by Uma Vishnu - Indian Express

If I am your class teacher, I know everything about you. I am supposed to,” says Tathagata Dutta. Only minutes ago, the 31-year-old English teacher at The Shri Ram School, Gurgaon, had given a quick demonstration of those skills. Walking past a student in her football jersey, he had softly asked: “So, whom did you lose to?” “What do you mean? How do you know?” she had squealed, stunned that Dutta already knew that minutes ago, the school team had lost an inter-school match.

After that briefly triumphal moment, Dutta settles down to talk about what it feels to be a “minority” at the workplace. Dutta, class teacher of X G, says he is among eight male teachers in the senior staffroom of over a 100, a numerical disadvantage he tackles by “being asexual in the classroom”.

“I tell my students, both boys and girls, that I am their first port of call. And that they can reach out to me, whatever their problems. I talk to them like any class teacher, man or woman, would. So, if I think the skirts are getting too short, for instance, I would point that out. Or, if there is, say, PDA happening, I call out: ‘No Chipko movement here’. If you are uncomfortable about a male teacher telling you that, and if that helps resolve the situation, great,” says Dutta, an Arsenal fan who admits to sharing notes on the football team with his students.

He jokes that his students pay back, calling him names when he hangs out with the few other men in the staffroom. “They call us Powerpuff Boys, OTP (One True Pairing)…” he says with a smile.

The writing has been on the blackboard for a while now: staffroom numbers, more so in primary classes and in private schools, are stacked in favour of women. According to the NCERT’s 8th All India School Education Survey (AIES), the most recent, and which has September 2009 as its base year, women account for 69.1 per cent of primary school teachers in urban areas, though the table turns in rural areas, where 60.14 per cent are male. But there are wide regional variations. States such as Tamil Nadu (74.77 per cent) and Kerala (76.08 per cent), riding on the back of policies that promote women in teaching jobs, record a high percentage of women primary teachers in rural areas. Though the all-India number for primary male teachers still hovers around 54.55 per cent, it has been steadily dipping — from 66.4 per cent in 1993 (6th AIES) to 61.98 per cent in 2002 (7th AIES).

This is not just India’s reality. According to Unesco data for 2015, 64.1 per cent of primary teachers worldwide are women — 86.9 per cent in the UK (2013), 87.16 per cent in the US (2014). Much of the research and conversation in the West have revolved around concerns that boys were “failing” or “underachieving” because of what has been termed the growing feminisation of education — the argument that increased numbers of women in teaching jobs has made teaching, and, even the content that is being taught, more feminine. In countries such as the UK, USA and Australia, a section of policymakers and educationists see this gender imbalance in classrooms as the reason behind aggressive behaviour in boys who grow up without male role models.

So, where are the male teachers? And what does their absence mean in the Indian context?

“In India, the social construct is such that men are seen as the providers — and in most cases, they are the ones bringing food to the table. One of the reasons you don’t find too many men in this profession is because teaching in India is still a low-paying job. That’s also the reason you find more male teachers in the government sector, which has the Seventh Pay Commission and all the perks of a sarkari job, as opposed to private schools, many of which haven’t implemented the Pay Commission,” says Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, in Delhi, and who has chaired the National Progressive Schools’ Conference (NSSC), an umbrella body of over 300 private schools in Delhi.

She says that at a conference of teachers she once attended, the only men in the room were a few maths teachers. “Even among the small percentage of male teachers in private schools, they are mostly maths or science teachers because these are subjects where you can scaffold your income with tuitions,” says Wattal.

“Scaffolding” is what Narayan G Sharma, 35, does when he sets out on his bicycle every day for home tuitions. The maths teacher at a private school in east Delhi earns Rs 4,000 a month; he relies heavily on the Rs 10,000-odd that he earns from tuitions. School managements don’t encourage private tuitions, but Sharma is unapologetic about it. “Toh kya? Char hazaar mein koi ghar kaise chala sakta hai? (So what? How can anyone run a household with Rs 4,000?)” he says. He doesn’t have a BEd degree, “par experience hai”. He taught for years in private schools in his village Sukhbehra in UP’s Ghazipur district, before moving to Delhi in 2007, when he took up jobs in low-cost schools. He says he needs his current school job for “publicity” – “you get more students for tuitions if you are attached to a school”.

Sharma returns from school around 1.45 pm and children start streaming in soon after. “I get 25-30 children at home, mostly from my school. I teach them for two hours, till 4 pm, after which I go for tuitions to four homes. The last gets over at 10.30 pm. I come home, eat and sleep,” he says, adding that he barely has time for his five-year-old daughter.

Ashok Agarwal, activist and advocate, who has frequently taken up pay-related cases for teachers, says there are 1.5 lakh people, both men and women, working in unaided private schools — “they are our educated, unorganised workforce,” he says. “The Delhi School Education Act, 1973, says the pay, allowances and benefits of employees of recognised private schools cannot be less than what government teachers of the corresponding status get. But, in reality, over 90 per cent of private schools don’t give Seventh or even the Sixth Pay Commission salaries. A primary teaching assistant in a government school in Delhi gets at least Rs 50,000 and a postgraduate teacher at least Rs 80,000. Compare this to private schools. Some pay as little as Rs 2,000,” he says. Agarwal also points to a CAG report from 2010, which revealed “how some schools pay a reasonable amount by cheque but take cash back from teachers.” “Of course, there are a few big private schools that pay well,” he says.

Besides poor pay, says educationist Vimala Ramachandran, who has worked extensively on elementary education, the missing male in the staffroom has largely to do with teaching being seen as a woman’s job. Many young girls have grown up hearing how it is the “best job for women” — “you get to manage your home and work”. “In India, the feminisation of education began in the 1970s. With growing aspirations, most families required a second income. Families wanted women to work as long as it was within the patriarchal framework, where responsibility towards the home was priority. And this was possible in teaching — you were back by the time the children were home,” Ramachandran says.

Meera Samson, co-director of the Collaborative Research and Dissemination (CORD), an independent education research group, says all of this has ensured that teaching, especially school teaching, ranks low on the list of sought-after professions. “During our field visits, many secondary school teachers, especially men, complained that it’s not easy to find suitors with a teaching job. At the school level, teaching isn’t seen as aspirational enough for men. That’s why you see more women and fewer men at the primary level, whereas at the higher levels — secondary and tertiary education — which are relatively better paying, the men dominate. But, on the whole, teaching, at least in urban areas, is seen as a low-prestige job,” she says.

It’s a battle he fought early on, says Abraar Ahmed, 37, maths teacher at Shiv Nadar School, Noida. “Most parents don’t want their children to be teachers. Mine didn’t either. My father wanted me to do civil services. I knew early on that that wasn’t for me. When I told my father that I wanted to do my BEd, he said he wouldn’t pay for it. So, I took tuitions to fund my course. I had stories to tell and I could have done that only through teaching,” says Ahmed, who continues to tell stories to explain mathematical concepts — such as of invading armies while on the subject of perimeter.

On the few occasions he has asked children if they wanted to be teachers, few hands went up. “That’s probably because teaching isn’t discussed as a career option in homes. There’s need for a social dialogue, which seems to be missing altogether. Unless that happens, teaching will be a profession people take up by chance or as a third or fourth option,” says Ahmed.

But the man-woman ratio is changing, says Namita Ranganathan, professor and head of Delhi University’s Central Institute of Education, which offers both BEd and MEd programmes. For the first time in several years, this academic session, CIE has more male students than female. “It’s about 60:40 in favour of men,” says Ranganathan, adding that most of her male students come from families where they are first-generation learners. “Teaching confers on them social sanction and respectability,” she says.

“After the Sixth Pay Commission, with reasonable salaries being paid at all levels, I see a reversal. And with tuition and coaching becoming big revenue generators, there are more men taking up teaching jobs. In some of the elite international schools, a lot of men now see opportunities because they get sent abroad for training and are paid very well. When men become teachers, they want to be principals, education officers… essentially, go beyond teaching to make a career in administration. With more such opportunities, I think we will see more men coming in,” says Ranganathan.

When schools push for more male teachers, they might do so because men are believed to be better at discipline. “When there are problems of children questioning authority, substance abuse etc., schools think men are better equipped to handle them. There’s some truth to that assumption because boys particularly are not scared of women’s authority — I don’t know whether you would trace it back to a patriarchal mindset. That’s why the PT teacher in most schools is this tough male authority,” says Ranganathan.

Mohit, 16, who this year dropped out of the government school he studied in, knows the “tough male teacher” only too well. This afternoon, he sits in the sweltering humidity of the basement of an apartment complex in east Delhi, where he and his family do the ironing, his head resting on a bundle of clothes waiting to be ironed. “Maine nahin chhoda school, naam kaat diya fail hone ke baad,” he says, looking up to explain how the government school in the neighbourhood struck his name off the rolls when he failed his Class IX exams.

He says he had few friends in schools, that some boys “high on drugs” bullied him. Didn’t he approach his teachers? “Unse kaun baat kar sakta hain? Takleef bolne ke liye jao to pair pe dande (Who talks to them? Go to them with your problems and you get caned),” he says, a wry smile creeping onto his lips. He says there were “several masterjis”, especially in the senior classes, but “madam ya masterji, they are all the same. Nobody listens if you have a problem… ”

There have been debates in the West that male teachers are vital role models for children, with surveys saying boys were more likely to approach a male teacher about bullying and questions about sexuality. Others, however, have argued that “lamenting” about the absence of a male role model in a boy’s life is a problematic and a conservative approach that simply reinforces and strengthens stereotypes.

It’s lunchtime at CIE and a group of BEd second-year students are out on the lawns. The discussion veers towards gendered roles and why teaching is not considered a proper career. “Log nahin chahte ki unke bete teacher bane, par beti ke liye bilkul theek hai. Teaching ko ek soft profession ke roop mein dekha jata hai (People don’t want their sons to be teachers, but think the job is just right for the daughters. Teaching is perceived as a soft profession),” says Ritu Kumar, a second-year BEd student from Mahendragarh in Haryana, whom her friends introduce as the “gender expert” on campus.

“But the reasons don’t exist in a vacuum. In the village I come from, a girl was molested by her male teacher for months, until she gathered courage and told her grandmother about it. The reason we have more women teachers, especially at the primary level, comes from this need: if I give my child to another person, in this case to the school or teacher, I want my child to be safe. Everything else comes later,” she says.

There are two women, three men in the group and all of them say teaching is their “first career preference”. Among them are Swati Malik, who only wants to work in private schools because government schools “mein accountability nahin hai (there is no accountability)”; Anshul who will only settle for a government teaching job; and Ankit Yadav from Nangloi, the first in his family to be a graduate and who bears the burden of their hopes — “my parents say somebody in the family should get a government job”.

Sitting on the edge of the granite table top, Shahangish Gupta, 22, from Ara in Bihar, says, “You have only spoken to us. But in our batch of 100, only 10 per cent want to be teachers. Nobody thinks it’s worth it.”

Dutta, the English teacher at The Shri Ram School, however, thinks it is. “Woman’s job or man’s, I have fun teaching. Now that I am here, I might as well know how to survive.”