Maya fans herself on a hot summer afternoon, as she sits in a large, dark hall at a local administration center. The primary school teacher of a school that caters to underserved communities has come to attend a five day training workshop, which is an annual event for all teachers. The instructor, Jayant, arrives late; many of Maya’s colleagues make an appearance even after his entry. Unfazed, Jayant begins his lecture, occasionally using a powerpoint presentation. Every now and then, he intersperses his monologue with questions, but hardly anyone is interested in answering. Later, a teaching ‘activity’ is simulated, which the teachers may be able to incorporate into their own classroom instruction. The teachers participate enthusiastically and treat it as a welcome respite from the day’s lectures. A substantial chunk of the rest of the day goes in lunch, tea, and restroom breaks.
This training workshop is meant to equip teachers like Maya with skills to teach her students to enquire, solve problems, develop critical thinking skills, and collaborate with each other. In short, it would help them acquire 21st century skills. However, in reality, the training only shows Maya how to teach the textbook. She has no one to turn to if she has questions during the academic year. Her professional capabilities have stagnated year on year, and so, she continues to teach by using rote memorization methodologies, her instruction mirroring that of her predecessors’ five decades ago.
Now back in school, Maya tries teaching division to her Grade 4 students with this new activity that she has learnt at the workshop. She soon realises that the students in her classroom are at different learning levels, with some unable to even read the lesson in the textbook. Not knowing what to do, she reverts to teaching using the same rote learning methods as before.
Maya’s experience is in no way isolated. Millions of Indian teachers who teach children from underserved communities share her reality of low quality Continuous Professional Development (CPD). CPDis supposed to help teachers improve their teaching styles; in reality, it leaves many grossly underprepared to meet the challenges of providing students with a 21st century education, which is a pillar of India’s recent education policies. “The teacher training sessions which we attend are for large numbers of teachers, with little one-on-one focus,” corroborates Anjana Save, the principal in a school in Maharashtra’s Palghar district. “They usually don’t ask us questions, and simply present the pedagogical method they’ve decided on implementing in classrooms. We are expected to teach this model in our schools; yet they never tell us how we should implement it, or any variations we can consider for our own contexts,” she adds.
Such training can and often does result in poor teaching, which can have devastating consequences on an education system already struggling to impart quality learning to students. According to a World Bank report, over half of India’s 10-year-olds cannot read a simple passage, while three-fourths face difficulty with basic math operations. This becomes a problem, as if children do not learn to read by the age of 10, the door of learning will most likely be shut for them, forever. As has been widely reported already, the above situation has been exacerbated with the pandemic. It is estimated that a loss of one-third of a year in effective learning for students affected by the closures of early 2020 will, by historical data, lower a country’s GDP by an average of 1.5% over the remainder of the century. If re-opened schools (with new students) and teachers are not up to the same standards of quality as before the pandemic, the impacts on future student economic well-being will be proportionately larger.
For all of this to change, the teacher is the single most critical lever, as they matter the most to student learning. Yet, as of 2019, one in six elementary school teachers are not professionally trained. In 2020, around 4% of candidates cleared the government eligibility test for teaching in Maharashtra. Clearly, urgent measures need to be taken to mitigate these losses by equipping teachers through CPD which is tailored to the unique challenges of the pandemic.
However, given the public health scenario, large meetings at local administration centres is not always advisable. Then, how do you scale the continuous professional development of teachers?
Maya’s experiences show us that CPD often fails to meaningfully engage with teachers or address their individual teaching issues. The first step in addressing these issues is to redesign how CPD works. Through its model of high-quality professional development for teachers, CEQUE—an NGO that imparts quality education for in-service teachers—is changing the status quo of CPD interventions in India. Keeping student learning as the focus, its three-year Teacher Innovator Program (TIP) is a unique Learn-Do-Lead model for the Indian teachers’ Continuous Professional Development. “Every teacher should have the constant support we had under this program,” says Amruta Save, a teacher at the same school in Palghar as Anjana’s. “We need people to ask us questions and push us too.”
Constructing Effective Continuous Professional Development for India’s Teachers
The key features of CEQUE’s program includes a longer term and more focused engagement with teachers, which gives them hands-on practice. In this case, the content is not just centred around the textbook, but on learning outcomes aligned to the state curriculum. There is also a focus on sharing with parents and the larger community on what children have learnt, to improve community engagement with education itself. Finally, data-driven reports help teachers evaluate their progress as they upskill themselves.
In the first component of the model, teachers learn. Through the Teacher Innovator Program curriculum, they build a perspective of how children develop reading comprehension skills and number sense. They then learn innovative teaching strategies to develop these competencies in students. Finally, the teachers complete assignments that test their understanding of the strategies taught. Throughout the program, each teacher receives a minimum of 20 hours of coaching support. Coaches observe teachers’ lessons in-person, discuss the challenges they are facing, and collaboratively come up with solutions. “It’s important to remember that just because we have a B.Ed., that doesn’t mean we’re sufficiently trained to teach new batches of students for the rest of our lives,” says Aarti Thakur, a teacher at a Hindi-medium school catering to low-income students in Thane, near Mumbai. “The world is changing, and so are our children, so we must continue training ourselves to keep up with their learning mindsets. In this light, CPD that evolves with us—such as CEQUE’s, wherein we are in constant touch with coaches who support our professional growth with new teaching methods—helps us keep pace.”
Once teachers internalize the new inputs, they practice what they have learnt; they do. As Sandhya Chilamwar, a Marathi language teacher at a school in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district, says, “even if we are doing everything that we can to teach well online, what matters the most is focusing on whether the children are learning from us or not.” Teachers first conduct baseline assessments to determine students’ learning needs. They then implement a classroom instruction plan focused on grade-level learning outcomes, using the strategies they have learnt earlier. As an aid, CEQUE provides individual workbooks to students that are organized according to the implementation plan. At the end of the academic year, teachers showcase student learning in the form of exhibitions at their schools.
CEQUE believes that teachers gain confidence when they see a change happening in their classrooms—that is, they are now in a position to lead the learning of others. Teachers develop their leadership and formally share their learning with other teachers by participating in learning circles and cascading their learning to other teachers in their district.
Implementing CPD Such That it Works Through COVID-19
Designing a focused CPD program using the Learn-Do-Lead model is only the beginning of the teacher training process. Ensuring that it actually works on the field—especially during the pandemic—is another task altogether.
The pandemic demanded that coaching and training were conducted using both online and offline means. Over 300 teachers were enrolled in the program across Maharashtra’s districts of Nashik, Palghar, Thane, Mumbai, Chandrapur, and Gadchiroli; they attended group coaching sessions to discuss how they might improve access and learning during the pandemic. Teachers shared that they understood the new strategies for improving student competency in reading, and were keen to try them in class, but schools had been shut. More importantly, data gathered by CEQUE showed that teachers were able to reach only 35% of their 4,878 students. The biggest objective for them was to discover ways to not only upskill themselves, but to bring their students back into the fold of learning by improving access to online education.
Through discussions, teachers revealed that if they were provided physical and digital resources to support the process of teaching and learning, it would help them reach more students. “Our school is in a relatively urban area, however, some of our students come from the nearby villages and do not own smartphones,” says Sandhya of Gadchiroli district. “Through their webinars, CEQUE guided us on how we could reach them through WhatsApp, how to send audio clips to parents or relatives for the children’s lessons, and how to go to their homes to check in on them.”
The Teacher Innovator Program gave low-bandwidth resources and student workbooks that would help teachers support students. The workbooks were distributed by teachers, sometimes at school locations, and at other times at locations convenient for the parents. These were of particular use in Palghar district, where Amruta and Anjana work. “Our students come from very poor families, they don’t have smartphones, laptops, or computers. They just have simple phones that can place calls,” says Amruta. “We received the workbooks from CEQUE in October of 2020, and then distributed them to each student at home. That benefited them immensely, as something was finally in their hands which they could use to study. The physical copy gave them focus and tasks to complete that were tangible. The workbooks we got were for primary students, and we used them as templates to make similar ones for our students in 6th and 7th grade too, which had similar positive results for them.”
Using these tools, teachers were coached on integrating different kinds of resources into teaching and learning, and flexibly planned on how they would teach the lesson. Some scheduled online classes or shared resources on student WhatsApp groups, made phone calls to clear students doubts where necessary, and gave feedback based on the solved worksheets in the workbook. Others, using social distancing, conducted classes in spaces that they found with the support of the local community. For teachers like Aarti from Thane, such upskilling during a period of churn made online teaching less daunting. “When I started online classes in June last year, I had no faith in digital learning: it felt like a wall had been erected between my students and I,” she says. “By December, after the sessions with CEQUE, my mindset changed. I realised that this computer is not a purdah, or veil. We can use online learning as a tool to teach students, provided we are equipped with the right support ourselves.”
Ultimately, to achieve the intended outcomes of the CPD, TIP closely tracks the growth in teacher competency based on pre-defined indicators and scale. It also conducts student baseline and end line assessments to measure if the improvement in teacher skills has improved student learning linked to the selected competency that was the focus in the CPD.
During the pandemic, data linked to increase in access to learning was captured. At the end of the program, 91% of the students were in the fold of learning as opposed to 35% at the start of the program. Average scores of teachers improved by 32 percentage points at the end of the program.
Sandhya describes how this played out in her online classroom in Gadchiroli. “I attended four webinars and went for coaching sessions too: in all of them, we discussed and asked questions on how to improve the reading comprehension of students. I learnt how to answer student doubts better, and how to teach them to work through difficult passages or words smoothly. I applied all these learnings to my class, and saw a gradual difference. Students who struggled to summarise a Marathi story were able to do so with much more ease and thought. Many of them were eager to actually continue this learning style even during the summer vacations.”
For teachers to truly bring a change in their classroom practices, they need a supportive environment within their schools. For this, CEQUE’s TIP orients Headmasters and Cluster Resource Coordinators (Kendra Pramukhs) on the aims and objectives of the program so that they may support the teacher. It provides quarterly Progress Reports detailing activities conducted, the successes and the challenges faced, and a learning report card which provides a dashboard view of the progress of the school against key indicators, enabling school leaders to help them take action wherever necessary. In the pandemic, regular meetings were held with government officials from the district education departments, building their interest and ownership in the process of teacher capacity development.
The Road Ahead for Continuous Professional Development
The model has been able to respond flexibly during the pandemic without having to stray from its core components. Student learning remained at the centre; not only did 91% of students come into the fold of learning, but over 1,700 students from a total of 4,878 that were in the fold showcased what they learnt in the form of online exhibitions of student work. “What was unique about the program was the support,” says Anjana, a sentiment echoed by the other teachers interviewed for this story as well. “Every single question we had about online classes or teaching, the TIP team took the effort to answer. In a way, in each of the eight webinars they held for us, they taught each of us like we were the students! We learnt more this way. In my opinion, it is for these reasons that our students who missed out on online learning earlier are with us today, and are learning properly too.”
Going forward, if governments or organisations seek to implement quality Continuous Professional Development for teachers at scale, a few salient points based on CEQUE’s experiences can serve as guidelines.
First, it is critical to determine what are the key areas within CPD that need to be focused on by an on-ground needs assessment. Given that there is a learning loss due to school closures, the goals of a CPD, both in terms of improvement in teacher skill and student learning outcomes, will need to be recalibrated and carefully thought through. Priorities and time frames too will need to be aligned based on the goals and new reality facing the teachers. A need-assessment to determine access as well as learning levels will be a first step towards the development of the CPD. Reducing curricular load will be the next step.
Second, is to create mechanisms of teacher support. Coaching will need to remain the cornerstone of CPD, whatever may be the goals that one lays out. This would mean setting aside time for teachers to share their challenges while working with students, coaching them to find solutions, and providing resources to support them. A blended mode of online and offline will need to be used for training and coaching, along with flexibility in the number of hours of teacher engagement for CPD based on the district’s needs.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, CPD initiatives must monitor and track student retention. Going ahead, it will be important to bring focus on how CPD helps teachers address learning issues—the key to solving India’s learning crisis. For that, using data and creating a robust measurement tool will be critical. The improvement of teacher skills should be measured at intervals only after they have had adequate time to practice new skills and received intensive coaching support. Accurate data on teaching and learning will not only help support teachers, but strengthen the quality of the Indian education system in the long run.
Featured images courtesy of CEQUE.