Better than Nothing?

It’s been a while since I last wrote-which I apologize for. It has been a full winter of guests, travel, people and ideas coming together. I began December with dear friends staying with me in Mumbai-a strange, somewhat premature shift from being the new kid in town to Mumbai and India guide. I ended December by leading a professional development on classroom management and character education programming. Again, feeling as though I was teaching a course in something I still had much to understand. This isn’t exactly true of course-I have 7 years of teaching under my belt and a few tricks up my sleeve in the pedagogy department-but I still watch “The Supernanny” and feel highly inadequate in my management skills.  Which leads me to my project and some of the challenges and questions I face as I set goals and attempt to tackle them. Do you need to be an expert of a topic before you are able to teach someone else about it? And if not, are we doing a disservice by giving subpar service? What is “good enough”?

I am currently writing a 2 year teacher training module for a course in special education to be launched next year in Muktangan’s teacher training center. I have written out a 16 unit outline (so far)-with topics ranging from “Disability: History, Concepts, Definitions and Attitudes” to  “Specific Learning Disorders” to “ Interventions and Modifications” for each of the disorders. Although I get feedback from the Learning Resource team, a diverse group of experienced practitioners, this project is a pretty isolated one. And it’s one that I don’t have much educational or experiential background in. I have worked with many children who have had an array of learning, physical and social/emotional needs-but in cooperation and coordination with trained professionals who know how to work with classroom teachers in order to give these children the best school experience possible. Although I would categorize myself as pretty resourceful and can do research on this topic, as a professional teacher I know the importance that experience plays in all aspects of the learning and teaching environment. How can I write curriculum to teach teachers how to become special educators when I have never been one myself? What can a book on best practices tell me when I don’t personally understand the nuances of each particular situation with a given special needs child? I was excited to be a part of this project, as a consultant or researcher. Yet the entire program rests on the head of  me- an American regular ed. classroom teacher. When I have voiced my concerns, I have been told, “ What you will create will be better than nothing.”  Again, is that good enough for teachers and children?

This is an interesting dilemma I have seen in some Indian educational NGOs.

In the U.S., the education sector is highly regulated. Even in progressive schools and charters, there are certain protocols, expectations and “best practices” that schools not only are expected to partake in, but are legally mandated to do. Special education programs fall under this umbrella and children with special needs are entitled by law to certain interventions and therapies for a set time period during the week. Schools that fail to give these children their “minutes” can and will be prosecuted. On top of that, even charter schools have their students take the state tests and are held accountable for their charter every 5 years during a charter renewal process. If they are not achieving at certain levels, their school can be closed down. Yet even with these strict regulations, the US public education system is still failing many of its neediest communities. Even with all of this regulation, we aren’t “good enough” to our teachers and children.

India on the other hand, has a burgeoning NGO school sector that functions much like US charter schools (they get the public building and state curriculum, but can do much of the rest on their own). They have much freedom in the way they can structure their schools, hire their teachers (Although the Right to Education Act is going to curtail this flexibility) and assess their students. Yet, with this freedom comes a responsibility to hold themselves accountable for their shortcomings-to see whether or not their teachers are actually teaching and their students are actually learning. Many are using  effective monitoring and evaluation practices to do so. Some NGOs hire outside monitoring and evaluation specialists to make sure they are doing what they tell their donors they’re doing-and if they fail, they open up about it privately and publicly. A public health NGO that one of the AIF fellows currently works with, reported some of their shortcomings in their donor newsletter in order to be transparent and learn from their mistakes. However, because of fears of losing funding, this is also an area where I am seeing some NGOs fall very short. Without being forced to hold themselves accountable, many choose not to look at their own failures in order to be better.

At an educational NGO I visited that will remain anonymous, I asked about literacy assessments and how they know their students are really learning to read. Without a structured formal assessment system in place, the NGO worker told me, “What we know is that children here are happy. This is better than anything they would have gotten at a government school”.   Like the response I got when feeling inadequate about my project I asked myself, “Is  ‘better than nothing, good enough?”

I have a hard time swallowing it.

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