Over 8000 young people, 8068 students committed suicide in India during 2014. Each life snuffed out must have smiled and laughed, played with friends in the sun, shared their tiffin box with others. They must have rushed home after school, been scolded for playing too much, told to do better by all who wished them well. Now, they are a statistic. A number that marks stress levels in the education system of India. One more, one step up for stress.
Each one of them would have had a different story. But each one of them gave up in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Examinations, marks, results – being judged would have loomed large over them. Do more, study harder, work it! You can do it, see – everybody else does! Your time for fun and play is over, now grow up! It is your performance that matters, if you don’t get through the exam, what will you do? Your dream life is over, you can never make it if you don’t get it right now!
I can hear a thousand parents, teachers and more in these exhortations. I can hear myself in them. We love our children, we care about our students. We really want them to do better, do their best. We want them to win. Here we stand, goad in hand, pushing them along. See it worked for another, surely we are doing this for the good of our child? Of course we care, that’s why we push them. Would I push a stranger’s child, I don’t care for strangers – why would I say anything to them? This is their chance to make it big, it is time for the leap. So they leap. Some make it, some do not.
Because we ask them to leap. And there is only one leap to make.
We fail them, not because we ask them to do better. But because we forget to remind them that if they fall, there is a chance to rise and try again. That there is no such thing as a last chance. Did they know that there is always another chance?
We fail them, because we did not set up the other chances well. Other chances were not good enough, we blinkered them out as we carved a path for them to walk. Did they even know how to carve a path?
We failed them because, we defined failure as the end, and gave them no room to come back to learn and try again. Did they know that they could rise again and each time, that failure was only a learning moment?
We fail them, because we set limits on their success. We defined success so narrowly that they could only see through the tunnel vision we built for them. Did they even know that success had many faces?
And yet you, who failed the IIT entrance exam, did you not do well for yourself? And you, who did not become a doctor, did you not find another path for yourself? You, who had aimed to get a scholarship and study abroad, did you not find friends, learning and another way for yourself? Where did these stories of success get told? We see them around us everyday, as they smile at us as we meet them at socials, as we engage with them at work. To live a life with love and care is success.
It is not easy for anyone of us to understand the complete despair that surrounds a child, the utter futility of it all that seems unending. It is beyond human reasoning, beyond us who made different choices but it is what these students face. This is what makes solutioning for it difficult. India barely has enough teachers for it’s schools, where will it find the resources for each student to receive trained pastoral care? Do it’s teachers have time for kindness? For empathy?
Its teachers teach to the syllabus, they push their students to succeed in rote learning exams – how can they allow themselves the kindness that will reduce learning outcomes? The same teachers who will be judged on the basis of student performance must know that each child cannot be ‘brilliant’ as defined by narrow marks. That one laggard student who is in the mood for music (or space research) when they should be memorising the commas in a series of definitions – that student is no use to the teacher’s survival and reputation. Where is the room for that child?
The systemic response to this stress has been to make the class X (age 16) national examination optional and to remove examinations as criteria for progress to the next class up to class VIII (Age 4-14). The former merely evades the issue, the latter (often debated as the no detention policy) has faced much opposition. It is said to reduce stress for the years it is in force only at the cost of learning outcomes which are clearly revealed at the age of 15 (Class IX) as cohorts take their first examinations.
A system that is used to only performing under duress does not know how to perform without pressure. It fails the student, laying the entire burden on the student in the last four years of schooling. This is where the mind begins to boggle – how does escapism solve the problem? Both steps merely seek to push the problem out of sight, they do not resolve anything for the students. If anything, students are now untrained for the one thing they had trained for – exam taking.
There will be no guarantees in any solution to this heartbreaking situation. But we have to try – and try with both head and heart. Students have to receive more support both inside school and outside – they need to be able to talk to trained professionals who help them identify multiple pathways to individual success. To insist that each child wear the same sized dress is ridiculous – similarly, it is ridiculous to assume that each learns or performs in the same manner.
There needs to be room for the individual to find meaningful success in different ways. Teachers too need to have more breathing room to perform all of their duties – and the duty of care comes first even before the duty to improve learning outcomes. Students need to know there are more, and more and another set of chances. Fine, you did not get into college at age 18, try again at 22, or age 25. Fine, you did not get into one university, here are ten other excellent colleges and universities available to you. But these have to be built.
To every one who is a teacher, an administrator, a policy maker or a leader in education, here is a question for you. With whatever you do, do you build hope and create a pathway to opportunity? If you do not, then you are liable here in student suicides. Each time a teacher is absent without good reason, each time a school gets lazy and allows rote learning, each time a counsellor gets judgmental, each time a researcher plagiarises, each time a professor insists on old and set ways of doing things – you are killing hope and opportunity.
Each time a policy maker stops the building of new universities or insists that the faculty be restricted to the current inadequate standards, you are killing opportunity. Each time you insist that there is only one ‘best’, you are dimming the light. You, you are educators. It is your job to keep the light on for each and every student. The light of hope and opportunity. #KhabarLive