Portrait of a Teacher: Successful introduction of multi-lingual education for Odisha’s tribal communities

Portrait of a Teacher: Successful introduction of multi-lingual education for Odisha’s tribal communities

The bright light of the day has faded, bringing in a quiet, calm evening in this village in the Simlipal hills of Odisha. Shanti sits in her verandah revising the lessons she has learnt in school. A goat kid is tied nearby, chewing on fresh leaves. Shanti is wearing her school uniform, a comfortable blue frock that is a little too long for her.

She is an 11-year-old Kolha tribal child, whose mother tongue is the Ho language.

Shanti, a tribal child, revises her lessons just before the evening light fades to end the day.

Shanti’s soft singsong voice is the sound of change in this community. In her home on the outskirts of the Simlipal National Park in Mayurbhanj district, education has a central place in family life. For a while, the child is wrapped in her own world, reading aloud from an Odia textbook, a language she has newly learnt to read and write in. 

“Where do you see your daughter in a few years from now?” I ask Shanti’s father, Manik Singh Boipoi.

“She will complete school, she may go to Udala for high school and if she studies well, she will go to college,” he says. “I will send her to the University in Bhubaneshwar.” 


Shanti’s parents are ready to give wings to their daughter.

Shanti’s mother has just returned from the fields after a day’s work. Her toddler peers at us from behind her sari pallu. We are joined by a young man who smiles with his entire face. His name is Kulai Sing Sundi and he is Shanti’s schoolteacher.

Both Kulai Sing Sundi and Manik Sing Boipoi are Bhasa Sikshaks or language teachers, who work alongside primary school teachers in government schools in Odisha’s tribal areas. Language teachers are educated youth drawn from the tribal community. They are trained to teach children in their mother tongue first, and then later introduce Odia and English as they go to senior classes, helping to make school a familiar, supportive space. They are key to the success of Odisha’s multi-lingual education program that seeks to transition children from over 62 tribal groups into the mainstream education system. 

Kulai Sing Sundi is a language teacher who serves as a bridge between his community and the education system

Seeing Kulai Sing Sundi in action in his class is like watching a magician perform before a group of entranced children. Kulai has a teaching rhythm that has his students hooked throughout the day. He sends them out to collect different types of leaves that will be used as teaching aids. He talks about plants, animals and insects that the children recognize, drawing on the familiar to create confidence in the children before he introduces new concepts. A classroom interaction is followed by an outdoor memory game, which finishes with songs and clapping. Children learn through play and laughter. For Kulai Sing Sundi, every interaction with the children is a stand-up act that leaves his audience satiated, entertained and informed. Learning takes place only when teaching is designed according to the children’s needs.

Kulai has a teaching rhythm that keeps children hooked throughout the day.

Kulai’s day starts with cycling into the village to ensure that all the primary school children are ready and on their way to school. He chats with parents, some of whom are his own schoolmates. He reminds them to attend the scheduled School Management Committee (SMC) meetings. Parents are motivated to participate in SMCs because they see their own person sitting on the other side. This teacher comes from and belongs to the community and that makes all the difference.

A well-attended school management committee (SMC) meeting.

“The introduction of language teachers has facilitated enrolment, retention as well as robust attendance of students in schools,” says Jitendra Kumar Rath, who is leading Oxfam India’s intervention to improve the quality of education and influence the functioning of government schools in Odisha’s tribal belt. “Teachers like Kulai and Manik hand-hold primary school children as they transition from speaking only Ho, their mother tongue, to learning to be fluent in Odia, which is the medium of instruction in schools. As a result, schools that have language teachers have an almost 100% enrolment rate.”

Enrolment and retention of students has increased significantly with the language teacher program.

Odisha is a unique state from many perspectives. 40% of the tribal population of India lives in Odisha. Almost 23% of the state’s population comprises of over 62 tribal communities who speak 29 different languages among them. The state has a robust lineage of many educationists who have documented their efforts to create an alternative educational framework that meets the needs of Odisha’s varied, multi-lingual population.

ER1C0178 : 40% of India’s tribal population lives in Odisha.

Over 62 tribal communities in Odisha speak 29 different languages among them.

At the Sikshasandhan office in Bhubaneshwar, an Odia translation of John Holt’s seminal book, How Children Learn, is stacked next to Letters from a Forest School by Chittaranjan Das, the freedom fighter and social psychologist. Both books are detailed first person accounts of how pedagogies need to evolve to meet the unique needs of primary school children.

Each primary schoolchild has unique learning needs that must be recognized and addressed.

Anil Pradhan is the Secretary of Sikshasandhan, an organization that works towards innovating alternate modes of education to fill the gaps in the education system. As Convener of the Odisha RTE Forum, he has been advocating for the need to change the holiday schedule in the tribal schools, to incorporate local festivals and the rhythm of the people’s lives according their own seasons and rituals. He talks about the need to integrate indigenous knowledge systems alongside modern sciences in the curriculum of their schools.

Education must blend indigenous knowledge systems with modern sciences.

Language teachers in the Kaptipada block of Mayurbhanj have received training on teaching-learning materials from a team of experts from Utkal University as well as activists from Sikshasandhan and Oxfam India.

Teaching-Learning Materials (TLMs) have been created in a multi-lingual format.

Kulai Sing Sundi breaks down multi-lingual education to its very essence. “There are many aspects to language. Language includes our songs, riddles, folk-tales, dance and games. We sing many songs in our language and play many types of indigenous games. In the beginning we don’t speak in Odia at all. We don’t even start with writing, we use pictures to learn. Say, for example, I show a picture in class. It is a tiger. A tiger is called a bagho in Odia and in our Ho language it is Kulai. In class, I will first teach the name kulai, then bagho, then tiger in English. Like this, step by step, children use pictures and words to learn language.”

Children explore their immediate environment in their early learning years.

Kulai Sing Sundi has devised a memory game using leaves, twigs and other found objects from the forest around the school.

“Within two years of coming to school, tribal children begin to talk about growing up to become teachers and doctors. This is the power of having role models that children can identify with,” shares Jitendra Kumar Rath.

Tribal children are inspired by teachers and other achievers from their own community.

At home with Shanti, the results of the interventions made in school are apparent. Shanti is as much at ease feeding the goats and bringing water from the hand pump as she is when she settles down with her school books.

“What do you want to become after studying,” her father, Manik Sing asks her.

Shanti says something softly to him. He asks her to repeat herself so that I can hear her aspirations.

“A doctor,” says Shanti.

“Where have you seen a doctor?” her father asks her.

“When I go to the weekly market, I see the doctor’s clinic,” she answers him.

A students’ meeting in progress where leadership skills are encouraged and honed.

Oxfam India’s Farrukh Rahman Khan provides a wider perspective for this scene. “Odisha has the highest percentage of out-of-school children in India. Among the tribal population, the literacy rate is even lower and the gender gap wider. The chance of a girl born into a poor dalit or tribal family in a remote village of India ever achieving material equivalence with someone from a middle-income upper caste family raised in a metro city is infinitely small. The multi-lingual education program is the best way to create a bridge between communities and the school system.”

“Children ask so many questions every day,” shares Kulai. “This inspires us. The teaching-learning materials we have are very good. To answer the children’s questions, I have to keep learning everyday and enhance my teaching skills.” 

Kulai is inspired by the energy of the children in his school.

The presence of language teachers like Kulai Sing Sundi has created a transformative support structure for the parents, children and government school teachers in Kaptipada block of Odisha. Kulai draws his inspiration from the wisdom and collective knowledge of his own tribal community. His natural flair towards being a teacher has made him a leader within his own community. It is the collective stories of individuals like these that create the fabric of the progressive society that we all aspire for.  

Classrooms is where the future of our society is being prepared.

Be part of the change you want to see. Support Oxfam India to bring quality, universal and inclusive education to marginalized communities and children.


Written By Natasha Badhwar

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and a columnist and media trainer.

Write to her at natasha.badhwar@gmail.com

This article was first published in The Hindu

Photo Credit: Sumit Sharma

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