Leadership Lessons to Swear By
Inspired by the Headmaster’s account of building the
district’s Best High School
Three car rides, three bus journeys, one auto rickshaw trip later, I reached the school in 8 hours. I wonder how much longer this journey would have been without the kindness (pickups & drops, directions, conversations) of scores of people! The prospect of meeting Umesh Kumar Sir – the subject of this Ed Leader Portrait – and witnessing the outcomes of his leadership first hand, kept me going through the unusually long journey.
I entered a very colourful and serene looking school with Umesh Sir himself (he was among the many who helped me in the commute that day). As soon as I entered the school compound, I could hear lessons in progress in different classrooms, which complimented the stillness outside. Acres and acres of farms surround the school.
We sat down for a quick breakfast which Umesh Sir had generously arranged for me and without a delay, we started the conversation about his journey of becoming a District Mentor.
Sir started teaching in 2006. His inclination towards enabling activity based learning in his classrooms has made him a well known name in both the education ecosystem and the region. His consistent and impactful efforts led him to the role of the Science District Mentor (DM) in 2017, a role he helms, alongside being the Headmaster (HM). As the DM, he manages Science teaching and learning in 11 blocks in the district, at a total of 224 schools.
He has been the school’s HM since Jan 24, 2020. When the state opened up the HM applications in 2019, he was quick to apply. I asked him why he chose to become the HM of one school, when he was already positively impacting student learning in the entire district. He mentioned that he wanted to drive change as an institution’s head and see outstanding results as an outcome of meeting more challenges, head on
Seeing challenges as an opportunity to drive great results – this is the first leadership lesson I absorbed through the day!
After breakfast, we stepped out for a school tour (or the first glimpse of his leadership). The school serves 500 students across Grades 6 -10 with a force of 20 teachers. The school is a blast of colours, with BaLA (Building as Learning Aids) surfaces all across, working models of different subjects on the campus, print rich classrooms, equipped labs, a very large staffroom and playground and even a state of the art events hall with 300 seating capacity.
When asked how he made it possible? A very quick response was ‘proper utilisation of funds’, I am guessing he often has to answer this question. Umesh Sir explained that there are many grants available for school development from the government and one only has to continuously and effectively utilise these grants. Additionally, when the good work is visible, funds from other sources automatically make their way into the school.
The students come from a community with 90% illiteracy and parents are engaged in manual labour jobs. They have no awareness of the impact of getting their children educated and building sustainable careers. Many student families travel across the state during harvest season to earn money and children are taken along. This affects the learning environment in the early education years. As a result, several students get enrolled in the school with learning gaps.
In order to address these gaps, there is a multi pronged approach undertaken by the school team for overall student learning.
Academic: Gaps in learning are identified in the beginning of the academic year and the students avail differentiated learning, with a focus on foundational literacy and numeracy. A print rich and equipped environment (BaLA, working models, labs, etc.) along with activity based learning practices (where Umesh Sir actively supports his team) allow for continuously engaged and learning students. Also, for students appearing for board exams, learning hours are not a matter of concern with sufficient extra lessons for students. The school also offers classes for students who appear for National Means cum Merit Scholarship (NMMS) and National Talent Search Exams (NTSE).
Co-curricular: The large playground is utilised to engage and train students in Kho Kho, Kabaddi, Athletics, along with indoor games like Chess, Carrom and Table Tennis. Students are encouraged to participate and showcase their talents and skills like Science Congress, different subject exhibitions, Olympiads, Quiz competitions, etc.
The second leadership lesson was to develop and apply technical (administrative and instructional in an HM’s case) skills to achieve results
Since Umesh Sir has joined the school, both Grade 8 and 10 students have achieved 100% results. A student from the school is the only one from government schools in the district to clear NTSE first stage in 2020. 6 and 7 students cleared the NMMS exam in 2021 and 2022. Another student also cleared the Punjab State Talent Search Examination this year. Additionally, students now frequently win district level science exhibitions, Children Science Congress, quiz, painting and sports competitions.
Building the school together with the team
Any leader needs a team to realise their vision. And Umesh Sir is no different. When I asked him the best thing about being an HM, he mentioned that it is the privilege of working with a young supportive team.
He operates with transparency and hard work – role modelling the values he wants in his team. He works on the principle that this is his school and he is the one who has to put an effort to drive a change. The team and the community made a note of his efforts when he himself liaisoned with the department, contractors and labourers to get the unsafe classrooms demolished and build the school in the shape it is in today.
In the process, Umesh Sir also got a larger, cleaner, well equipped staffroom for the teachers to work between lessons. All decisions are taken after a discussion with his teachers and seeking suggestions from them at the bi-weekly meetings. The responsibilities are not handed down but divided among the team basis their interests, skills and capacities.
Umesh Sir adds that having a pulse on the teachers’ mindsets and motivations is key to plan the work and ensure that the teachers feel energised and inspired to take up responsibilities.
The third leadership lesson that Sir shared was to continuously build relationships and invest others, especially the team you work with
I realised that he himself is walking the footsteps of his three mentors. Impacting Science learning & teaching in the district (as Jaswinder Ji), building the district’s Best High School (as Rakesh Sir has done in Zira) and the respect that the students and teachers have for him (as for his father) which I observed during the few hours spent at school.