Community’s favourite teacher: An Interview with Zakra Nikhat from Farrukhabad

Two Months of Enlightened Learning – Our Action Hero Speaks
February 4, 2020

I spotted Miss Nikhat during my first field visit back in 2018, where my initial interaction involved witnessing a group of over 150 sincere, energetic and enthusiastic females, all united by one cause – enabling quality education for children in their communities. This is where I first noticed Zakhra ma’am’s sincere stance. I could fathom the depths of her commitment and seniority by merely observing her in action; planning the curriculum for the upcoming session and helping other teachers grasp teaching concepts during the training.

One and a half years later, during my last visit as part of an ongoing field study, I was fortunate enough to steal a few minutes from her busy schedule to ask her a few questions that have been on my mind for many months.  

“When important tasks are to be done, time is made automatically”, she says.

In her 7th year, Miss Nikhat is the most popular teacher among the students of Std 1-5 in one of the oldest colonies where the program has been running since 2013. She teaches Hindi, English, Projects and Maths to primary students. Originally from Kanpur, she was barely completing her Bachelors of Arts when she got married at the age of 18 and luckily was allowed to pursue and complete her undergraduate degree. Despite working as a teacher in Gyan Shala, she also takes tuitions for other kids within the community while taking care of the household and her four kids and other family members.  

When asked the kids about their favourite teacher, mostly, all of them have mentioned your name. Some even aspire to be like you when they grow up, especially the girls. How have you managed to motivate them over these years?

At the time when the Gyan Shala program has just started in Farrukhabad, back in 2013, education wasn’t a topic of discussion among the community. After the first year of my association with Gyan Shala as a teacher, I used to get approached from parents and community members where they would come up to me and tell me that because of you, our kids are interested in studying. When kids started coming to class at Std I in 2013, most of them did not have any foundational learning or understanding. They learnt a,b,c,d from scratch. Over time, whatever commands I used to teach, they would go home, repeat and eventually internalize them in their language and diction. When parents started seeing their kids greeting others in English (like Good Morning, hello etc) and improving their command on the language and manners and especially their ways of addressing seniors and others. It made the community extremely happy and satisfied that the kids were doing good and fostered further confidence in the curriculum and our classes. 

 

How has being a teacher changed your relationship with the community?

In 2013, not many people within the community even knew my name. Today, they all know me. Over the years, my profession has brought me recognition in contrast to the initial days. In the early days, it was difficult to get even a word out of community members or parents. However, over the years, this relationship has evolved. Now if a parent spots me, they would approach me, talk, ask about their kid’s performance and even offer tea and intensive conversations. Furthermore, being from the community, I feel even more respected and ‘safer’ now compared to when I arrived here as merely a newlywed.

 

Would you agree that teaching underprivileged children in the community is a tougher job than teaching other children? How do you keep them coming back to class?

Definitely these kids are a tougher audience to teach. Initially, the challenges were greater and the frustration higher. However, over the years, I have grown accustomed and things have become simpler. Once the first year concluded, parents and children started pouring in. On learning that the program is providing free-quality education and upon witnessing strong commitment and enthusiasm on the part of our staff and high-learning outcomes among students, parents started becoming pro-education and became open to sending the younger kids/siblings to classes as well.

This was an achievement and testament of the quality work we had been trying to achieve from day 1. Despite enrolling their children in classes, parents were not aware of the importance of continued education.  It has been a continued challenge to keep them involved in classroom activities and student’s performance. This usually becomes easier over the years with frequent interactions and household visits, especially meeting those who are absent from class more often than the others.

 

Living and working in Uttar Pradesh for a woman is not easy, especially under these circumstances, where women are not allowed to even venture out of the house alone? How did you overcome this challenge?

This challenge was not only limited to the community but also my family. I have faced a lot of struggles to make a space for myself in this society and my own house. My husband has never gone to school but he understands the environment and the benefits of education. Immediately after my marriage, when I had not yet started working, he used to seek my help for filling out forms for banks or gas connections. On witnessing this, even our neighbours and other community members started approaching me to fill out their forms for ration cards, Aadhaar or other things. What kept them coming back to me for help was the fact that with me, the scope of mistake was low.

Being one of the very few ‘educated women’ in the community has worked to my advantage. My husband has always been pro-education, especially with all my children. When we enrolled our girls in school, there was resistance from the grandparents, but our strong intentions have paved the way for them. It was the same case when I decided to teach. Resistance came from all sides, but with my determination and support from my husband, I have overcome all challenges. Even till this day, I sometimes have to fight them to continue my work, especially during the days of intensive training that go beyond normal working hours.

 

What according to you, what are the two biggest challenges being faced by young kids or community members post-Std 5?

One of the biggest challenges is when children, especially girls, enter teenage years. From where I come, once a girl reaches the age of 12, she is expected to mostly stay home, despite her aspirations. This where most drop-outs happen at Std 3 or Std 5 for girls. 

Secondly, guardians are still not aware of and involved in children’s education. For them, it is all the same, whether the kid is going to school, not going, bunking classes, or going to school and not learning. It needs more effort to spread awareness and engage the parents in the life of their children with regards to education.

In the end, most girls have continued learning beyond Std 5 because of their parent’s motivation and acknowledgement. More efforts are required to work with parents, and especially motivate fathers and mothers of young girls to allow them to pursue quality education in the long run. 

 

What would you be doing if you were not a teacher with Gyan Shala?

Zardozi (she says, with a smile on her face, a smile of relief)

Before my marriage, I had never even seen the frame on which embroidery or Zardozi work is done. I had never even seen a workshop. After my marriage, I saw it for the first time. It seemed intimidating at first, but gradually it became a little easier. For me, it did not come naturally like my other sisters from the community, especially since it involved being seated in one place throughout the day. I prefer moving about than being stationary. Teaching allows me to do that, plus I get to spend time with so many children. For 12 years I worked as a Zardozi labourer till I found Gyan Shala or they found me. Till this date, I am grateful to be associated with primary education as a teacher. As far as my education goes, I am still hopeful that I get to study more. Although other things like work and family keep me busy, one day, I would love to study further.

“Not only has Gyan Shala and the program’s presence over the past few years brought change within the community, but it has also brought change within my life and household”

To support young girls and inspiring women of Farrukhabad and contribute to their education, visit – https://fundraisers.giveindia.org/nonprofits/e-and-h-foundation

Sharan Ahluwalia
Sharan Ahluwalia
Sharan is associated with E&H Foundation as its Communications Manager. Apart from creating impactful stories for advancing the education of children, she loves spending time with them on the filed and developing their 'stories of change' She is also a life-long campaigner of education and a poet at heart.

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