anshu rearranging desks during the teachers' workshop

03.10.12 | discussing design ideas

We wanted to open up the design to the teachers and the parents, and so over the past week have been holding workshops with them to better understand their needs. It’s been clear since the start of the project that the school’s real challenge lies in it’s inability to pay teachers anything like an adequate wage. They are paid an honorarium of around Rs 800-1000 per month (roughly £8 – £10) – which is not enough to live on. As well as thinking about ways in which the new building could generate extra money to support the teachers, we want to try to make a space that serves them well and makes coming to work a real pleasure! This means not only creating a stimulating learning environment that will help them to teach, but also nice spaces for them to meet and relax after classes.

We began by explaining our thoughts about the new building so far – roughly where it would be sited, and the idea that it should have two classrooms that could open up into one large space. The reasoning behind this was a) that it would allow one teacher to deal with two classes should she find herself alone; the staff are stretched as it is and there’s no system of ‘reserve’ teachers if one of them is ill, and b) that it could be used as a hall for assemblies or after hours activities such as community meetings. They agreed with this idea, but were adamant the the two spaces could be adequately separated – as one of the hardest things they have to deal with at the moment is the lack of focus in the existing classrooms, which aren’t acoustically or spatially defined. We had observed that in most of the classrooms the tables and chairs are arranged in a horseshoe shape, rather than rows, but wanted to check that this was their preference rather than just a habit – we also wanted to get them moving to loosen the conversation up, so asked them to organize the small tools we had brought out into their ideal classroom. The conversation became really animated once we were all moving around, and it was great to hear the teachers talking about their concerns and their hopes for the new building. They had good ideas about how it could be used to generate extra money for the school, including computer classes and music lessons.

When we met the parents a few days later, many of them confirmed our concern about the lack of a strong team of permanent teachers – frequently saying that well educated, English speaking, teachers were their top priority. Again, we wanted to loosen up the conversation so were encouraging the parents to sketch, rearrange chairs, and walk with us through the existing classrooms so they could point out and explain their concerns. The issues which cropped up over and over were the bare tin ceilings, too few fans, not enough color, too few charts and educational images on the walls, not enough light, and too much dirt. One of the fathers, whose family live in a very modest shack in the middle of the nearby slums, said his children come back from school much dirtier than when they leave home. Whilst some said the ideal class size was 10-15 children, which is what we had in mind, many said they’d be happy with up to 30-50 in one room! In general there was a desire for more play space and equipment, and better sports. Although they all liked the existing garden and large trees, one parent mentioned that it felt too much like a park when you enter and not enough like a school. Many of them said that they’d prefer a larger sign and the front of the gate, and more of a formal entrance. Given we’re siting our new building near the existing gate, we’re thinking about ways in which it can shape your experience of entering the school. The parents were very positive about the idea that the space could be used as a community hall after hours – many of them suggested ideas for classes and activities like yoga and dancing, that could take place here in the afternoons.

Over the three hour session about 20 parents came (after we walked around the neighborhood with our very charming and persuasive new volunteer Kshipra!), and the input we got was great. Chitra came in to help, even though it was a Sunday – and Mina made sure the parents were well-fed with delicious pakora. Retrospectively we realized that it would have been useful to hold a session like this a little earlier in the process, before we talked to them about possible employment on the project.  It was, however, good to be able to see how our existing thoughts about the building hold up in the light of this new information. In general, it was really nice to feel the parents’ satisfaction that their concerns were being heard.