7 Ways to Retain Optimism (Even If You Work In Improving Elementary Education!)

Got you, didn\’t it! Sooner or later, you hit a wall. There\’s a feeling that nothing works. That the system is so overwhelming that hardly anything can be done. Eventually, if you\’re someone trying to improve elementary education – whether as a teacher or resource person or administrator – you find yourself unwillingly accepting that the poor quality of education will continue to prevail in hundreds of thousands of classrooms.
Ok, so that\’s stated a little too strongly. But there is grain of truth there! Which is why, in the interest of millions of children, we need to look at how to retain the enthusiasm and optimism we started out with. So here are some ways to preserve your cheer, mental health and youthful looks despite the years you\’ve put in.
1. Think \’how\’, not \’should\’
Much too often we find ourselves talking about what \’should\’ be happening. Slowly the discussion slides into a list of things we are dissatisfied with – teachers not working, infrastructure remaining poor, lack of leadership, absence of commitment…. You can hear the pitch rising, can\’t you? Keep the pitch raised and you\’re bound to have a stressed heart!
To retain your desire to make things better (and keep your heart healthy), it would be so much better to talk of the how. What ordinary things can a teacher do? E.g. smile at children, read the textbook before the class, solve a puzzle herself to find out how much fun it is, read aloud a book to children once in a while – nothing that requires an \’order\’ or funding or special mandate or skill or training. Similarly, what can a head teacher do, burdened as she is with administrative tasks made difficult by lack of support? Share and delegate (e.g. make it fun for other teachers to participate and work as a group), discuss some of the records maintained in the school (e.g. connect children\’s attendance rates and test performance), and so on.
As you can see, you would have something doable to share. Chances are, some of the ideas might actually get picked up – in which case don\’t forget to really appreciate the person implementing them.
2. Focus on outcomes, not inputs
This is much more if you\’re a planner, administrator, supervisor, programme leader. Very often we\’re so focused on the inputs flowing from our side that we ignore what these are for. Thus it seems important to see whether material is supplied or not, the number of days of in-service training covered, physical targets fulfilled – and then one day it suddenly turns out that all this has not had much impact. We\’re left feeling that all our effort didn\’t amount to much, and a sinking feeling starts to grow. Of course we don\’t tell anyone else about it but we\’re aware it\’s there, isn\’t it?
How to overcome this situation? After all, inputs have to be provided. Sure they have – but for a purpose. It might be more useful to take a look at what all this is meant to bring about. For instance, the issue is not whether material is supplied or not but whether it is used as intended by children. This suddenly makes us see that we need to focus on training, incorporate this into the monitoring and academic support, share examples with teachers, encourage children and parents to lose inhibitions and start using material in school and at home… All of which, if done even on a small scale and only partially successful, has the wonderful effect of making you feel giddy with success. Pessimism – gone!
3. Be incremental
This point is so commonsensical and obvious that it gets ignored. Don\’t try to do everything or too much in one go (especially if you are at the district / sub-district level). For instance, for any teacher to make a real change in the classroom processes, some 40 different practices are likely to change. Try doing a full \’training\’ and expect all these changes – there\’s only chaos. Teachers do try but fail – no one\’s sure what to start with, the sequence in which to implement these changes, the steps to be taken. All it takes is one or two failures for teachers and schools to feel that nothing much can be done, that it\’s all too difficult, and doesn\’t work and is therefore not worth the effort. Soon, you begin to feel the same and are a pale shadow of the enthusiastic person who set out on a journey of change.
To get back on track on this journey, scale things down a little. Expect only a few changes at a time. E.g.
  • Give teachers a list of 6-8 possible changes (ranging from calling each child by the name, to making use of activities given in the textbooks to encouraging children to ask questions).
  • Ask them to select only 3-4 from this list (making a choice generates ownership and commitment); discuss the steps they need to take in order to bring about these changes.
  • Encourage them to make a 2-3 month implementation plan around these steps and help them monitor themselves and each other to see if the changes are actually happening.
  • Extend this cycle at the end of each 2-3 month period. Over a year or two, a dramatic change would occur – only it would have been less noticed as it happened, more successful, and breeding optimism rather than pessimism.

For those in the know, this is precisely what ADEPTS is all about and has made a positive change happen in over 22,000 (that\’s right, 22 thousand) schools in Gujarat.
4. Enter with questions, leave with (people\’s) ideas
Trainers, facilitators and academics trying to communicate with teachers end up being frustrated very soon – \’they don\’t pay any attention to whatever we say\’ is a common complaint. To which the reply is – why should they? The days are over when someone followed your ideas / views / instructions simply because you came from a so-called \’superior\’ level such as a university or senior position in the hierarchy. No, people will do things differently only if they are convinced and feel like doing it from inside. Our role is to touch people\’s hearts and minds rather than trying to shape them or fill them with our views.
How can one do this? It\’s so simple that I\’m almost ashamed to mention it! Don\’t enter a training session or a meeting with a list of things to tell. Instead, concentrate on a few key questions to ask. Questions that will generate response, reflection, and provoke people into coming out with their own views and ideas. For instance, ask questions such as:
  • If material is so easy to generate, why should we supply anything? What do you think?
  • Suggest ways in which you can use a library along with the textbook?
  • Shouldn\’t we trust children and get them to mark their own attendance instead of the teacher spending time on it?
  • When children don\’t understand decimals, exactly where do you think the problem lies?

Don\’t believe me, try it out and see what happens. At any rate, the tired old complaint will not be heard any more.

5. Don\’t see people as they are but as they\’re going to be…
Anyone who\’s responsible for helping people be different usually ends up using phrases such as \’dog\’s tail that can never be straightened\’. But that\’s because they see people as they actually are rather than what they can be like. Try this out the next time you\’re in such a situation – 
  • Look at your students / participants / team members and visualise them as being different. 
  • What qualities can you visualise them as having? 
  • What ways do you seem them adopting to make good use of the capabilities they already have? 
  • And what do you see yourself learning from them?

Gives you a different perspective, doesn\’t it? Every time I\’ve worked with a group that has been called \’difficult\’, this is what has helped me make good friends with the participants and support them in changing themselves. Not exactly rocket science, and works very well too. End result? You can imagine…
6. The system is people too
When you work on an impersonal, solid thing called a \’system\’, it\’s hard to see it changing. Indeed, it has an inertia of its own because it has usually arrived at some degree of stability over the years – and here you are, trying to destabilise it for reasons of your own! Why on earth would it meekly go along?
But if you look upon a system as a number of people bound in a set of relationships, you have several entry points where there didn\’t seem to be any in the beginning. There are bound to be persons in the system trying to make good things happen (if nothing else, just the law of averages determines that there have to be at least a few of these). Can you locate such persons? Is there a way of interacting with them, perhaps even bringing together a few of them? Can you change a few persons at a time? Is there an activity that would support or recognize their efforts, and given them the feeling that they\’re not alone? And when success (even small success) happens and is recognized, the circle of those willing to engage and dialogue, grows. With it grows the possibility of real change happening, thus reducing the chances of your growing old before your time out of sheer frustration and pessimism.
7. This is where I need your help
Please be so kind as to let me know the 7th (and 8th, and 9th) way…

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