The Invisibility Curse
Why are leaders invisible in the public education system in India?
Once Harry Potter received the magical Invisibility Cloak as a Christmas gift, it helped him achieve several enviable feats. What if the cloak had made him permanently invisible..! Would we recognise him as the brave hero, as we do today? Would you call the cloak of permanent invisibility a gift or a curse?
Earlier this year, I was attending a national workshop in Delhi. Educationists, senior education officials, NGO leaders, Teachers and several others invested in the idea of quality education were present. Speaking passionately about a topic, one of the educationists shared how ‘it would benefit every stakeholder in the education system’ and she went on to call out – ‘the students, the teachers…’ (she paused and added further thoughtfully) ‘..and even the parents.’
In my experience of actively working in the school education space for over 10 years now, this was not the first time when school leaders as an actor was not called out. 90% of all conversations about schools revolve around teachers and students. Have you felt the same?
Our public education system in India is huge and complex – just like the plot of the Harry Potter series. It appears to me that the gift of the cloak of permanent invisibility has been bestowed upon one of the actors in our education system – our school leaders.
When any of us think of organizations like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Tata, Pepsi, Flipkart etc., no matter which domain, we hear stories of leaders, and how leadership drove innovation, performance and results. However, most of the mainstream conversations around school performance and quality education exclude discussions on leaders and school leadership. And I have often wondered why.
School as a viable organization – are we battling the shadows of the past?
As a country, we have been able to do a great job at providing universal access to school education to our children; and it is not a coincidence. A lot of thoughtful initiatives in the past made it happen. One of these was to ensure that a child has access to a (primary) school within a kilometer of her household. This made it easy for parents to let their children walk to school and attend classes, even if a means of transport was either unavailable or unaffordable. Consequently, going to school also became a social norm over the decades for both boys and girls. It is no mean feat, considering where we were in 1947, when we gained independence.
However, I am reminded of Peter Senge’s first law of ‘The Fifth Discipline’, which says, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions”. The case of our Indian Education System is no exception. In our effort to make schooling universally accessible, over 60% of our schools, today, have become unviable as organizations.
I was visiting a school in one of the clusters we work. It is less than 5 Kms away from a big multinational firm’s corporate office. The school had beautifully painted boundary wall and gates. From outside, it looked like a small house, but for the distinctive, colorful logo of the then Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA).
It was a primary school with two classrooms and a small play area. In one classroom, 11 children were sitting on colorful mats on the floor in three circles. These were from grade 1 to 3. The teacher was helping the youngest group seated in the front circle with some reading exercises. The second classroom had 6 children who were in grade 4 and 5. They seemed to be copying something from the blackboard in their notebooks. Seeing me, the teacher came out to greet, and informed how the other teacher had to leave for a meeting in the block office. She had been managing both the classrooms alone since morning.
It was nearing lunchtime, and she sheepishly asked me if I could sit inside the Gr 1-3 classroom for some time, while she quickly checks the midday meal. I said yes. She looked relieved. She explained further, “These are very young children. If someone is not there to supervise, they may start running around, or even go outside the gate. Usually they listen, but there is always a risk.”
I asked, “How’d you have managed if I were not here?”
“Oh, I’d have asked Rajesh (one of Grade 5 students) to look after them. We have to manage somehow.”, she said with a smile.
While I was sitting in the classroom listening to children’s happy voices, I couldn’t help, but wonder if this is the best use of the teacher or the students’ time in a school setting.
With an average enrollment of 30-40 students, approx. 100,000 schools in our country have a single teacher. Well, that’s approx. the total number of public schools in the United States (USA). Even today, more than 350,000 schools in India have only 2 or 3 teachers.
DID YOU KNOW?
- 60% of all public schools under the Department of Education are Primary Schools, i.e Grade 1-5; i.e. 3 out of every 5 public schools are from Gr 1-5.
- 1 out of every 5 of these primary schools (Gr 1-5) has a single teacher. Typically, others have 2 or 3 teachers per school.
- Average number of students in these primary schools is 32 in urban regions and 43 in rural areas. So per class, these have less than 10 students. Typically, 30-40 students is the size of each section of a class in any private CBSE school.
Schools, as organizations, have processes.
Apart from everyday teaching-learning, there are multiple processes – from trivial to important ones. E.g. mid-day meal, enrollment, grievance redressal, cleaning of premises, uniform distribution, Welfare scheme disbursements, SMC meetings, School Development Planning, Parental engagement etc.
Now if I were a teacher in any of these 60% of India’s schools, who is responsible for opening the gates of the school, to teaching the kids across five different grades, to speaking to parents, to managing the mid-day meal, to reading the department circulars,…., the idea of leadership may not hold much meaning to me. In all likelihood, if you said I were a leader, I would find it amusing.
Has the prevalence of such unviable schools crushed the possibility of any mainstream discussion on school leadership? I wonder.
What’s in a name?
‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’, Shakespeare said famously. But outside the creative world of poems, does it hold true?
‘I am just an Incharge HM.’
Late in 2019, during one of my school visits, students and teachers insisted that I share midday meal with them. There was still some time before the lunch break, so I was ushered into the HM office. It was a neatly organised room, with 3 steel almirahs stacked with files, photos of our freedom fighters and famous personalities adorning the walls, a long centre table with a comfortable looking red-colored chair at the head of it. A few chairs were organised around the table – I believe – for visitors to be seated.
While I sat there observing the room, the HM walked in and sat opposite me in one of the chairs. Involuntarily, I said, “Ma’am, why don’t you please sit on your chair”. She smiled and said, “Oh, that chair is for the HM. I am just an incharge HM. When the HM is appointed, she or he will use that chair.”
“And when would a new HM be appointed?”, I asked.
“We don’t know yet. It has been 3 years already since the previous HM retired and since then, I have been the incharge HM.”, she responded matter-of-factly.
A majority of our primary schools in the country, by design, do not have a Principal / Head of School. If there are more than 2 teachers, the senior most is called the Head Teacher (HT). In a significant percentage of schools, other than Grade 1-5, the position of School Head is vacant and the responsibilities are carried out by a senior teacher, who is called an “in-charge HM”. HM refers to HeadMistress / HeadMaster. As per UDISE+ 2020-21 data, over 60% of Primary Schools and over 40% of Upper Primary Schools (Gr 1-8) managed by the Department of Education across states do not even have a separate room for HMs.
Let’s admit, job titles matter.
Not too long ago, in my organizations, when my team members used to come and discuss job title changes with me, I used to ask them how did the titles matter as long as they were getting opportunities to do new and more things, and were learning. However, I have come to realize that titles do matter. It changes the way how people outside & inside the organization interact with you and what they expect of you. It also impacts how one looks at their own roles and responsibilities.
If I am a Head Teacher, my primary role is still to teach (better) and maybe, to support or monitor other teachers in my school. But why should I be expected to network or to reach out to community leaders to mobilize additional resources, or to plan awareness drives for parents to improve enrollment and attendance, or to establish a vision and a development plan for my school? Similarly, if I am an in-charge HM, I am aware that it’s a temporary additional role. Why should I stretch myself into carrying out additional responsibilities? Well, I may do so out of my own motivation and goodwill, but nobody external has a right to hold me responsible for it. And thus, I may not feel the need to participate in any capacity building sessions towards honing these skills.
I wonder why the job titles of School Heads or Principals are not common in our Indian education system. If schools are organizations, they need leaders with a clear job description and performance expectations.
Leadership by virtue of Seniority or Aspiration?
In one of his talks, Simon Sinek says, “Being a leader is like being a parent – anyone CAN be one but that doesn’t mean everyone WANTS to be or SHOULD be. The first criterion for being a leader is you have to want to be one.”
I have had the opportunity to interact with numerous school leaders (HMs, In-charge HMs, HTs….) over the course of the last 10 years. When I ask, what do you enjoy doing the most in this role, more than 90% of the time, the response is ‘being inside the classroom and teaching’.
Seniority is the primary criteria in our public education system for someone to be made a school head. Individuals, who have been in the system for over 25 years, and have been teaching, suddenly find themselves in a leadership role. And they are just expected to know how to manage a school. The assumption is that schools are just a summation of classrooms. If one can manage a classroom, one should be able to easily manage a school. For obvious reasons, it doesn’t hold true in a real-world situation. A leader’s life is so much around managing people, processes, policies, finance etc.
Fellow practitioners in other countries find it surprising that India doesn’t have any formal selection and induction process for school leaders. I wonder why it hasn’t yet caught the attention of our own policymakers.
Hope for the Reversal of the Curse.
Leaders catalyze transformations.
Decades of research says that there are ‘virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader’.
I hope that the invisibility curse is soon reversed. That school leadership as a subject gets mainstream attention in India, and school leaders get recognised and supported to catalyze the virtuous transformation of our public schools.