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Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide

DR. NIRMALA KRISHNAN | General Manager, JSW Foundation

Dr. Nirmala Krishnan is currently the General Manager at the JSW Foundation. She has completed Design Thinking from MIT Sloan, Educational Leadership from NIE Singapore & IIM Ahmedabad, has a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy, Bachelor’s degree in Education (B.Ed.), M.Phil. in English Literature, Post-Graduation in Guidance and Counselling, and a Ph.D. from the University of Madras. She has won numerous awards like the School Leadership Award (2017), National Award for Education (2015), Innovative Idea Award and Fellowship in Innovation in Education (2012). Through her programme, ‘I am a responsible girl’, she has touched the lives of many girls in the country. Dr. Nirmala has spent more than 20 years in the education space, working in both tier 1 and tier 2 cities.


1. You have a vast experience in teaching and school management. What keeps you going?

My mentor Dr. Daisaku Ikeda has created education systems which trains each one of us to focus on happiness of each child as our priority as educator. And that drives me to make a difference in lives of each child I meet- through the parent I meet, teacher I meet and school leader I meet.

‘Ek Junoon hai Kuch kar dikhane ki... Har bacche ko khush dekhne ki…’

2. You have worked with schools in both Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. Is there a shift in the attitude toward teaching? Kindly elaborate.

Attitude towards teaching across cities are similar. The teaching profession draws teachers from diverse background. Though their interests may vary, what keeps them coming back to school is APPRECIATION FOR THEIR WORK in the form of their students achieving their dreams. Tier 1 city teachers have too many resources available and have excess training programs scheduled in their calendar. There is dearth of the same for Tier 2 city teachers. I have observed ‘maximizing available resources effectively’ being practiced by Tier 2 teachers than Tier 1 teachers. A medium, to share resources between Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, can lead to more students benefiting from this approach.

3. Is ‘digitization in education’ bridging the gap between rural and urban schools? Please elaborate.

Yes, digitization in education is an EUREKA moment for education in 21st century. If one has to record the history of education, digitization will emerge as a protagonist. With CSR initiatives, we observe foundations spending 25 to 65 % of their budgets on digitization in rural schools. Budget 2017-18 promises 1.5 lakh gram panchayats with high-speed broadband service by the end of the year. According to a report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 36% of the online population in India belongs to rural areas. Through partnerships, the spend is definitely more in rural India. Thus, a student in a rural school (mostly in vernacular) gets very similar explanation to the topics as one in an urban school, owing to digitization in education.

4. How effectively are these digitized classrooms being used across schools? Do the urban schools really have an upper hand? Please elaborate.

In urban schools, the classrooms were digitized, in many cases to have a fee component added for the schools. The benefits of digitization are highly visible in urban schools. In rural schools this did draw the attention of students to understanding the concept visually than memorization. The teachers are also learning more in the process, though the teacher training in digital classrooms fall short as the teacher movement is inevitable and new teachers don’t get trained immediately. In rural schools, the enthusiasm lasts couple of months from installation and remains merely to be a ribbon cutting ceremony. The rural schools’ digitization stops when the CSR support is withdrawn after their period of intervention. In most rural schools, post exit of the CSR partner because of NO funds for AMC, these turn into e-waste.

5. What are the problems that educators/teachers face in rural schools, when compared to those working in urban schools?

Access to knowledge is the only challenge. The rural schools are still producing stories of success at par with urban schools which are facing a different kind of challenge with social media engulfing the students’ approach to socially responsible thinking.

6. How important is teacher training in bridging this gap?

Teacher training is crucial. However, the limitations being- fixed approach to teacher training, as this is considered as a tick box event in the school planner. If the schools can understand the needs of their organisation and evaluate individual teachers on their competency and map corresponding programs in teacher training, it will be a game-changer for schools. Now it’s more of all teachers of primary or secondary will attend this list of training programs. There has to be a shift in this paradigm. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation spent more than $200 million on a teacher effectiveness initiative, and an independent assessment found that the program failed to help students.

7. Do you think the concept of ‘happiness’ should be included in the school curriculum? If yes, how? Kindly elaborate.

Happiness is relative and absolute. Both are essential. Relative happiness inspires a student to set goals and achieve them. Absolute happiness can be trained into by continuous process of life skills. A curriculum is a good thought, the implementation has to be beyond completion of the printed lessons. It should be practiced in schools – in thoughts, words and action. The leadership of a school can make a lot of difference in making ‘being happy’ an effortless process. If we can achieve this, top 3 problems of this world related to well-being, which originates from being unhappy, can be addressed.

8. With rising concern on child safety, what role can teachers and parents play in keeping the child informed and safe?

Child safety has always been a major concern. Now it is being shared extensively on media thus is glaring. Teachers and parents role is to provide a safe society for the child. Who is making this place unsafe for a child? Definitely - Someone’s child, right? If each parents and teacher can make it possible to raise their children to be protectors and not predators, if they raise their child to be able to follow the norms of the society which includes keeping everyone around safe, we will have fewer cases compared to what we see now. So, how do we address the existing situation? The only way is educating a child towards their own safety, create safe circles and keep in touch with the child at all places. Worst case scenarios- if our child has had an unsafe experience, let us stand by our child and support him or her come out of it more bravely. A proactive approach to the person causing unsafe situations for a child has to be addressed and made responsible for changing his or her behavior. A 5 year follow up of these people will lead to safer places for our children.

9. If given a chance to change one thing in the Indian education system today, what would it be and why?

The one change Indian Education System requires is updating the curriculum and corresponding evaluation process, both in school and college. All efforts in teacher training and emulating best practices across the world falls flat because of the redundant curriculum which has major gaps to fill when a student enters work space. The work space today is at par with the latest in each vertical, however, our curriculum and evaluation hasn’t changed in last 30 years.

10. What is your message for young, aspiring teachers?

Very excited to meet the younger lot of teachers, many of them like me have shifted to teaching out of passion from various professions they have graduated in. The younger teachers are inspiring, enthusiastic and are very clear about wanting to make a difference in the lives of children very similar to best teachers of our age. My message is – Accept each child as he or she is. Work diligently in finding ways in which he or she learns than teaching the way you know. Form a bond with each child beyond what is visible on their exam papers. Each child deserves to be trusted and encouraged to fly in their space of interest, resulting in you seeing each student you connected with blooming into a happy child.

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