9 Steps towards Building a Great Place To Learn
After an eventful trip to the Ferozepur District’s No. 1 High School, I made my way to the No. 1 Secondary School – Shaheed Gurdas Ram Memorial Government Sr. Sec. School, the next day. I was delighted that I reached before the assembly and got the opportunity to be in the school from start till the end.
Just like for any student, my visit to the school began with the assembly, hosted by the students. Luckily for me, I was there on a momentous day. Two students of the school were in Goa for the India International Innovation and Invention Expo 2022 organised by Goa State Innovation Council.
It was possible only due to Rakesh Sharma Sir, the Principal of the school. He had encouraged all the students to secure merit in the board exams with a promise of a flight ticket as a reward. The two meritorious students flew to Goa to showcase their project “Deteriorating Soil Health due to Stubble Burning” before judges from around the world. I later came to know that they won the Bronze prize at the Expo.
These students’ success or change stories are not unique to the school anymore. At least not since the last three years. It was completely different before 2019 though. Parent investment was at an all time low as they felt unheard. Teachers and parents had no meaningful interactions. Parents saw the institution as the only option for their children since they cannot afford to send them to private schools.
Today, out of 1803 students, 743 have voluntarily transferred from private schools. Students from all economic backgrounds share seats – children of labourers, rickshaw pullers, boot polishers, doctors, advocates, principals – and learn together.
In the academic year 21-22, two students from Grade 10 and 12 each have secured merit. The student Bhajanpreet kaur who went off to win the Bronze medal in Goa had secured first position regionally. Students have received innumerable awards in Boxing, Kickboxing, Tug of War and Volleyball. 5 students have secured National Means cum Merit Scholarship.
Students have won many prizes at Block and District Level in Show and Tell activity, Quiz competitions across subjects, Essay Writing, Paintings, Slogan Writing, Computer typing and much more.
This has been enabled by Rakesh Sir who joined the school in 2019. His mantra of Selfless Service and Innovation has led to this transformation. Below are the steps he followed and recommends for transforming any school into a great place to learn.
Rakesh Sir sharing the good news of the two students making it to INEX Expo 2022 during the morning assembly
Lead with intention to serve
The leader’s role is to serve the society by providing quality education to students and treat them with dignity so that they can realise their potential. It is actually a privilege where one gets to drive change on their own terms and not wait for directives or impetus from anyone.
- Develop skills and nurture relationships
Leaders must start by ensuring that they are aware of their roles, responsibilities and rights. They must then develop and employ their planning, relationship building (with teachers and community), coaching, mentoring and monitoring skills.They have to be a hard worker themselves to set an example for the teachers and students, and build trust by being transparent 100% of the time.
- Actually make the school a great place
Provide the best possible necessities and resources to both teachers and students. As a leader, one must work closely with the community and different government departments to make the school a great place. Effectively utilise the state funding available for school development and leverage the relationships with the community.
Following these steps, Rakesh Sir has set a benchmark for his peers in the state. The campus is spread in about 3.67 acres. There are 42 classrooms across Grades K-12, a stage, large ground, Science, Social Studies and Math learning aids, labs streaming with equipment and a state of the art gymnasium for boxing training. The school houses a separate sanitary pad dispenser and also houses only student Mid Day meal mess with a capacity of 500, in the entire state.
There is a broadcast system, CCTV in each classroom, the campus is wifi enabled with 17 projectors and interactive boards in classrooms.
The school development began with demolition of unsafe classrooms and was followed with provisions of sufficient drinking water supply and washrooms, thorough cleaning and renovation of the structures, ensuring both natural and artificial lighting in classrooms and thoughtfully done colours and imagery on walls. The work continues unabated for the school is continuously expanding to accommodate learning needs of the students.
- Build relationships and invest the teachers
Create spaces for teachers to come together to share their journeys, stories and enhance their relationships. Understand their backgrounds, feelings and motivations to develop a bond with them so that the team can together create a vision for the school and the momentum to achieve it.
Rakesh Sir has invested heavily in the team building. First he set an example by contributing to the school needs out of his own pocket, inspiring the teachers by spending long hours working on school development plans. Through his actions like getting teachers’ payments cleared, ensuring that they avail their earned leaves, he built trust in them who came to see him as someone who is there to support them.
A Math classroom where students are exploring the concepts of geometry
- Be an instructional leader
Leaders must also demonstrate instructional leadership at all possible opportunities and in turn help the team develop their teaching skills. This can be done through need based training programs, continuous appreciation for good work, expert sessions and exposure visits to motivate the team.
Rakesh Sir regularly creates and amplifies capacity building opportunities for his huge team which includes 14 Lecturers, 25 Masters, 4 Computer Faculty, 2 NSDF Trainers and 5 Non Teaching Staff.
Rakesh Sir himself teaches in classrooms regularly to showcase practices to his teachers. He says this is also an opportunity for him to develop a bond with his students.
Training is scheduled everyday in the time table for the Boxing students
Students practising makeup techniques - an opportunity to both learn and earn
- Nurture student potential
The leader must ensure that there are different avenues for students to build skills and showcase their potential. This makes the school a joyful place and allows students to shine beyond academics.
The school has state of art boxing facilities. The coach Mrs.Lakshmi is an international player herself. The 150 students receive quality training everyday as evident in the performance across national and international championships. The students also receive training for Kho Kho and Volleyball. Students visit educational Parks, attend seminar and lectures by prominent personalities and are part of year round trips and excursions.
The school regularly creates and also provides local, state and national level essay, quiz, Sci exhibition, debate, science congress, etc. competitions (everywhere students have been district level winners). Students also receive coaching for NMM Scholarship Scheme in the school itself. At the school, there are vocational training courses available to students which includes beautician and health care.
All classrooms have student achievers’ images as part of the decor, it serves as an aspiration to all students.
- Enable student voice
There should be opportunities for students to develop their leadership skills. This can be enabled by creating a student council, the house system and roles in each classroom where students get to design and partake in the learning experiences and school administration.
There is Bal Sansad (student parliament) with student ministers responsible for cleanliness, sanitation, equipment, discipline, house system, and allocation of student duties in school.
The Sansad identifies problems and issues across the school even as small as a malfunctioning bulb or tap. This is brought to the notice of the team so that the resolution occurs within 24 hours. It is an autonomous body and has even set penalties if electricity is wasted. Rakesh Sir mentions that students have equal rights and whatever recommendation they come up with, it is essential to adhere to them. He adds, laughing, that Sansad is quite focused on finding opportunities to penalise him.
- Problem solving with community
Government schools have failed in the past because the community, parents have not been involved in the school development process. Whereas sustainability is a result of a community coming together to leverage its resources, time and skills. This will look different with different school context, but the community will always be the first one to come to help.
At the school, parents are able to come up to the school to put forward their requests and also contribute to the solutions. They have been able to ensure a security guard at the school gate and manage eve teasing cases to some extent (this is a girl school). The community has provided 8 water coolers to the school and also significantly contributed to the 47 lakhs amount collected and used for school development in the past three years.
- Continuous learning and innovation
An eye for continuous learning and innovation in all aspects of school development is necessary, including in the teaching processes. This will lead to micro improvements which will positively impact the school environment, keep the stakeholders engaged and happy, leading to overall better learning outcomes for students.
Through the installation of solar panels in school, the monthly electricity bill has been reduced to Rs. 7000 from Rs. 43000. An automatic chapati machine which is able to produce 1000 chapatis in an hour ensures that students eat hot food and blown chapatis everyday.
Rakesh Sir also believes that teachers should continuously learn effective teaching techniques, build an understanding of students’ reality and challenges and be continuously evaluated. He enables this through training programs, expert sessions and exposure visits to motivate the team.