This pressure has been so intense that many teachers are either succumbing to the managerial diktats, or facing unemployment. Those who try to explore an alternative career find that there are few options available in India’s pandemic-hit economy.
I spoke with 15 teachers in Mumbai, 10 of whom were employed in schools, three in management institutes and two in junior colleges. The conversations revealed the striking vulnerabilities teachers face. An almost Orwellian narrative emerged of the ‘dark side’ of the institutions which employ them.
Digital surveillance of call-centre workers or other such ‘cyber coolies’ is a well-known management strategy to control workers, labour processes and material practices. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has given fertile ground to create this ‘panopticon’ in the education sector, as well. Managements are using the digital video call technologies to ‘observe’ without being ‘observed’.
In the face of loss of cash flow, administrators of schools and colleges used video call technologies such as Zoom and Google Meet to get teachers to conduct online classes, but without having provided them adequate training on delivery, pedagogy and practicalities of handling these technological platforms. They also use the platforms for digital surveillance.
Anita, a primary school teacher, spoke of how her supervisor would join the virtual class at the behest of the management to oversee her teaching performance. “The supervisor’s intention was not merely to evaluate the online teaching, but to monitor and control the process. Later, the supervisor’s spying became a daily affair. This then went to the extent of demanding recording of the teaching sessions, and sending reports to the administrators post each session,” said Anita.
Sanjay, another school teacher, talked about how management mandated compulsory conduct of 4-5 teaching sessions per day, without providing technological infrastructure. The teachers were supposed to have or make their own arrangements.
“One morning, I reported to management about poor internet connectivity and frequent communication breakdown, but they ignored my appeal. On the same day, at around 8 pm, the principal called for an urgent meeting in which she announced that everyone has to adhere to allotted sessions, and any deviation would result in pay cuts and termination. There are many teachers who had to accept the cuts because they couldn’t conduct the required number of classes. Over these past four months, such bullying and aggression has intensified beyond reparation. I feel stressed and demotivated,” said Sanjay.
Sujata, another teacher and a mother of two, spoke of the work-life balance disruption due to management’s pressure on her to work endlessly. Her husband lost his job due to the lockdown and hasn’t been able to find work for the past four months, so she has to accept whatever work is assigned to her by superior’s. “Teachers are highly underpaid, so I cannot afford to refuse work, otherwise my family will starve. Despite earning, I still need financial support from my parents to meet day-to-day expenses,” says Sujata.
Threats and terror of not meeting targets
Other incidents recounted by the teachers hinted toward a toxic culture of intimidation and target-oriented pressures. Ram, a college professor, spoke of a management diktat to ‘softly’ intimate parents to pay semester fees. “The management is telling us to ask parents for fee payments, despite the government’s strict instructions not to force parents and students to pay fees. My dean told me that if I don’t ask parents to pay, then the management wouldn’t credit my salary. The dean doesn’t want to take the risk of calling parents, but is forcing us to do this dirty work. Meanwhile, some reports appeared in newspapers that a few parents have complained against colleges and schools demanding fees, so the dean kept quiet on the matter for a while. But, after a few weeks, he made a similar exhortation,” said Ram.
Advait, another college professor, told of the mounting pressure on him to attract new students, which is not the role of an academic. Yet, he is pressured to perform unrelated work to keep his job in the current, ruthless academic environment. “I am working in a small-time management institute, and this is usually the time for placements and admissions. Though neither is part of my area of work, the director has given targets to each faculty and staff member to lure new students for admission. I don’t know from where and how I am going to fulfil this demand forced on me,” says Advait.
One wonders whether it is the COVID-19 pandemic or such threats and bullying that will do more harm to teachers’ well-being, academic integrity and democratic ethos. Administrators, central and state education ministries and policy-makers must mull over and address the bleak situation of teachers, brought on by the COVID-19 shut down.
Ritesh Kumar is an academic teaching in a private management institute in Mumbai. He recently completed his doctoral program from TISS, Mumbai