Leadership - Managing Hardships, Growing Continuously and Empowering Others

Until we do what we do keeping teachers in focus, there will not be any change. Child centric education is a must but not at the cost of teachers.” With many others, he was part of the long term agitation demanding the regularisation of contract teachers and spent a month in jail for the same.

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Sunil Kumar Sir’s story is nothing short of a hindi film – full of drama, spruced up with both heartwarming and shocking plot twists, moments of sacrifice and with opportunities to witness and celebrate success. I got to interact with him on my maiden trip to learn about the Punjab state education system and the conversation reminded me why I chose to join the education sector and have stayed since. This is his story, of how someone who started his professional journey as a newspaper vendor is today driving sustainable change in the education ecosystem in the state of Punjab.

All Roads Lead to Change

Sunil Kumar Sir was part of the National Cadet Corps when he was in college. He had harboured dreams of joining the army and dedicating his life to the nation. He received ample guidance during the time, but could not clear the NDA (National Defence Academy) exam.

Around the same time, teaching was a sought after role in the area he grew up in and it seemed everyone was preparing for it. When his friends also coaxed him to appear for B.Ed entrance exams, he did and securing a meritorious 6th rank, went ahead to pursue the graduation. This was a small start of his transformative career in education. Coming from a poor economic background, Sunil Sir also wanted to contribute to the family’s income as soon as he could. As a B.Ed. student, he sold newspapers, took coaching classes and even took up a security guard job. Even though he continued to perform well in college, the expectation was to start earning as soon as possible. After his graduation, he signed up for a masters diploma course in computers. This was in 2004.

However, in the following years, he continued to engage in the education sector only – both as a student and a teacher – he completed his M.Ed, M.Phil. and started teaching in a B.Ed. college. Everywhere, he continued to get exposed to the gaps in our education system. That’s what led to what was to follow – upon some insistence from peers and teachers, he took up the role of a school teacher in 2009. 

Stepping into Schools

Sunil Sir got to be the teacher at a couple of schools in Punjab. Everywhere, the challenges were aplenty, diverse, which he was not prepared for. There was no school building and hence no classrooms for students to sit in, moreover there were no students to sit in the classroom either. 

“The reality is that as a teacher you must have management skills as well. Being a school head (which he was in a single teacher school) is even more demanding as you are managing the entire school and not just a classroom.” He had to get the school building constructed twice, negotiating with and managing a slew of vendors. “I was incharge of the grants and spending it judiciously – I had to buy ration and ensure mid day meals for the children, get the school cleaned, run behind the painter, the shutter vendor, the list was endless.” 

Getting the students to come to school and learn was a challenge too. The area Sunil Sir taught in had not had exposure and access to opportunities, and thus parents did not send their children to school. “There were only 5-7 students in the school. I wanted to change that. What eventually got the children to class was a meeting with the Panchayat. You have to play a lot of roles as a teacher – you are not just teaching in a classroom. I mentioned that I came from the same background as their children and can support them to build a better future.”

With time and consistent efforts and further conversations with parents, students began turning up to school. And slowly, Sunil Sir developed a close relationship with his students who came with different learning abilities. He, in an emotionally charged voice, narrated an instance of a student with special abilities, neglected by others, who progressed in their learning, because of his consistent attention and support.

The administrative pressures were a roadblock and he continuously wanted to change that as well. We must allow the teachers to think for themselves, experiment and design the learning environment and pathways for children as they see fit – since they are the ones working day in and day out with them. Our role (as school and administrative leaders) should be limited to providing guidance in the form of materials and curriculum.” 

He came upon the opportunity to bring this change in a baffling way. During a seminar, he was asked to teach English despite being a Social Sciences teacher without any preparation at all. “All you need is a chalk and a board to engage the students.” He ably taught the students and was able to hold their attention for a long time. This brought him to the notice of the team at the state level. Within 20 days, he was assigned the role of Block Master Trainer (BMT). 

Driving Change at Scale

In his role as the BMT, Sunil Sir got to further build an understanding of challenges and mindsets for teachers as he visited umpteen number of schools. His own beliefs around providing autonomy to teachers to design learning pathways and streamline responsibilities got reinforced as a BMT. He also felt that in order to bring change, the shifts have to happen at the top (administrative level) and in his role, he would be able to achieve that. And he did.

There has been no looking back since then. He soon got a larger responsibility as the District Resource Person – Social Sciences, Mohali. He was able to break the myth that activities are possible only with Science subjects and introduced them in the Social Sciences classrooms. He organised Social Science exhibitions and competitions in the region.

He soon was elevated to the role of State Resource Person in the Padho Punjab Padhao Punjab team and is a State Coordinator for SCERT-Punjab. “Developing research attitude as a teacher is necessary – it is a route to identify, analyse and understand the school problems and hence find a solution for them. If I have found a solution, I should document it – and share it with others who are facing the same problem (SCERT-Punjab undertakes the same process).” Sunil Sir has been an active member who has enthusiastically worked on and submitted ample research and recommendation papers which have been quite resourceful for the department. 

One of the major research undertaken was the one which identified about 230 challenges for students and teachers in the learning process in collaboration with Punjabi University, Patiala. The findings of this are being used by the department in design guidelines and recommendations for the stakeholders – it includes something as simple as checking homework daily and having siblings at home who also study.

“Until we do what we do keeping teachers in focus, there will not be any change. Child centric education is a must but not at the cost of teachers.” With many others, he was part of the long term agitation demanding the regularisation of contract teachers and spent a month in jail for the same. The sacrifices were not in vain and the demands were met. As a result of the team’s efforts, 8500 teachers have fixed jobs today.

Currently, the department is working on modifying & adopting the School Quality Assessment and Assurance Framework for the state of Punjab. Sunil Sir, equipped with his knowledge and aptitude for driving improvements, is leading the initiative which will be in turn used by the school leaders and encourage self evaluation, accountability, and innovation to drive improvements in their schools.

Sunil Sir sits on the sixth floor in the State School Education Department in Mohali. During the few hours that I spent with him, many people approached him with their problems and he did not turn anyone away. There were students and parents looking for directions to collect or get their certificates modified, his colleagues seeked his counsel and help, he attended meetings, a NCERT training and in the middle of this, also made time to share his story with me. 

I hope to be able to carry the same spirit and energy with which he operates everyday.

Luv Kumar

Luv Kumar

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