In the summer of 1984, fresh out of school, 17-year-old Sonu Nijhawan dreamt of becoming a doctor. Thirty-three years later she is the principal of the government girls’ senior secondary school in Sangam Vihar, a sprawling working class colony in south Delhi.
The youngest of three sisters, Nijhawan’s father ran a small business, while her mother ran a modest clothes boutique to supplement the family’s income.
Her parents were supportive of her ambition of becoming a doctor but when she couldn’t clear the competitive exam, he father decided that she would pursue a BSc degree at Delhi University.
“The first year of college was spent in sulking that my dream of becoming a doctor was broken. But in the second year I started to focus and scored well in college,” she said.
Nijhawan did a master’s in child development and started working with a charitable trust. Working for society, she thought, was her true calling.
But there was one problem – Nijhawan lived in Greater Kailash, and her office was in Karkardooma in east Delhi. Her family decided that the commute to work and back was unsafe, and so her father convinced her to become a school teacher.
“He did not force me but very cleverly convinced me,” she recalled.
Thirty-three years later not much has changed.
Last year, Nijhawan’s best student, Priyanka Rai, gave up her dream of studying economics to train as an elementary teacher.
Rai scored an eye-watering 95.6% in her board exams, enough to gain admission in India’s best colleges, but her father refused to let her pursue any other job or vocation.
“My father said, become a teacher, or stay at home,” Rai said, “In my community, women aren’t allowed to work – the only acceptable job is that of a school teacher.”
Nijhawan and Rai are not alone. Despite rising literacy levels, fewer women are joining the workforce every year as parents and family elders are wary of the freedom that a pay-check brings. Teaching is a lone exception. So many young women take up teaching not because they want to, but because the other option is to not work at all.
Default or last resort?
“I wanted to be a police officer but I got married early and then my in-laws said that teaching was a convenient job which will allow me to focus on family,” said Rajeshwari Kapari, principal of a government school in Sonia Vihar, “Parents want their daughters to take up teaching simply because they think it will leave the girl with enough time to take care of family.”
As a consequence, women account for nearly three fourths of all teachers in the city’s public and private schools.
But if teaching is a default option for many women, it is a profession of last resort for many of their male counterparts.
“I was preparing for civil services but couldn’t clear it for many years. I opted for teaching then. It is no one’s first choice,” said a male teacher on condition of anonymity, “The salary has only improved now but promotions happen after 10-15 years.”
Today, government school teachers are paid significantly more than many private sector jobs: a primary teacher in Delhi government schools earns approximately Rs 50,000 per month while a senior secondary teacher earns about Rs. 55,000 per month. Some of their counterparts in private schools earn as little as Rs 10,000.
So why are so many teachers frustrated with their jobs?
“School teachers have no real opportunities for intellectual and professional development, such as conferences and other academic activities including research,” said Poonam Batra, a professor at Delhi University’s Department of Education.
Delhi government officials admit that there is a need to improve the working conditions of teachers, give promotions at regular intervals and provide avenues for intellectual development.
“We have been conducting training sessions, educational tours and seminars. Our teachers and principals were sent to foreign universities and management institutes to learn leadership qualities and new methodologies to teach,” said an official, “This is changing the way teaching is looked at.”
At her office at what is popularly called as “pahadi wala school”, Nijhawan said she loves her job now.
“I enjoy my teaching job as there is so much to do. It is also about personal initiatives and how you take up the job. The future of many students is decided in the schools and we are their caretakers,” she said.