not go to school despite there being an aided school as well as a government school within a radius of two kilometres. Upon probing, I found out that parents were not sending their children to school primarily because children found schooling boring and most of the girls were babysitting their siblings. Additionally, the parents did not find it safe for their kids to cross the busy road to reach the school on the other side.
So, I asked them whether they would let their kids attend school if they were held in the afternoon, at our campus, which was right next door to them. They agreed with enthusiasm. That is how in the year 1991 the first Free Project School in Jamshedpur (and perhaps in the country) was started in the premises of our English Medium School in the afternoons.
How did you convince the parents of both the morning and evening schools? Was it a success?
It was a grand success. Mr Nair, who was our Trustee-in-Charge, was very compassionate and conscious of his social responsibility. A few parents of the English Medium School raised a concern that whether these children would bring the ‘slum culture’ to our school. We were able to convince these parents to look at this as an experiment. And we were in for a very pleasant and heartening experience!
It turned out that our English medium students ended up getting a lesson or two from these underprivileged students in self-discipline. Not a single serious discipline issue has been reported from the afternoon school all these years, whereas such cases come up occasionally among the English medium students. The stark difference was visible especially when students from both sections attended common programmes. The parents of these underprivileged students were ecstatic that their children were sharing the infrastructure of an English medium school. Unlike the orientation meetings of parents in the English medium school, where attendance would be sparse, almost all the parents of my project school students would show up for the annual orientation meeting. What a joy it used to be to interact with those parents, people who trusted us and looked up to us to create a better future for their children.
Owing to the success of the programme, we replicated it in four of our schools under the Kerala Public School Trust, another vision of Mr Nair, where I was a Founder Trustee, along with him. The Trust, which started with one school, soon grew into a chain of nine formal schools, and four project schools for the underprivileged. Sunil Kumar Barnwal, IAS, the then Deputy Commissioner, got us to present the project school experiment as a case study for other schools in Jamshedpur. As a result, more schools came forward to replicate the programme. Presently, there are nine elite English medium schools in Jamshedpur which run afternoon schools for the underprivileged, benefitting over 8,000 children. In the 30 years since we started this, I am proud to say that many of our alumni have been successfully employed in the government and private sector, and some of them in our own schools. Some have turned entrepreneurs.
Tell us about your experience of running a school for Adivasi children with a hostel in a remote village in Jharkhand. I have been there, and I saw the great experiment with children who have always lived in distant and inaccessible forest areas. How was the experiment conceived? Is the school still running?
Yes, that school is still running, and the Trust has got one more school for tribal children, the Eklavya residential school, near Ranchi, outsourced by the Central Government.
I was always fascinated by village life. To add to it, the interconnectedness and interdependence of this universe reminds me of my responsibility towards its sustenance in my own small ways. I am part of the whole and how can I be happy when some part of me is suffering? And what can be the best and surest way to create a just, fair, and peaceful world other than education?
By educating a child, we are educating a family, and ushering in a positive change: one child, one family at a time, and the ripple expands. It was always my dream to do something for the tribal children. And I have experienced it on innumerable occasions, how people and opportunities present themselves when you are ignited by a dream, reminding me of Maharshi Patanjali’s famous words on having a purpose, a dream. And one such opportunity presented itself to me.
Between 2001 and 2005, we (Kerala Public School Trust) had adopted four rural schools with the goal to improve the quality of education in these schools as well as to develop the villages. During the visits to one of these rural schools, we used to pass by a residential primary school catering to 60 children of primitive tribes, managed by the Jharkhand Welfare Department. We stopped by and found that there were hardly any children there and the apathy was evident. I told my Project Assistant that I would like to run this school as a Model School one day. He laughed it off by saying that it was impossible as it was a government school.
A few months later, by sheer chance, I was flipping through a local newspaper and it was as if someone had drawn my attention to a small advertisement, regarding outsourcing of all the schools under the Welfare Department and calling for interested NGOs to apply for the same. We submitted our application and the same school was outsourced to us.
The Trust runs the school even today in the best possible way. As of now, around 200 students have graduated from this school and almost all of them joined the Eklavya school for further studies. It was the same story for the Eklavya school too. We wanted to run the school up to Standard 12. Later, there was another advertisement in the newspaper for outsourcing Eklavya schools for Standard 6 to 12, and we applied for it, and we got one near Ranchi.
In Delhi under the AAP-led government, there has been great strides in the government schools with children from poor and low-income backgrounds performing brilliantly, while the schools are run with professional excellence in terms of teaching and infrastructure. So much so, government schools have performed better in many cases than the elite private schools. Do you think government schools need more support from the government? How can they be improved to achieve higher standards?
It is always so heartening to hear stories about government schools performing well! As per the government data, almost 65 per cent of all students in 20 states study in government schools. So it makes it not only the government’s duty but also the duty of every privileged citizen of this country to help and support the education of these children. Unless these children get the benefits of quality education, how can our country prosper? So, what is it that we need to do?
First, we need to inspire the teachers to understand the importance of their role. They are not just teachers, but are ‘Nation Builders’. There are many dedicated teachers in our country, but we need many more. They should understand and appreciate the immense role they play in a child’s life.
Secondly, I believe that private-public partnership will go a long way in improving the standard of government schools. Organizations like Pratham, Azim Premji Foundation and many such others are great examples. The greatest human resources are with schools, as a cross section of society walks into its campuses every day, in the form of students, teachers, and parents. A passionate Principal/school leader can harness this energy into nation-building by creating an oasis around every school in a nearby slum/in a village. And we need not reinvent the wheel. We can either partner with like-minded organisations or learn from their experiences.
I wish every private school could partner with a government school or an underprivileged school and work together, learning from each other and growing together, sharing resources and best practices, creating small oases of happiness, development, and growth. Thankfully, the New Education Policy has many such ideas and new guidelines, which if followed in letter and spirit, can make a huge difference.
India’s rank in the Happiness Index is so low! A big number of graduates and above are said to be unemployable. Do you think schools have a role to play in this situation?
It is sad that India ranks at a dismal 144 out of 156 countries, according to the World Happiness Report, 2020. Half of the Indian population comprises youth below the age of 25 and many of them are educated, but as per reports, a large percentage is not employable. I strongly believe that schools have a great role to play in this regard. Instead of rote learning, schools must focus on 21st century skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration skills, etc. Building the right attitude and values must take precedence.
Focus on vocational education is another key area. Rural economy accounts for 60 per cent of the entire economy. Statistics show that around 22 per cent of the Indian population still remains below the poverty line, with rural areas of states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand having as high as 45 per cent poverty. This, despite seven decades of our independence. Doesn’t it break our hearts?
The sheer thought of a self-sufficient village where there is clean air, water and enough for all to lead a comfortable and healthy life, and all the amenities like a hospital, good schools and good roads, make me feel so happy. As I have already shared, it will be a great idea if every school, private and government, could adopt one kilometre or more radius of their schools/ a nearby slum/a village, to develop it with sharmdan, making use of the government schemes and taking help from NGOs, local industries, MLAs, MPs — what a big difference it could make. All we need are passionate and compassionate leaders.
And who has the responsibility to create such leaders other than families and schools? A robust home-school partnership is required. We also must invest in teachers’ training in a big way to create such a mindset.
Can you share some steps taken by you in this direction, which also won you all the national awards?
We had introduced several best practices back in the early 1990s and I feel happy that many of these practices are now endorsed by the National Educational Policy (NEP), 2020. The best part is that all these practices do not need much financial investment and are easily implementable. It would be a long list if I mentioned every one of them. So, let me share some of the practices we implemented to build character and competence, and to mould students as model citizens.
● Invigilation-less exams to provide students an opportunity to showcase their honesty, self-esteem, and self-confidence. I believe we are the pioneers; we started it in 1995. ● Team teaching by students, wherein groups of students taught at least one lesson per subject to the class. ● Supervised study period, wherein academically bright students helped their classmates to improve their performance ● After every period, affirmations followed by meditations. Affirmations such as: “I am born for a great purpose”, “This day has passed off peacefully and happily for myself, my family, friends, neighbours, country and the entire universe” and so on ● Daily quiet time for introspection ● Weekly hobby classes (offering as many as 26 hobbies), including vocational education. Students had the option to opt for a diploma certificate. Students actively participated in environment conservation and awareness programmes, and also learnt collaboration skills through programmes like: village adoption and rural school adoption programme ● Vermicomposting and organic farming in the school campus ● Pioneering rainwater harvesting in school campuses ● Partnering with NGOs like Goonj, the National Association of Blind/the Forest Department/NEAC/SIDBI/Workers Education Board/Jan Shikshan Sansthan/CSR divisions of local industries, etc. for various projects ● Starting a network of eco clubs and related activities involving local schools ● Initiating the Green School Programme by the Centre for Science and Environment in Jamshedpur, again involving local schools ● Organizing programmes like ‘environment melas’, remembering Mahatma Gandhi and the non-violent freedom movement, tree plantation drive, etc. along with local schools ● Teachers wearing khadi on Mondays.
Some practices for teacher-development and growth we implemented were: ● A class teacher continuing with the same class of students for three consecutive years. This allows the teacher to build a strong bond with his/her students (and their families) and offer them valuable support ● Weekly library period, followed by knowledge-sharing sessions by teachers ● Teacher’s Day awards and recognition ● Annual intra and inter school competitions for innovative practices ● Employing alumni students as assistant teachers while they continued their education through correspondence ● Disha, a forum for teachers for Jamshedpur, was established.
What needs to change in schools in order to create a happy, equitable and compassionate society? What advice would you give to parents and educators today?
In my experience, I have realised that the first thing we need to do is try to remember how we were, as children, so that we are able to empathize and be non-judgmental with our own children. We need to give our children ample space to grow organically, by providing the appropriate and creative environment, not force a child to fit into a mould that we have created. As parents and educators, we need to encourage the natural curiosity and wonder of a child so that learning does not become a chore, boring and monotonous. We need to have children of different abilities, cultures, and social classes in a classroom so that they can build relationships across different boundaries. This also inculcates compassion among children for those who are not as fortunate as them. Equipped with the right values and a natural curiosity to learn and create, we can help create a happier, compassionate, and equitable generation!
What has been the most satisfying moments of your life in terms of your teaching profession? Do you feel confident about the future of Indian children, especially in rural India?
The most satisfying moments have been seeing many of my students grow up into wonderful and successful individuals. My heart fills up with joy and gratitude when my students reach out to me after 20-25 years and say that I made a difference to their lives! I appreciate their generosity for saying that. I have so many wonderful memories, that I could write a book. Once an ex-student reached out to me to initiate his son into writing on a Vijayadashami day. Another student reached out to me after a gap of 15 years, insisting that I should suggest a name for his son. The 2020 Teachers’ Day became incredibly special with a beautiful ‘Happy Teacher’s Day’ video message from a five-year-old daughter of an ex-student. So many of my ex-students got in touch with me especially during this pandemic to find out about my well-being. So many such stories.
I often feel that 24 hours is not enough for me to say, ‘Thank You’. I am blessed to be a teacher. I do feel confident about the future of children in India. I see that more and more youth, educators and leaders are becoming aware of their responsibility and significance of their role in the educational system and in nation-building. More citizens, industries, and NGOs are coming forward to establish better schools or to partner with local governments to overhaul the government-run schools. The New Education Policy has wonderful guidelines like the formation of ‘school clusters’, more focus on vocational education, flexibility and choice of subjects etc, which will create a more equitable society.
What are you engaged with these days?
I am a member of the core team for ‘Education Today, Society Tomorrow’, the educators’ wing of Initiatives of Change, an international organization (www.iofc.org). We are in the pursuit of creating a network of schools with a common vision of creating, ‘A just, peaceful, compassionate, and sustainable world through meaningful education’. We would like more and more schools to join this network to create happier schools and a happier society. I am also part of organisations like the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Pune Kendra. I also organise and conduct training programmes and webinars for students, teachers, and parents across the country and also offer my services as a Consultant. I try to help people in my own small ways. I try to amplify the good work I see happening around me, sharing it with my friends through social media and otherwise. My all-time prayer is to make me an instrument for contributing to universal well-being, peace and prosperity. Vijayam Kartha can be contacted at contactvijayamk