Beyond Chalk-and-Talk: Interview with Dr Swaroop Rawal, finalist Global Teacher Prize 2019

March 28, 2019

Dr Swaroop Rawal has just returned from Dubai, where she rubbed shoulders with other nine finalists of the Global Teacher Prize, a prestigious annual award of USD 1 million presented to one exceptional teacher worldwide. While Peter Tabichi, a Kenyan physics-cum-maths teacher was selected winner by the judging academy constituted by the Varkey Foundation, Rawal’s presence in the top 10 made it a big moment for India.

“Being with so many inspiring teachers is an electrifying experience… I believe that Indian government school teachers are the best in the world. They work in the worst possible circumstances ever, with the least basic facilities available, yet are so committed in transforming the lives of their students. When teachers from foreign countries speak to me about the difficulties they face, I tell them it’s nothing when compared to that of an ordinary Indian teacher,” Rawal tells EW over phone.

Rawal never intended to be a teacher. Born to an oncologist and a theatre personality, Rawal was a former Miss India (1979) and started off with a career in modeling and acting. Married to Paresh Rawal, actor-turned politician, her interest in education was rekindled after her sons started schooling.

“I was a college drop-out until I started studying again at the age of 37. By then I had two sons in school, I experienced the stress and helplessness the Indian education system created. There was nothing wrong with syllabus or the board. It was with the way things were taught. As a mother, I wanted to find a way of making school days less stressful for children,” she recalls.

Rawal went on to pursue her postgraduation in English literature from Annamalai Open University (2000) and later earned a doctorate in education from The University of Worcester, UK for her thesis on the role of drama in enhancing life skills in children with specific learning disabilities in a Mumbai school.        

“Today, teaching is a calling for me. My desire to touch the lives of children in different corners of the country made me pursue an eclectic teaching practice by not being tied down to one single school. It helped me reach to a diverse range of children – children on the streets, in rural, marginalised and vulnerable communities, in child-labour, and out-of-school. Even as I continued to teach children, I also become a teacher-trainer, thus increasingly reaching out to more children,” she says.

Rawal’s student community ranges from that in rural Gujarat, Maharashtra to elite schools in Mumbai and Surat. She has trained 250,000 government primary school teachers of Gujarat through satellite,  as also teachers of Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, Gujarat, a residential secondary school for girls, social workers in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan and teachers who work with Azim Premji Foundation in Uttarakhand, Uttaranchal, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Pondicherry. Currently she trains 5.5 lakh government teachers in Maharashtra.

Rawal narrates her experiences: “My students include the tribal children from Nandurbar, Maharashtra who travels over one hour to school, trekking hilly paths and wading through rivers barefoot. Another class of 34 girls from five villages of Bhavnagar, Gujarat whom I taught life skills, were from the most vulnerable families. Less than a handful of them went to school as they were working in diamond polishing units or engaged in domestic or agriculture work. In another instance, a little girl from KGVB narrated her experience of persuading her parents not to marry her off after class 9 but enroll for higher studies. ‘Miss, you taught me to dream,’ she told me.”

Rawal uses drama in education which includes group discussion, brainstorming, debate, games, song, and drawing. “WHO and UNICEF guidelines suggest life skills education (LSE) should be based on a participatory methodology. However, I believe LSE needs more than that. Tried and tested, my LSE curriculum framework was created by way of an action research process during my doctoral work. It has been applied and mass-produced for schools in three Indian states now. LSE has to be taught through experiential learning. Drama in education is at the heart of my teaching approach. In my classroom, I engage with ART; A-action, R- reflection and T-transformation. The lessons are student-centric, process-driven, and inquiry-based, following an interactive and democratic approach,” she explains.

“I believe learning is the ultimate purpose of education, and it is not about reading and writing, but the development of personality and character building. Education should be for equality and excellence,” Rawal sums up her philosophy on education.

“The best part of teaching is about being with the children. I want to change their lives. And teaching is the only way for me to do it. And therefore I teach, I perfect my teaching and I imagine new ways to teach. It’s always, always about the children,” she says.

Sruthy Susan Ullas

Posted in National, News
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