Nepalese Teachers Work Towards a Vocation of Love Even in Extreme Poverty

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Some years back I got to witness the effects of a ‘bandh’ (general strike) on school-going children in Nepal. From nowhere a mob of young Maoists stormed the streets armed with sticks and bricks.They were angry of civilians who dared to work despite a strike. Stones were hurled at the building and windows were smashed. The headmaster pleaded unsuccessfully with the group.Scared children ran for safety. The crowd cheered on as a brick struck the headmaster on the head, knocking him off his feet.

This is a sad story but true.Life of a teacher can be rewarding but never easy. Stories like disruptions caused by ‘bandhs’ called by agitating political parties are a regular occurrence in urban centres across Nepal.It adversely affects young children who are compelled to take unexpected breaks from their studies.

Education in the urban areas project a picture of chaos. But education in the rural pockets of Nepal is overwhelmingly sad. Teachers and student have to overcome the prejudices perpetrated by an extremely rigid caste system. The poor quality of teaching and lack of facilities for both children and teachers are the other major areas of concern.

Keshari Shrestha, 43, who originally comes from the lowlands of Nepal’s Terai region, has been a teacher for the last 21 years. Loud and frank, this veteran educator is formidable and yet sensitive. Although her own situation is far from ideal , she shares a leaky one-room flat with her two daughters and a husband who is unable to care for himself because of a degenerative disease.But she understands that majority of her students come from extremely poor families .Thus, she makes the effort to ensure that her classes are regular as well as interesting so that the kids are eager to come back for more.

Shrestha is busy with her morning lesson.She takes classes four and five at the Jana Jagriti Lower Secondary School in Salleri Solukhumbu district.When a new student appears at her door, she cannot refuse it. This sudden new addition to her class doesn’t surprise Shrestha at all.

“In our government schools there are no fixed rules or regulations for enrolment. Yesterday the class had 38 students. Today, there are 39,” she sighs.

Shrestha has no choice even the numbers keep fluctuating.At times a class can even have an excess of 80 students.It does not put a strain on the school’s meager resources,but the quality of teaching and learning is hampered.

But while controlling enrolments may not be in her hands, Shrestha has been trying to make a difference by improving the quality of teaching. The Australian Himalayan Foundation (AHF) sponsors teacher training programmes for over 1,000 teachers and 35,000 primary school students in more than 300 schools in the area.A Key Teacher is assigned as a senior teacher from the Village Development Committees (VDCs).

Because of her seniority, Shrestha is the Key Teacher in Solukhumbu.She frequently brings r VDCs in the district to conduct intensive six-day training sessions that involve coaching teachers in better teaching techniques.

“At times I regret not being with my daughters in my free time. But some of these villages school teachers need a lot of help,” she says.

Working conditions for rural women teachers are very tough and the pay is meager.It ranges from NRS 5,000 to 25,000 .But if the right support is provided things can definitely improve. .

Nepal has promised to achieve universal primary education by the year 2015, as part of the Millennium Development Goal 2. They are faced with the grim reality of how to accomplish their roles as advocates of change when they not compensated well. It has to be acknowledged that teachers, especially women, in addition to being educators are also wives and mothers who have to care for their families. They need to be given better salaries and maternity benefits so that they can do their jobs better.

As one teacher admitted, “A creche, better toilet facilities and more training would indeed make life easier.”