Cover Story

Cover Story

India's most innovative school teachers

The annual Tata Consultancy Services-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2007 national open competition attracted 20,000 nominations from across India. Following a gruelling final interview by a high-powered jury, the winners and finalists were celebrated in Chennai in early 2008. Summiya Yasmeen reports

There was palpable excitement in the impressive banquet hall of Chennai’s Taj Connemera Hotel on the morning of January 9, where over 100 teachers from 50 schools across the city and mediapersons had assembled to celebrate India’s most innovative primary and secondary school teachers. Eight finalists had been short-listed from 20,000 nominations countrywide, for the third annual Tata Consultancy Services-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2007. Two of them were adjudged winners following gruelling 40-minute final interviews the previous evening by a high-powered jury comprising Mala Ramadorai, former vice principal of the Bombay International School; Neena Paul, regional head of IL&FS Education & Technology Services (IETS); Christie Cherian, a London-based business management consultant, and Dilip Thakore, editor of EducationWorld.

At 12.30 p.m the stage was set to proclaim India’s most innovative primary and secondary school teachers before a 200-strong audience including chief guest S. Ramadorai, managing director of the globe girdling Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (annual revenue: Rs.17,200 crore; no. of employees: 108,000), India’s largest information technology services company with a footprint in 47 countries around the world.

The audience in the cavernous hall crowded with press and television reporters burst into surprised applause, as two Mumbai-based teachers walked away with the winners awards. Meeta Tongaonkar, headmistress (primary section) of the Arya Vidya Mandir School, Mumbai, was adjudged India’s most innovative primary teacher, and B.S. Shinde, assistant mathematics teacher at the Saraswati High School, Dadar, Mumbai, the country’s best secondary school teacher.

"Teachers play a critical role in nurturing innovation in young minds and preparing the leaders of tomorrow. By acknowledging and celebrating pedagogy innovations of school teachers, we hope to stimulate excellence within the country’s teaching community. To reap India’s demographic dividend — 450 million Indians are below 18 years of age — it’s important for teachers to share learning and best practices and collaborate with each other. To do this quickly and effectively, they now have the opportunity to use new information and communication technologies. We are happy to associate with EducationWorld and provide teachers a platform to showcase their classroom innovations to the larger teachers’ community and public. The TCS-EW Teachers Awards is our way of expressing appreciation of committed and dedicated school teachers nurturing India’s children," said Ramadorai in his address to the assembled teachers from Chennai and its environs, who had attended a three-hour workshop on ecology conservation conducted earlier that morning.

Encomiums, felicitations and celebrations apart, the eight finalists from three states were given handsome material rewards. They were invited (all expenses paid) to Chennai and awarded cheques of Rs.10,000 each and presented certificates and handsome specially commissioned silver and acrylic embossed trophies. Moreover best teachers Meeta Tongaonkar (primary) and B.S. Shinde (secondary) were presented state-of-the-art lightweight Zenith laptop computers with bluetooth wireless technologies and pre-loaded office software, valued at Rs.45,000.

The star-studded TCS-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2007 function on January 9 was the outcome of a process which commenced in August last year. Frequent advertising in Education-World and a poster campaign in schools across the country invited all involved with education — students, principals, parents, school managements — to nominate innovative and/or exceptional teachers (in primary and secondary schools) for the awards. The 20,000 nominations received were scrutinised over the next three months by a team of IETS personnel led by the Bangalore-based Neena Paul, head of the ten-year-old education company’s Karnataka unit. From the nominations a first short-list of 500 teachers was prepared. Teachers on this initial shortlist were asked to submit 300-500 word essays detailing their teaching innovations and/or best classroom practices. After careful assessment and evaluation of the essays received, eight were invited for the final round of interviews held in Chennai on January 8.

"The quality of nominations received in 2007 was much better than in the three previous years. Moreover there was a more even spread between government schools — Kendriya Vidyalayas, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas — and private schools. It was a revelation to learn that so many teachers in schools countrywide are innovating new pedagogies and implementing them in their classrooms. The next step for them is to share these ideas with other teachers to raise teaching-learning standards in schools across the country," said Paul speaking on the occasion.

Indeed the eight finalists floored the four-judge panel with their present-ations, making their job of selecting the winners in each category (primary and secondary) a difficult exercise. "The quality of finalists was excellent with each teacher lucidly explaining teaching-learning pedagogies which arouse student interest and improve learning outcomes. It was very difficult to select winners from among them. Each of them displayed a passion for propagation of knowledge beyond the call of duty," observed London-based management consultant and educationist Christie Cherian, articulating the views of the judges panel.

The winners and finalists of the Tata Consultancy Services-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2007 are profiled on the pages following.

M.H. Tongaonkar

Most innovative primary teacher

eeta H. Tongaonkar, officially designated ‘head facilitator’ (principal) of the CISCE affiliated Arya Vidya Mandir School, Santacruz, Mumbai was unanimously adjudged India’s best (primary) teacher at the Tata Consultancy Services-Education World Teachers Awards 2007. Tongaonkar who teaches class I, impressed the panel of four judges by outlining several innovative teaching pedagogies she has evolved to make learning enjoyable for her 560 tiny tots (pre-primary to class IV). Following her lead, all AVM primary teachers use ICT (information communication technologies), waste materials such as carbon, newspaper, paper bags to introduce children to subjects such as English, mathematics and science.

"In early education it’s important to minimise the use of textbooks. Instead, we use the ‘do and discover’ pedagogy using puppets, dramatisation, songs, games and gallery walks for teaching. For instance, parts of plants are compared with the parts of the body and children are made to enact the growth of a plant. Likewise puppets are used to teach plant germination, and English verbs are learnt by enacting action words," says Tongaonkar, an alumna of Bombay University, who also has a diploma in early childhood care and education and day-care management from Sophia College, Mumbai besides a certificate in learning disabilities. In 1984 she signed up with AVM which has four primary-cum-secondary schools in Mumbai with an aggregate enrollment of 7,600 students, and was promoted as head facilitator (primary) of AVM Santacruz, last year.

A teacher who believes in sharing and disseminating innovations and practices, Tongaonkar is well known in early childhood education circles in Mumbai. She has conducted numerous workshops on ‘wealth from waste’ and ‘teaching without textbooks’. Last year the Brihan Mumbai Corporation (BMC) invited her to conduct a workshop for 1,200 BMC school headmasters on creative teaching techniques and ways and means of making low-cost teaching aids. Moreover, she is credited with introducing a host of activities for primary school children in AVM schools — a maths club, environment club, publishing the Arya Light newsletter, visits to street schools and orphanages to tutor out-of-school children, stay-over camps in constituent schools.

A staunch believer in continuous learning for teachers, Tongaonkar is an enthusiastic participant in education seminars and workshops conducted by experts and professionals. To this end she signed up for the WATIS (Wipro Applying Thought in Schools) teacher development programme; enrolled for Intel’s Teach to the Future programme as well as management guru Edward de Bono’s Thinking Tools workshop.

"Teachers need to learn as much as students and disseminate, discuss and share their ideas with teachers in other schools. The new ICT technologies make this very possible. The teachers community needs to act in concert to raise standards in primary education across the country. This is a pre-requisite of national development," says Tongaonkar

B.S. Shinde

India’s best secondary school teacher

Bhausaheb Shamrao Shinde, assistant mathematics teacher of the Saraswati High School, Dadar, Mumbai was adjudged the most innovative secondary school teacher in the TCS-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2007. A maths and science and education graduate of Shivaji University, Kohlapur, and Ambedkar Marathawada University, respectively, Shinde signed up with the private sector, government-aided Marathi medium Saraswati High School (SHS) which has an aggregate enrollment of 240 K-X students, in 1984. Currently, he teaches maths to 100 class VIII-X students.

"I am pleased this award has been instituted by TCS to felicitate and celebrate teachers. Although teachers in India work long hours in crowded classrooms, little appreciation or encouragement is given to our community. This award instituted by a globally renowned information technology company is public acknowledgement of the critical role teachers play in industry and economic development," says Shinde.

According to him, maths teaching-learning standards at the school level are higher in India than in western countries, but this early advantage is squandered in the great majority of the country’s colleges and universities. "Indian students’ grasp of the principles of mathematics at the school level tends to be good, but the application of maths in higher education is poor. That’s why our best mathematicians emigrate to western countries where there is greater appreciation of excellence in this subject in industry and academia," says Shinde who is particularly despondent about the casual manner in which maths is taught in government schools.

Yet the critical factor which influenced the four-person jury to adjudge Shinde the country’s best secondary teacher is his innovative approach to maths teaching, a subject which tends to frighten rather than excite most secondary students. He has designed and patented a low-cost Geometry Tutor Self-Learning Kit which takes the pain out of learning this arcane subject.

"I began researching ways and means to make geometry learning easy for my students way back in 1991, and completed designing the Geometry Tutor in 2002. Since then this kit, made from plastic and priced at Rs.300, has won many awards in India and abroad, without enthusing the Central or state governments," laments Shinde who is prepared to offer it at cost to government schools. Over the past five years, he has sold only 10,000 sets of this innovative geometry learning kit whose efficacy was demonstrated to the TCS-EW Teachers Awards jury.

Nevertheless despite government and public indifference, Shinde remains optimistic that education is poised to move higher up on the government and public agenda. "India’s children are very bright and intelligent. They require only a little help by way of enabling learning environments to deliver excellent results. The only stumbling block is the education bureaucracy; it needs to become more aware of the importance of education for national development," advises Shinde.

Hopefully this good advice will fall on receptive official ears .

R.G. Timmapur

Integrated learning ornithologist

An English teacher for over 33 years and currently headmaster of the C.E.S Society High School, Hukkeri village (Belgaum district), Karnataka, R.G. Timmapur surprised and delighted the four-judge panel which adjudicated the TCS-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2007 by outlining innovative pedagogies which integrate co-curricular education — bird watching, trekking, dramatics, etc — with English teaching. A self-tutored ornithologist and member of the Bombay Natural History Society, Timmapur has integrated environment preservation, nature and ornithology to devise interactive pedagogies to teach English and preach environment conservation simultaneously.

"I believe there’s more to education than learning from textbooks in closed classrooms. That’s why I try to enrich my class VIII-X students’ learning experience by using stories, play-acting, cartoons and pictures during classroom periods. Moreover beyond school hours, my students often join me on bird watching trips and nature camps where they participate in debates, quizzes, seminars and story writing workshops. And in all our indoor and outdoor activities I converse with them in English to improve their English learning skills," says Timmapur, an English postgraduate of Karnataka University, Dharwad, who signed up with the state government aided C.E.S. Society High School in 1975.

This holistic pedagogy has enhanced English learning in this village school with an enrollment of 700 students, where the medium of instruction is Kannada. Until the start of this academic year last June, students in government and aided schools were permitted to learn English as a second language only from class V onwards. "Since the medium of instruction in CES is Kannada and most students are first generation English learners, integration of field activities with classroom teaching has made English learning interesting for students. I am proud to say that several of my students have since become English-fluent IAS officers and graduates of top American universities such as Stanford," says Timmapur who also trains children in mallakamba, a martial art form, and yoga. In December last year he was conferred the Broad Outlook Learner Teacher (BOLT) award sponsored by Air India and Deccan Herald.

A teacher of many parts and interests, Timmapur is also an amateur archaeologist who collects pre-historic stones and tools, some of which were displayed to the judges. A folk hero in Hukkeri and its environs, Timmapur is often called upon to treat injured birds and protect forest flora and fauna from development predators and poachers

One year away from retirement, Timmapur says: "A teacher never retires. I will continue to spread the message of environment conservation and teach English —the language of upward social mobility — simultaneously" .

Radha Nair

Inclusive education innovator

’m pleasantly surprised to make the final round of inter-view from among the 20,000 teachers countrywide nominated for the TCS-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2007. This acknowledgment and appreciation is very motivating and is certain to encourage all of us who have come here to double our efforts to teach innovatively, so that our students’ learning outcomes improve and they enjoy their learning experiences," says Radha Nair who teaches history, geography and English to primary school (class IV) pupils of the Bombay Cambridge School, (BCS) Andheri (East), Mumbai.

An education graduate and industrial psychology postgrad of Bombay University, who began her career as a counsellor at the Indian Council of Mental Health & Hygiene (1982-84) following which she took a 13-year break to raise her two children, Nair signed up with BCS which has 3,000 K-XII students instructed by a faculty of 165 teachers, in 1997. She was selected for the final interview for innovative use of counselling skills to integrate differently abled children into her classroom.

"Classroom numbers in India tend to be large making it almost impossible to provide individual attention to children. Therefore it’s important to use contemporary technologies which have novelty value and engage the voluntary attention of students," says Nair who uses Power Point software to teach geography and comic-strip style visuals to acquaint tiny tots with history. Moreover she is in the final stages of developing an English grammar laboratory to teach English through the medium of audio-visuals and games.

Nair believes that the prime cause of dismal primary education outcomes which characterise contemporary India, is that teachers are inadequately trained in B.Ed colleges, and poorly remunerated thereafter. "Unlike the situation in BCS where the top management encourages teaching innovations, the great majority of primary school teachers are not sufficiently motivated. Therefore it’s important for teachers to network and share best practices. This is where new media such as EducationWorld and teachers’ websites on the internet are beginning to make a valuable and positive contribution. This is a positive development which will dramatically improve learning outcomes in our classrooms. Of course reaching new computer technologies to over 600,000 village primary schools will take a while, but the journey has begun," says Nair .

G.V.S. Nageswara Rao

Extraordinary life skills teacher

onceptualised in 1984 by the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (1944-91) as free co-educational boarding schools modelled upon India’s public (i.e exclusive, private) schools for the brightest and best students in rural India, the country’s 525 Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya schools have since surpassed the most optimistic expectations of their visionary promoter. Last year, R.V. Raghavendra Rao, a science teacher from the JNV, Panchawati in the distant Andaman Islands was unanimously adjudged the country’s best secondary school teacher in the TCS-EducationWorld Teachers Awards 2006. On January 8, G.V.S Nageswara Rao, a SUPW (socially useful productive work) teacher in JNV, Kommadi, Vishakapatnam district (Andhra Pradesh), was among the eight finalists of the TCS-EW Teachers Awards 2007 and came within a whisker of making it two in a row for the Delhi-based Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (trust) which manages the country’s JNV schools.

An electrical engineering graduate with postgraduate degrees in English and Telugu literature from Andhra University, Rao signed up to teach SUPW at JNV, Cuddapah district (Andhra Pradesh) in 1990. "My father was a government school teacher who inculcated love of teaching and transmission of knowledge in me during childhood. I am fortunate that I am engaged in a vocation of my choice, and I particularly love teaching in JNVs where teachers are given great latitude to innovate," says Rao who takes great pride that JNV students "consistently top" the competitive all-India class X and XII school-leaving exams of CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education), Delhi.

As the sole SUPW teacher of JNV, Kommadi which has 450 class VI-XII students instructed by 25 teachers on its muster-roll, Rao teaches upper primary (classes VI-VIII) students in the Telugu medium and class VIII-XII in English. "To develop the creative and motor skills of upper primary children, in our SUPW classes we work together to develop low cost teaching aids, design wall hangers and tend the school’s gardens etc. Likewise senior students are introduced to electrical circuits and taught how to repair and maintain electronic gadgets such as fire and burglar alarms and to experiment with the design and development of electronic toys and gadgets. Moreover since JNVs countrywide are ICT (information communication technologies)-intensive institutions, my focus is on integrating ICT — a powerful tool for enhancement and upgradation of education — into teaching. In addition we have started co-curricular activity clubs for dramatics, public speaking and personality development for students of our school," he says.

Rao also takes pains to stress that the JNV, Kommadi shares its best practices and programmes with less funded state and local government schools in the neighbourhood. "Every summer we invite teachers from neighbouring schools to provide them computer training. Thus far we have provided ICT training to over 2,500 government school teachers under this programme. Our emphasis on utilising ICT to augment classroom teaching-learning is perhaps why the JNVs have been chosen by Intel Inc to develop a new ICT curriculum for class VI-XII students in India and abroad," says Rao, who having received 42 awards for creative writing in English and Telugu, also teaches this art to his students .

Rifka Khambati

Joyful learning practitioner

A class I teacher at Gitanjali Devshala, a CISCE affiliated school in Secunderabad (Andhra Pradesh), cheerful Rifka Khambati impressed the TCS-EW judges’ panel with her extraordinary commitment to making learning a joyful experience for tiny tots entering the formal learning system. By innovating ‘graphic organisors’ — hand drawings, illustrations and photographs — to teach six-year-olds, she has infused enthusiasm for early learning in her classroom. "Little children learn best through visual stimulation. Therefore I draw pictures on the blackboard and place information and key words within and alongside. Children connect the visuals with words and understand, rather than rote learn. I believe that the quality of early education is of crucial importance to develop love of learning," says Khambati, a commerce graduate of Gujarat University who signed up with Gitanjali Devshala in 2001 immediately after graduation.

Wary of utilising textbooks and rote-learning exercises usually employed in primary education, Khambati develops colourful worksheets and exercise books for her pupils. To stimulate creativity and critical thinking skills, she is particularly partial towards the ‘clothesline story’ pedagogy under which a clothesline is tied from one end of the classroom to the other. "All objects which interest children — chocolate wrappers, toys, caps, a child’s drawing, etc — are strung on the clothesline and children learn to weave imaginative stories around one or some of the objects. Children love this activity and story-telling is a great way to develop thinking and verbal skills," says Khambati who has also successfully integrated children with learning disabilities into mainstream education.

An amateur calligrapher, Khambati expresses her appreciation of students’ achievements by presenting them handwritten certificates and has created a ‘Wall of Fame’ in her classroom to display drawings, letters, cards, etc designed and written by her pupils. Nor is the TCS-EW Teachers Awards certificate and trophies the first of her encomiums. Recently she was conferred an award for enhancing creativity in the classroom by the Wipro Applying Thought in Schools (WATIS) programme as well .

Madhavi Sarang

Impressive newcomer

An assistant teacher at Ryan International School in Sanpada, Navi Mumbai, a kindergarten- class X school which offers the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) and IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) curriculums to its 3,000 students, Madhavi Nandkumar Sarang (25) teaches physics, chemistry and information technology to IGCSE students of classes VIII and IX, and chemistry to class X CBSE students. Though a newcomer to teaching with only two years experience, Sarang has devised several creative pedagogies to improve learning outcomes which impressed judges of the TCS-EW Teachers Awards 2007.

"The purpose of modern education is not facts accumulation but learning by understanding. Therefore I liberally use audio-visual and multimedia technologies to make science lessons interesting. Moreover I believe in encouraging teacher-student inter-action — question-answer sessions — which make students think, discuss and debate. Learning outcomes are always better when children learn through discovery and exploration and develop critical thinking, organising and analytical skills," says Sarang, a chemistry and education graduate of Bombay University with a diploma in special education who signed up with the Ryan Group of Institutions (RGI) — India’s largest chain of private sector owned schools (107) — in 2005.

Fully committed to learning-by-doing, Sarang believes in encouraging students to undertake testing project assignments. Thus recently, she persuaded three of her class VIII students to participate in ‘Doors to Diplomacy 2007’, an international competition sponsored by the US state department and Global SchoolNet Foundation. The students launched a website on ‘Bioterrorism — A threat comes in a new face’ and bagged an honorary mention for their innovation. Sarang was also a teacher guide of the National Children’s Science Congress (initiated in 1993 by the government of India) for two consec-utive years, and national coordinator of the Maths Talent Search 2007 and Homi Bhabha Balvaidnyanik Competition.

"It’s important to create student friendly classrooms where children are encouraged to voice opinions, exchange ideas and continuously work on projects. Interacting with teachers from across the country at the TCS-EducationWorld Teachers Awards has inspired me to upgrade and innovate even more to make science interesting to my students. I plan to begin with preparing teaching aids for the subjects I teach," says Sarang, who enjoys travelling, dancing and painting as much as teaching .

Vikram Dudhare

Can-do sports educator

In an academic system in which sports education is given minimal attention, Vikram Dudhare is a can-do optimist. A physical education/sports teacher at the St. Francis High School, Nasik (Maharashtra), Dudhare has coached and trained over 100 students in unlikely games — rapier fencing, baseball and softball — with spectacular success. More than 75 of his protégés have participated in state tournaments and championships, 17 at the national level while one won honours at an international fencing championship conducted in Taiwan recently.

"Having learned fencing which is an olympic sport, I started a sports club in St. Francis to coach students interested in fencing and baseball after school hours. Initially there was resistance since these sports are virtually unknown in India, but now my students are beginning to enjoy and excel at them," says Dudhare, a physical education graduate of M.S.M. College, Aurangabad and a former national level fencer and baseball player in his own right.

Currently enrolled in the Master of physical education programme of the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Dudhare deeply regrets lack of play facilities and rock bottom importance given to sports education in school curriculums. For instance in St. Francis — a state government-aided co-ed English medium school with an aggregate enrollment of 4,000 children — there is only one small playground, and only two periods per week of 25 minutes each are provided for physical education. "Unfortunately this is the situation in the majority of schools in India. Sports education is given least priority in the education system. Educators must understand that team work, leadership, and target-focusing skills are valuable advantages of sports education," he says.

Yet Dudhare is not disheartened. A determined fencing enthusiast himself, he is training potential talent with the expectation that at least one of them will bag a medal in the 2012 London Olympics. "It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds," says Dudhare.

En garde! 

(With Hemalatha Raghupathi & Dilip Thakore in Chennai)