Every now and then, we come across a teacher who goes beyond the call of duty for their students. 'Teachers Who Transform' is TNM's five-part series, honouring the teachers who go the extra mile to understand their students, their unique needs and difficulties, and provide them with education that goes beyond academics. This is the second story in the series.
The journey begins at 7.30 in the morning. KR Ushakumari takes a scooty from her house in Amburi to Kumbikkal Kadavu in Thiruvananthapuram. She then helps row a boat to the shore across, unless there are other passengers at that early hour. Then, she begins a long trek. It’s alright the first two kilometres. But after that, it’s uphill for another two kilometres. Holding a stick, she walks up the hill with a few children who join her along the way, in school uniform.
Ushakumari is the lone teacher at the Agasthya Ega Adhyapaka Vidyalaya, Kunnathumala, in the Agasthyarkoodam Biosphere. She has been taking this journey for 16 years now. Before that it was another single-teacher school in Kottoor.
“The government began the single teacher schools in the tribal areas of Thiruvananthapuram, back in 1999. It was there in other places like Malappuram even before that,” Ushakumari says at the end of a long day, when she finally reaches home by 8 in the evening.
Some days when it rains heavily or when she feels unwell, Ushakumari stays at one of her students’ homes. Otherwise it may not be possible to come back the next day. She is not just the only teacher, she also takes care of all the school needs – including getting the lunch time meals for the kids with egg and milk. “There is a caretaker who comes to cook the kanji (porridge). She would open the school and serve it to the children if I am on leave. A group from MG College provides for the breakfast of these kids, they have been doing that for three years now,” Ushakumari says.
The school has classes from 1 to 4, and Usha has to teach all the subjects. Maths, English, Language and Environment Studies. She also has to nurture their extracurricular activities, culturals and sports. “It is really important to make them competent, for after this, they go to regular public schools in the city and study with children who have been there,” Usha says.
Nearly all her students finish their high school and pass their tenth standard board examination. But after that, there is a problem. “Girls could go on with their studies, to college and all, because there are hostel facilities for them. But boys often come back after their tenth, not finding any hostel facilities, unless they go to faraway places. They would go back to their old ways,” the teacher says sadly.
The old ways would mean taking up odd jobs or helping their folks with their work. In the early years, it was not easy for Usha to convince the parents to send their children to the school. “The kids too would not be interested. They would go with their parents to farm. The books we get them would be put to fire! We used to visit every home and talk to the parents about the importance of school education.”
At some point, it must have worked, for today, the parents are just as keen to send their children to study. They would come for the PTI meetings and ask after their child’s progress.
The children too are interested. Usha teacher remembers one of her wards – Jayachandran – who had difficulty in speaking. He had cleft lips and didn’t seem interested to study. But the teacher kept trying and in the third grade, he began reading his lessons. “I realised he likes vehicles so I would bring him pictures of cars and buses and this made him very happy. By the fourth standard, he could read very well. I told him I should get an award for trying so hard. The next day he brought me a packet of ‘puli’ (tamarind). I asked him what’s this for and he said that was my award! I can’t tell you how good that felt. When I saw his grandpa, I asked about this and he had no idea the child did this. So he did it on his own – to him, that’s what an award meant,” Usha says.
The teacher has however got other awards too. Back in the 80s when she worked with PN Panicker, known as the Father of the Library movement in Kerala, for the education of the elderly, Usha won Saksharatha Puraskaram from KANFED (Kerala Association for Nonformal Education and Development). She was in her tenth grade then but the project got her interested in social work. Finishing her studies, she worked as a field volunteer to find children who were not getting an education and bring them to school. She sent an application when she learned about the single-teacher projects the government was starting.
It was a little scary in the beginning, going through the woods. She has heard of elephants coming down, of leopards. Luckily she has not come across any all these years, and there would always be warnings.
But Usha really hopes these schools would be able to hire more than one teacher. It becomes too much for a single person to handle everything, one needn’t be proficient in all the subjects either. “But few would come for that kind of salary when there is so much to travel inside the forest for, and take care of many needs.” Usha suffers when her salary comes late, sometimes after two or three months. She has to take her own money to get milk and eggs for the children’s meals sometimes. But despite all that, Usha has never felt like leaving. The children are too close to her, and she to them. It is now 14 kids in the school. Usha feels good to hear of her students finishing their degrees and getting good jobs. She is going to go on, with the treks and the boats every day, as long as she can.
(All photos are by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)
Read the other stories in 'Teachers Who Transform' here: