Interpreting the Role of Teachers in Building Safe and Inclusive Learning Spaces for Children

“Which phase of your life do you cherish the most? As a child? As a scientist? Or as a President?”

“Given a second chance what would you want to be – the President of India or a veena player, a musical instrument you like to play?”
To both these questions asked by students from different parts of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, a man for whom no introduction is required, replied, “A teacher”.

Taking up teaching means to shoulder the tremendous responsibility of converting a new generation into an informed and virtuous one. A teacher is a human resource whose duty is to create a pool of human resources who work for the betterment of the country and the world. In today’s scenario, education happens in schools and the management and administration of schools is not usually or entirely done by the teachers. The safety and inclusiveness of the infrastructure of a school, is therefore, not directly in the hands of the teachers. Nevertheless, teachers play an important role when it comes to building a safe and inclusive learning space for children

The first occupation that a school-going child recognizes is that of a teacher. A kid may not know what kind of job her parents do, but she knows the schedule of her teacher inside-out. Children who had dedicated teachers when they were young, admire them and may even aspire to become teachers themselves. The power of a teacher is huge as their job involves spending time with people of an impressionable age. Students take after their teachers almost as much as they do of their parents.

Now this brings us to ‘inclusiveness’. Teachers are humans after all and they too can be opinionated. This can be regarded as good or bad when it comes to the individual’s opinions, prejudices and thought-processes. For instance, a teacher who takes care of stray animals and tells his class about the dozen dogs and cats inhabiting his home, will inspire his students to adopt a stray and be compassionate towards all forms of life. But at the same time, a teacher who thinks that children should mingle with only those classmates who are of the same socio-economic status, will end up rubbing in this mindset into some of her students.

While these two examples occupy the extreme ends of the inclusiveness spectrum, they are true incidents, just like all the other examples in this article. Nowadays, most teachers do not have time to talk about anything else in class except the prescribed syllabus. But even within the syllabus, their opinions show and students tend to absorb them immediately. While one of my History teachers explained that Emperor Akbar was one of the greatest rulers India has even seen, another one character-assassinated him in such an outrageously funny way that the class was in fits of laughter.

Inclusiveness may be about how a teacher in a school in northern-India welcomes a child whose mother tongue is Tamil to larger issues like gender-identity and refugee crisis. “Your school is your second-home and I am like your mother,” that is what my teacher told me when I was a five-year-old with zero Hindi vocabulary and cried every morning in the school. When she said so, my classmates who were initially not very friendly started making an effort to communicate with me and I too reciprocated. A teacher can either set a good example or a bad one. Now, if my former classmates meet anyone who has difficulty in communicating in a specific language, they would try to help them. On the other hand, had my teacher ignored me in class, then her students too would have borne an illogical contempt for those who did not know a language that they are used to.Despite the fact that she was not my Hindi teacher, she was the one who broke the ice when I could not. As a matter of fact, my actual Hindi teacher conveniently forgot my presence in the classroom, hardly included me in discussions and went on with the lessons. I gradually picked up the language, because of my journey through nine different schools across India.

Schooldays are incomplete without lunchbreaks. In some schools, teachers have lunch with the students to ensure that the kids finish eating before going out to play. Food is an important means by which friendships are forged and experiences shared. In a diverse classroom, food plays a role too and this fact can be taken advantage of by teachers as India is such a multi-cultural country.

Dealing with disabled or differently-abled students is also a part of a healthy and inclusive learning environment. I have never had a differently-abled classmate but at the same time I have never had a differently-abled teacher either. Of the nine schools that I have studied in, only two were fully accessible to people for whom mobility is difficult. As of 2019 in India, only 68.64% of primary schools, 68.89% of lower secondary schools and 63.84% of upper secondary schools have access to adapted infrastructure for students with disabilities.

More teachers have to be trained to educate children with special needs in order to help every individual reach his/her full potential. Learning spaces can be inclusive only when teaching spaces are. Schools should provide job opportunities to teachers who have disabilities themselves as they have an immense capacity to motivate students. One of the best examples is late Mr. V.K. Bansal, fondly known as Bansal Sir, who has coached thousands of students to crack the most coveted engineering entrance exams in India. Since he himself was confined to a wheelchair, all his coaching institutes and also his school are fully accessible to people with disabilities. This would obviously welcome children to continue learning despite the physical challenges.

Teachers must ensure that children who may be weak compared to their counterparts or find a specific task tricky, must not be bullied by their classmates. As of 2015, 40.3% of 13-15 year-olds in India reported being bullied in the recent past. Bullying is not simply a tiff that can be overlooked as some children then grow to associate negative feelings with their school as they might be victims of bullying and may eventually decide to resort to absenteeism.While ‘standing up to bullies’ is what we are told to do, children must be taught to do so in school because it is in school where they encounter so many others of their similar age. Bullying is a violation of both safety and inclusiveness of learning spaces. It is a teacher’s role to keep a check on this in a subtle yet strict manner. When faced with bullying, children are usually afraid to bring it to their teachers’ notice as they think that they may be branded as ‘weaklings’. Therefore, teachers must be approachable and trustworthy individuals who can help students in distress.

There are ups and downs in all of our lives. Most of us learn to cope with them and accept them. Children spend almost a third of their day in school, at least for five days a week and so do teachers (during pre-pandemic times). Thus the teaching-learning space must be flexible and open to discussions instead of being a jail-like place where students are waiting for the bell to ring. The importance of mental health must be emphasized in schools by teachers. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people. Parents, teachers and peers sometimes become stressful and when this is coupled with tons of books to study, some students, especially teenagers break down and are prone to taking the extreme step. Teachers have a direct role to play in curbing this complex issue. Inclusion of concern for a child’s well-being is the first step that can be taken by teachers. Rushing through the syllabus to ensure enough revision time is of no use if a student is planning to die to avoid facing the examinations.

If gender discrimination exists in books, it obviously exists in real life too. Girls are mere spectators when it comes to cricket matches and football matches in some schools. Disparity exists in the teaching space too as teaching is considered as a female-dominated field with more than 80% of all teachers from kindergarten to high school being women. Thankfully, this outlook is gradually changing.

Unfortunately, gender-related issues do not stop at discrimination and reach violence, that extends to schools. It is so widespread that it even has an abbreviation: SRGBV, which stands for school-related gender-based violence. These crimes are attributed to teachers themselves in several cases. An abusive teacher may be called the worst school-life experience for a child. A teacher-predator may give students good marks in the exams, but then leaves a painfully indelible mark in the child’s mind with red ink and dark intentions.

This highlights the importance of assessing the overall personality of a teacher. Co-teachers, who may have an inkling of whether a teacher is abusive, based on behaviour, must take immediate action and bring matters to light for the safety of children irrespective of potential repercussions or reaction of the school authorities. At the same time, students must also receive compulsory safety education in schools. Safety should be extended from schools to other places too. Teachers should have a caring attitude and be open to children who may be facing abuse at home or anywhere else and do not know which adult to share it with; if family-members are abusive, the child would probably find the teacher the best person to tell.

Teachers are also responsible for talent-spotting in classrooms. When children are identified as athletes, artists, musicians, dancers, singers, writers and leaders and provided a platform, it gives them a turning point in life. This is especially true in case of children in rural areas who may be talented but may not have the right opportunities to prove themselves. Some teachers go out of their way and get out of their comfort zones to make their students shine, thereby building creative learning spaces.

These resolutions will help fulfil Target 4.a of SDG 4 Quality Education which aims to “build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive and provide safe, non-violent, inclusive and effective learning environments for all.” However, the task of building safe and inclusive learning spaces for children does not end here. Our world is an uncertain one. We are in the midst of a raging pandemic that has orphaned many children and/or hampered their overall development. We are also at a turning point considering our planet’s health. It is imperative to stop it from deteriorating further and to do so, teachers need to turn this entire school-going generation into a climate-conscious one.

There are three sides to this problem. Firstly, teachers themselves must be trained adequately on environmental issues. Secondly, teachers must give importance to environmental education and not skip such chapters even if their weightage in the examinations is low. Thirdly, teachers must inculcate a sense of open-mindedness in their students. Displaced children, be they Indians or from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh (which is likely to face grave climate onslaught) should feel comfortable and this can happen only when classrooms welcome them. When their native becomes unsafe, teachers should be able to provide displaced children a sense of security and encourage existing students to be inclusive.

We fondly remember the teacher who silenced the class when they called you names, the teacher who assigned you the important task of coordinating a school fest which involved a lot of running up and down the stairs while anybody else would have asked a boy to do it, the teacher who bandaged your knee without waiting for the nurse to come when you fell in the playground, the teacher who read out your essay to the whole class, the teacher who said that the girls could occupy the seats at the back of the picnic-bus as it is always the boys who usually have fun at the rear, the teacher who painstakingly introduced you to a completely new language, the teacher who ensured that you finished your lunch before you went out to play, the teacher who cleared all your silly yet sincere doubts, the teacher who wanted you to talk instead of keeping quiet, the teacher who asked the class to hide under the desks and pretend to react to an imaginary earthquake and the teacher who resolved the row between you and your best friend. Teachers make the world a better place to live in. Their role in building safe and inclusive learning spaces for children is immense.

Teachers are the people who are hugely responsible for creating effective learning spaces for children. A compassionate and understanding teacher is a sign of a good learning environment.There are a few areas in which teachers need to be trained further. These aspects of SDG 4 Quality Education are very important as they relate not only to the mental ability of students, but also their mental health. Apart from Right to Education, every child should be entitled to a safe and inclusive place to attain it. Children are encouraged and catalysed to reach their full potential when provided with a safe and inclusive learning space by their teachers.

Yazhini Sathiamoorthy

Winner - The Social Network