Through this year our team has been engaged with government teacher’s training in Uttar Pradesh for libraries in schools. We have now trained 100 teachers, which is a big number for a small team as ours but a drop in the ocean for the state. Training teachers seems to be ‘the magic wand’ in the education sector. For everything that we want to improve for our children and schools we believe that teachers can make it happen. In one of the trainings a teacher asked us, ‘Why it’s always the teacher? Why so much expectation from the teacher?’ We can simply say because that’s what teachers can do and schools are for. But I agree with the teacher. They need the system to support the training with resources such as books and art material, time, freedom and space to make it all happen. Currently, many states do not even have a period for the library or enough allocation for procurement of ‘good books’. This reminded me of a chapter from Krishna Kumar’s ‘The political agenda of education’. In the chapter titled ‘Meek Dictator: the paradox of teacher’s personality’ the teacher is referred to as ‘a powerless subordinate in the hierarchy of the education department’. During one of our trainings we had some block level officers visit and tell teachers they must do what they are being trained for. But how teachers would move ahead on that ‘order’ was vague.
Trainings are a time when you also get to know teachers personally, as human beings beyond the classroom and school. And beyond what you have read and heard about them. Even before we met them we knew that out there is a hard ground to break. Talking about libraries and children’s literature is often seen as an additional task parallel to the already loaded school schedule. It is made difficult with inadequate human resources and few books. As a trainer one assumes that teachers will resist. The reason – they are burdened by the many hats they wear. But we go with the belief that teachers are the best people to reach children. And that perhaps the magic of books would work!
During a teacher training one often knows what to expect. But it is hard to know what the trainee group may actually be like and whether your plan will work. There are often some tough nuts to crack. But there is also a small committed bunch who give you hope with their new-found engagement with books and literature. New-found for most.
When teachers enter the training venue, there is often an expectation of a lecture, of being static, of finishing on time, of tea breaks and mobile breaks. But Parag library trainings fail to meet any of these expectations. Our library trainings are as vibrant as our libraries, with activities, group work, discussions, and many stories and books to read. This happens at every training – teachers sit idle looking at their mobile or talking. Once they play the Treasure Hunt game that involves identifying books with the help of clues, the training hall is energised, and teachers are not passive anymore. Through the course of the day they engage at various levels.
A very contentious session in these trainings is talking about essential elements for a Library. We begin by talking about our own experiences of a library. No one is surprised to hear that most teachers have never experienced a library ever, or until college. But we stretch our minds to remember what that space was like for those who have had some experience, and what it meant. What was the librarian like, her face, and what books did we pick? As everyone’s memory collectively opens up to the absence of the library experience there is the idea of library waiting to be discovered.
We move ahead for people to imagine — now that they have the chance to create the experience of a library for their children — what they would want the library to be like; what are the elements they think are essential for a library. Trainees get into groups and make notes about essential elements. Each group shares its points and these are noted on the board. The board tells us we are struggling for basic resources such as drinking water, toilets, electricity, classrooms, a place to sit, and even a person, a librarian and we never reach the stage of ‘good books’. With some prompting we do cover other elements and almost always able to group these words into 6 elements: People, Space, Interaction, Collection, Activities and Admin/Management. Next it is time to prioritize these and then comes the great debate. Management and space always top the list. We debate and recall the libraries we knew, the public libraries which have space and all administrative requirements but no people and no vibrancy. Everyone is forced to reflect. Can anything happen without ‘people’? Can a library exist without interaction? There is confusion, debate and time to re-examine. The wonderful thing is that among these teachers from the same district, facing the same situations there are multiple views on what should be prioritized. We calm everyone to sit for a story ‘The Biblioburro’ by Jeanette Winter that brings a moment of silence in the room. People ask us if there is a final order of priority, if there is a right answer.
We don’t have a definitive answer for them but we dialogue about our priorities. It is a good start that this tension prevails and this discussion has begun. Biblioburro leaves an impact. Teachers are surprised that this is a real story. That someone didn’t care about so many challenges but only about spreading the love for reading. And that nothing is too important to stop children from reading books.