Dharmesh Ramanuj obtained a B.Ed. degree (with English) and joined a high school in Talaja in 1994. His mother was a primary school teacher, and has been a major source ofinspiration for him. Inspired by her work, and building on his desire to contribute to thereal challenges in primary schools, he gave up the high school teaching job and joined asvidyasahayak, opting to work in a very difficult village. When he joined the school, heencountered almost all types of challenges. He studied them under four categories:problems inside the classroom; problems of the school; teachers’ problems and problemsrelated to the village. He listed about 100 questions and made a separate file for actionand follow-up.
 He also discussed the file with a few social workers. He started with the community. He held gram sabha meetings and informed the villagersabout what he was doing and wanted to do. Also, he maintained systematic contact withthe village community outside school hours. The village was a little way into the sea andduring high tide could not be reached. No official was prepared to visit it; the badreputation of the village was also a problem. Dharmesh spoke to the TDO and DDO andgot sanctions for new rooms. These were built. During this time, only  Vidyasahayakteachers (para teachers) were being recruited. He requested the authorities that he beallowed to talk to the potential teachers. The DPEO saw that he was serious.
 Dharmeshexplained his proposal to the group of recruits, honestly described the challenges and
asked for volunteers. Seven young men from prosperous regions of the statevolunteered. He took them to the village, before they could even be formally appointed. A newly recruited teacher, Rajesh, heard about this, and he also requested that he betransferred to the new group. In short, these young teachers gave up more comfortablysituated locations, and agreed to undergo some struggle. This generated a newenthusiasm in Dharmesh and his students.
There were students who avoided the school as they had to walk long distances. Theyused to leave home for school but go off to play in the sea. Some of them had stoppedstudying for five years. Many of them were addicted to different tobacco products. Parents were indifferent to their education. The teachers’ first task was to regularizesuch children. They listed all of them, and then visited every child. They talked to theparents, and agreed to come to their houses to collect the children. Dharmesh alsotargeted the more mischievous students, and divided mentoring responsibilitiesamongst the teachers. All this meant that the teachers had to leave their homes at 5.30 inthe morning. No one minded. They also had to spend Sundays and other holidays oncommunity work. This was their first major success. As they went along, the list ofproblems or questions to be addressed increased to  250. This detailed problemidentification, and the attempt to solve related problems together, have helped theteachers deal with close to 150 in a matter of a few years. A few illustrative ones are described below.
Cleanliness and Student Uniform:
Given the background of the village, Dharmesh decided to redefine the understandingof a student. The usual assumptions about home support could not be made. He took up 9the responsibility of giving a bath to these children, combing their hair, cutting their hairand nails, and stitching torn clothes or buttons. After school teaching hours, some timewas formally set aside for hair cutting and baths. This created curiosity among thevillagers. Sometimes the stitching work went on into the night. Some older students ofthe upper primary classes began to do such work on their own—this was Dharmesh’sintention, the students did not need to be told. This was important in creating anidentity about which the students would be proud. It attracted everyone’s attention inthe village, and the work became well known in the entire district. The children frequently required a lot of attention in health matters. They requiredregular treatment for different ailments like cold, cough, eye inflammation, mouth ulcer, toothache, pus in the ear, boils, and minor injuries caused by some accident or thorns.
Dharmesh used to give primary treatment for such problems in the school itself. Thiswas a great relief to the children as well as parents. This facility of first aid is nowavailable for the villagers also. Now, “If you have headache, go to the school teacher.” Inthe absence of health facilities, such a social worker role from a teacher has a greatimpact on educational performance.
Confusion of Class 1 Students:
Dharmesh used to teach children letters and numbers using different shapes. But theproblem was that those who knew numbers 1 to 100 did not know the letters and thosewho knew the alphabet did not know numbers. He thought this problem over for abouttwo weeks and evolved a simple method to teach numbers and the alphabet. He wrotenumbers 1 to 9 in one column. Now the alphabets were grouped according to theirshapes and these groups were written before the numbers.  For example:
1 - th (as in thaliyo), dh (as in dhol), th (as in thor)
2 - kh, g, ch, jh, t (tali), n (nagni fen), r, sh, s, gn
3 - gh, chh, d, dh (dhiraj)
4 - j, m
5 - p, y, v, sh
6 - k, d, ph, h, kh
8 - t, n, l (nal)
9 - b, bh, l
Thus the children could learn both numbers and alphabets.
About the Classroom and the SchoolThere was a great need for constant backup support for students. Dharmesh decided toevolve a timetable for ‘homework’ in the teachers’ houses, since parental support wasnot available. Due to this intensive teaching, the academic standard improved to someextent. In these  ‘night group schools’, the focus has been on extending topics inmathematics, science, Hindi and English which have been taught in school. Oneoutcome was that the children started to collect information related to the varioussubjects on their own, and made models and charts for display.  10
The school needed to be equipped for good teaching. Hence, the teachers decided tocollect five rupees from each of the roughly 200 households as a donation. But thepeople had already assessed their work, and much to their surprise, Dharmesh and hiscolleagues collected Rs. 25000! Elders whose memories went back to pre-independencetimes pointed out that this was the first time that the villagers had collectively pooledsome money. The resources were used to buy sports equipment, books and somelaboratory instruments for science. With this breakthrough, the village school was on theroad to achieving sustainable outcomes. Dharmesh was then requested by aneighbouring village to revive a school that was on its deathbed. The village was a twosquare kilometre island. He prepared a plan, and since 2001 he has been stationed there.
Here also he has done something similar, combining school and children’s identitydevelopment, creative teaching, and community mobilisation. He also spottedopportunities which would enhance the identity and reputation of the school, andworked in that direction. When he came to know about a science fair in the area, he wasdetermined to participate and secure first place. The children worked hard for 40 daysand secured first place in four events out of seven, second place in two events and thirdplace in one event. In the district level science fair, the school stood second in two eventsand a boy of the school secured the first position in the elocution competition. Themodel and presentation of underground irrigation systems in arid areas attracted theattention of the District Agriculture Officer who came down to visit the exhibition. Suchevents have added to the children’s motivation and desire to do something different andrecognizable. Thus, both in the Chanch Bandar Prathmik Shala (from 1999 to 2001) and SiyalbetPrathmik Shala, Dharmesh has taken up many activities which apparently look likesocial welfare and family welfare. But he believes that all of them have direct or indirect implications for classroom and school affairs and that they are essential for school development and building bridges between school and community. Through his schools.he has successfully worked on issues like alcoholism, and addiction to gambling, tobacco and opium. He has facilitated the creation of alternative livelihoods for local liquor producers, and considers these the “most blessed moments of my life.” Since 2003, Dharmesh has been part of a new education program, under which he has been appointed as a traveling teacher for Rajula block. So he is able to work in all the schools of block.
Work at Machhipura:
In 2007 Dharmesh was transferred to Machhipura Primary School at Khambhat. There were 16 teachers and 545 students. The teaching was focused on in-class instruction and most of the teaching-learning material was lying unused. The children belonged to the scheduled castes or other backward classes. They were mainly interested in becoming polishers in the gems industry. Primary education did not enthuse them; even their parents did not seem to be interested. Dharmesh repeated his earlier experiment of maintaining cleanliness. He made a time table and planning sheet, which described the places/areas to be cleaned, time, number of children, and tools to be used. The children had to come 30 minutes before school and do these activities. The response was extraordinarily good. Dharmesh then added several daily activities like school 11 decoration, arranging the bulletin board, rangoli, writing a thought for the day, decoration of stage for prayer assembly etc.
With this success, Dharmesh decided to tackle the parents. The biggest hurdle was deciding a venue for the meeting.  Each community wanted the meeting to be held at its locality. Finally, he fixed the school as the venue and persuaded the parents to come for a meeting. The meeting became a complaint session. Dharmesh and his co-teachers realized that many of the complaints had a past history and were genuine. During their reflection on this meeting, the teachers also started complaining about the parents and the children.  Finally, one of the teachers intervened and helped the group adopt a positive attitude to improve the school.
Dharmesh then made a series of educational plans and called a second meeting with the parents. This meeting was attended by the leaders of different communities, parents,  presidents of school-related committees, teachers, BRC and CRC coordinators, an educational inspector and some students. The school principal, Kanuben welcomed the invitees. Dharmesh then referred to the problems the parents had raised earlier and presented the solutions. The school would implement the period system; every teacher would be responsible for teaching one subject. In return, the parents were expected to spare some time from gem cutting and polishing, control television viewing at home, ensure regularity of the children and take an interest in checking the children’snotebooks. After 40 days there would be a review; daily reports maintained during this period would be the basis for the review.  The manner in which the agreement was reached made the students, the parents and the teachers more diligent. The improvement was noticed in a few days time. The educational inspectors also took an interest and visited the school more often.  The 40-day period came to be termed as vaali satra (parents’ term).
From their side, the teachers took the following initiatives:
1. Free tuitions: Dharmesh taught the younger students (Class 1-4) in school and the olderones at his home, for five hours a day (7-10 am and 5.30-7.30pm), so that their learning levels could go up in a short time. He used tests of letters, numbers, words, sentences paragraphs, science experiments, essay, and mathematical formulae to motivate the children. He also paired a bright student with a slow learner. Children responded well.  He called the older children to his home to keep them away from their parents who would have otherwise forced them to work on gem polishing in the evening.
2. Checking the notebooks: Since some errors were common to most children, and teachers did not have the time to write down their comments on all notebooks, Dharmesh prepared rubber stamps of comments/instructions. The parents found this approach interesting. The children were also made to check each other’s notebooks.
3. Night rounds and home visits: These visits were carried out between 8.30 and 10 in the evening. The math and science teachers accompanied Dharmesh on these visits. Theparents found this initiative novel.12
4. Voluntary ban on use of tape recorder, TV:  Dharmesh persuaded on parent to disconnect his cable TV connection for 10 days when children had to study for their exams. Other parents followed this example. Another problem was that the parents used to play songs very loudly on tape recorders while doing their home-based gem cutting and polishing work. This problem was also solved. The local MLA came to know about the school, and decided to spend some time with the children. He attended one of Dharmesh’s classes and then met the Class 7 children privately. He was impressed and later provided a computer to the school.
The second meeting with the parents, after 40 days, was successful. There was more open discussion, and parents agreed to help out in a variety of ways. After this breakthrough, Dharmesh decided to focus on the quality of education. All the TLM ofthe school was reviewed and organized. One room was allotted for science, since it was becoming difficult to carry the equipment from room to room. Two iron tables were obtained from the people. A list of all the tools needed was made, and students motivated to collect whatever they could. One key lesson that Dharmesh learned as a result of these activities was the need for having clear plans.
He and his co-teachers made two kinds of plans:
1.      School’s educational plan: The educational plan covered the term-wise schedule of the syllabus, annual planning, six monthly planning, term planning, monthly planning, weekly planning, daily planning, unit test schedule, schedule/planning of activity based evaluation and oral tests, planning/schedule of projects, TLM development, planning of essay writing, planning of co-curricular activities, and the Math-science activity schedule.
        2. Physical development planning: Plans were made for the infrastructure required. The teachers decided to approach a few donors for the funds needed. One person donated Rs. 15000. Others gave smaller amounts. Though these funds were not sufficient, abeginning had been made. The results of the educational plan are evident in the systematic use of the computer, which is used to show songs, games, science documentaries, games, cartoon films etc.
The functioning of the various school committees is another indication. These committees include committees for cleanliness, prayer, yoga, science, sports, decoration, math, language, health, gardening, celebration, library, tours /picnics, parental communication, and report writing. Projects, about 100 a year, are also carried out systematically.
Dharmesh attributes most of the success obtained to the night meetings with parents which he initiated. “All of our planning and achievements were always discussed with parents and community leaders in such meetings. We also invited the MLA, teachers of PTC colleges, CRC coordinators, BRC coordinators and social workers to these meetings.”


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