Sweeping pathways, wide staircases and high ceilings are a few markers of antiquity that greet visitors at any of the older schools in Chennai. Established at the turn of the century, these structures are refreshingly incongruous amid the urban sprawl around them.
However, along with retaining their vintage feel, a handful of such schools in the city are also adopting practices that ensure they remain relevant to the current generation of students. From in-house teacher training programmes to adopting the latest digital technologies, school heads are constantly rolling up their sleeves to see to it that lessons in their decades-old classrooms remain fresh even today. Keeping the future of students in mind, the inputs in these schools are being tailored towards equipping them to handle life after school — be that in the form of digital literacy, fluency in English or hands-on ability.
Madras Christian College Higher Secondary School in Chetpet, among the oldest institutions in the city, turned 175 years old this year. Under the leadership of Kuruvila Jacob, who took over the reins as school principal in 1931 at the age of 26, the institution entered an era of academic and administrative reforms that have stood it in good stead. From influencing macro details in building the school’s infrastructure, teachers remember Jacob as a man who looked into micro-details of building students’ character as well. Educationists continue to impress that striking this balance is vital.
For instance, the school today has smart boards’ in its classroom which enable teachers to teach better. Largely seen as the means towards building a solid foundation for students — in that they are clear with the fundamentals due to the engaging visual input — teachers add that a seamless integration of technology with the chalk and talk’ method is the ideal situation that can bring about optimal development of a student.
“When teaching subjects like Science say the working of the human heart in Biology they can chart out the concept on the blackboard and explain it in 3D on the smart board for students to understand better,” said G J Manohar, the school’s present principal.
Another aspect that schools are continually attempting to work on with regard to their students is English fluency. With a majority of information resources, both in print and online, being available in English, school heads are beginning to recognise that students will lose out if they are not pushed to using the language. In addition to being blocked out of the means to develop their intellectual ability, there is also the question of employability which can be tackled only with a refined knowledge of English.
“For instance, we introduced a Rule of Language’ two months ago wherein we have told all students that they should only speak English inside the campus. If they speak any other language, they will be given a card for it and will have to work with a teacher to remedy it. Already, we are seeing a marked improvement in students’ communication skills due to this,” said principal Father Gregory Devarajan of St Bede’s Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School, which was set up in 1906.
In keeping with global trends in education, the importance of practical expertise is an aspect that has century-old schools constantly revising their policy as well. While theoretical knowledge helps them score marks, the conversion of their know-how into hands-on work is a widely-acknowledged lacuna in the system. Authorities at Lady Sivaswami Ayyar Girls Higher Secondary School, set up in 1869, are attempting to set this right by organising short-term workshops such as a recent module on Tanjore painting. Along with this, students in class XI are also offered electives on jewellery designing, painting and generating household articles from waste.
Together with initiatives that are trained at students’ development, select institutions are working on teacher training as well. Regular, focused and learned feedback on a teacher’s performance is a practice that is widely used in primary education in countries abroad such as the US but is largely absent in schools here. At institutions such as the Olcott Memorial High School, however, there is a clear emphasis on keeping teachers’ motivation levels high.
“We have regular meetings for our staff once every 15 days on issues like role-modelling, punctuality and to reinforce their commitment to the school. We have meetings with subject teachers every week wherein the senior teachers, who are often sent on workshops, share what they have learned with their younger colleagues,” said school principal Lakshmi Suryanarayanan.
Pointing out that the teachers’ relationship towards students had moved from being job-oriented to child-oriented, she said, “Our focus is on caring for the child. Many of our teachers come from backgrounds similar to the students so they understand the difficult social conditions that children deal with. Teachers make sure they have their books, an extra set of uniforms and are concerned about a child’s general well-being. The whole culture of the school has itself become very pro-child.”
According to educational consultants like S Sailakshmi, who constantly liase with the industry and educational institutions, the future lies in students being both tech-savvy and have sound reasoning ability. “In an increasingly competitive world, it is understandable for schools to introduce steps like ramping up their technological resources and introducing language development. Each parent expects age-old schools to initiate steps like this so that their children can keep up with the times. For schools to survive and for students to thrive, it is essential that they constantly renew their policies to stay relevant,” she said.