The alarm rings at 3 am. and Robin S Pukhram quickly steps out of bed. In about 30 minutes, he is ready and on his way to pick up his colleagues. Where are they headed even before the crack of dawn?
‘Robin Sir’, as he is popularly known, is the Principal of St Stephen English School in Churachandpur, Manipur. At this unique school, parent-teacher meetings (PTM) are not conducted at the institution. In fact, Robin and his staff visit the villages where their students’ parents live.
“A lot of our students live in very remote villages, almost 120 km from the school. Since the terrain is hilly, you don’t get buses that connect to the villages. Most parents work as farmers or daily wagers, and struggle to send their kids to school. To visit the school for a parent-teacher meeting, they have to hire private vehicles, spending nearly Rs 2,000 for a visit alone. Hence, we decided to visit them,” he says.
The Unique PTM
As the Principal, Robin noticed that very few parents attended the PTMs, and even when they did, there wasn’t adequate communication.
“I don’t belong to this part of Manipur, as my hometown is Moirang and we speak a different language there. Here, the dialect is not the same. So, when I first took charge as the Principal in 2016, it was difficult for me to communicate with the parents. Also, I noticed that the parents were out of their comfort zones. This lasted for almost two years. But, after we started visiting them, they opened up to us and began to express their expectations regarding their children,” he says.
When they visit the villages, Robin and a few other teachers travel by car. But often, after a point, the roads do not accommodate vehicles. So, they trek for 10-12 km.
“Because the path is so hilly, we park our car on the main road. We pass through forests while walking, and in cases where the villages are far, we stay there overnight. As per the local tradition, the parents welcome us with black tea and we discuss how things at the school can improve,” he says.
Over 25 villages need to be covered, and it takes almost a week to do so. But, Robin and his team have been doing that since 2018. Some of the villages include Songsang, C Zalen, Chongchin, Mouldak, Thingkeu, Aina, Kawlhen, Vungmol, and Konpi, among others.
Interestingly, until a few years ago, the school wouldn’t have survived had it not been for Robin.
“In 2015, there were 50 students in school and about 4-5 teachers. The saddest part was that there was no Principal,” informs the 35-year-old present Principal.
But since he took over, things have changed. Now, there are over 545+ students from Pre-nursery to Class 10.
During his visits to the parents, Robin also spoke to people whose children did not attend his school. “The parents said that they would send their children to school if cheap accommodation were available for them,” he recalls.
He took this suggestion upon himself, used his savings, and constructed a hostel, with a minimum charge of Rs 200 per student.
The dynamic, enthusiastic, and passionate Principal of the school discusses his journey with The Better India.
The journey towards becoming a Principal
Growing up in a village, Robin knew the hardships and understood the value of education.
“I was brought up in Moirang, which was a village at the time, 50 km away from the nearest city. After studying there until class 10, my father sent me to Imphal. After that, I went to Shillong and completed a BSc degree from St Anthony’s College,” he says.
Robin also wanted to complete his Master’s degree but started looking for jobs because of financial difficulties.
“I worked with a few private companies briefly, but it was difficult for me to support myself in the city. I was spending everything I earned, and hence, I decided to come back to Manipur,” he says.
One of four children, Robin’s father worked as a Police constable in Moirang, while his mother was a homemaker. Back home, there were limited opportunities for him.
“At one point, I worked as a Taxi driver. I wondered what I was doing with my life because my father had spent so much money on my education. I knew that I wanted to contribute to society. Since education had played such an important role in my life, I thought that becoming a teacher would be the best way to do it,” he says.
He joined a private school as a Math teacher in 2008 and worked there until the beginning of 2010. Later, he got a better job opportunity in Churachandpur and decided to move.
“As a teacher and warden at Soikolal Ideal School, my stay was free, and I was paid Rs 3,000, almost double of what I was earning in my hometown,” he says.
In 2011, Robin even started a coaching centre for Math and other science subjects. He left his position at Soikolal Ideal School in 2013 and joined Grace Academy, another school in the area. His colleague had informed him of the condition of St Stephen’s School, which was on the verge of shutting down.
“The school was founded in 1998 at the backdrop of the conflict between two communities–the Kuki tribe and the Paite tribe. And the objective was to educate the children so that they could have a better future and not get sucked into the conflict,” he says.
He continues, “I always wanted to run my school. But, I did not have the money or the power to do this. So, when I heard that about the opportunity to save a school that was already in existence, I couldn’t let it pass,” informs Robin.
Robin then spoke to the brother of the proprietor, assuring him that he was ready to take charge as Principal and that would fix the disorganised management. He convinced the man and took charge as Principal in 2016, hiring more teachers and re-launching the school, after which a lot of kids joined.
Doing what’s best for the kids
Visiting the villages gave Robin an insight into the problems the parents faced. When he learnt that many weren’t sending their children to school because of the lack of affordable accommodation, he decided to construct one.
He used his savings and bought a 3,300 sq ft plot in 2018. Even then, his savings weren’t enough to buy the land. So, he borrowed about Rs 15 lakh from landlords.
So far, he has repaid only Rs 2 lakh.
“I am very fortunate that my wife has been supportive through this. She even works with me at the school, and is equally passionate about providing the best education for the kids,” he says.
Regarding the hostel, his brother-in-law worked in the construction business and supplied him with the wood. “And about 25 parents decided to help us. With all our efforts, we were able to build the hostel in a month during the winter break,” he smiles.
The hostel comprises 20 rooms, each about 12 ft X 12 ft, often occupied by siblings who are more comfortable living together. There is also a study hall for kids to read and do their homework.
All five children of Boipu Neihsel, a farmer based in C Zalen, study at the school. His youngest is in the nursery while the oldest is in class 8, with all five staying in the hostel.
“Principal sir understands our hardships. Sometimes, we don’t even have Rs 100 travelling all the way is difficult for us. He continues to visit us to discuss how they can improve and what we want for our children,” says the 38-year-old farmer.
He also feels grateful for the hostel and visits his children about two times a month to provide them with money and other necessities.
“Principal sir was supposed to visit us this month too. But, because of the lockdown rules, that could not be possible. We are so pleased to have a generous and kind-hearted Principal who cares about our children like his own,” he says.
Robin is now planning his next visit to the villages ne and looking at introducing online lessons so that learning doesn’t stop.
“A lot needs to be done to shape future generations. Education can be a great vehicle for change, and it is what we need for a brighter future. I want to make education accessible to more children so that they can become leaders of tomorrow,” he says, signing off.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)