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Shyamala does not have much to do at home after her two children have grown up, so she takes up teaching at the neighborhood school. The pay is decent and hours manageable. Shyamala scraped through college with a second-class degree. Now, she must finish a vast syllabus filled with difficult topics. She rushes through it by dictating from her textbook while her students take notes. There are days when unexpected houseguests, festivals, and children's examinations mean Shyamala cannot go to school.
Sushmita found a well-paying software job after her engineering degree. But after two years, writing code seems repetitive and lacking in meaning. She resigns from her position and decides to teach in a school in her hometown, taking a big salary cut. Sushmita wakes up excited to go to school, even though most of her students struggle to learn. She has hooked up her mobile phone to her old laptop to show math and science videos on YouTube to her students. She often stays up late to read reference books to prepare for her lessons. Her parents worry how long she can continue in a low-paying job.
Most debates about the falling quality of school education in India end up in two competing narratives. I call them the “Bad Teacher” vs. the “Good Teacher."
The "Bad Teacher" narrative casts teachers like Shyamala as incompetent, under-motivated and delinquent. In contrast, the "Good Teacher" narrative celebrates teachers like Sushmita as hardworking and committed heroes who deliver despite an unrewarding system. However, most real teachers fall somewhere between these fictionalised extremes.
In India, we have mostly tried a stick-and-carrot approach with our teachers. Schools have been trying to hold the so-called “bad teachers” accountable by installing cameras in the classroom. The pay commission raised wages to attract the so-called “good teachers." The results are mixed at best. Teacher pay in developing countries is neither linked to their skills nor students' performance, concludes a recent study by Justin Sandefur at the Center for Global Development. Yet, the evidence is growing that high-quality teachers generate large socio-economic returns throughout a student’s life.