Leading Education Policy in India: An Interview with Seema Jaunsari

Richa Gupta
Richa Gupta (Ed.M’21, Harvard Graduate School of Education), is an educator turned social entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of Labhya Foundation, an India-based non-profit that makes Social Emotional Learning accessible to over 2.5 Million vulnerable children in India through government partnerships.

In an interview with Harvard Graduate School of Education student Richa Gupta, Mrs. Seema Jaunsari, Director of Academic Research and Training, Government of Uttarakhand, India shares her experience with education policy in India and sheds light on how women can play a pivotal role in policymaking.

Tell us about your journey in the education sector:

My story goes back to my childhood when I developed an interest in the field of education. With my father being a teacher and well-known writer and my mother being a teacher as well, I always got an opportunity to interact with teachers, writers, poets, and littérateurs. In 1985, I was selected for Provincial Civil Service in Uttar Pradesh, and in 1992 I served the Chamoli district as the District Informal Education Officer, where my role was to provide formal and informal education to students enrolled in the district’s schools. I later moved on to become the District Basic Education Officer, Tehri, Assistant Director (World Bank project) Saharanpur, and Divisional Assistant Education Director, Garhwal Mandal, Pauri where I was responsible for monitoring and implementing innovative activities in elementary education.

In the last 28 years of my journey in the education industry, I have held senior positions like Deputy Director of Education (Secondary Education) in Uttar Pradesh, Joint Director of Education, and Additional State Project Director in Uttarakhand to name a few. The experience of working in these positions helped me gain new perspectives, enhance my knowledge on innovations in my industry, and most importantly, develop skills to deal with concerns and challenges related to education policy decision making.

What have been your biggest achievements and challenges in Education?

I have always emphasized facilitating the right to education for students’ success, because it is children who will help build society. Therefore, in my career one of the things that I have focused on is accessibility of schools to students in hilly and remote areas.

When I became the Director of Academic Research and Training in 2015, there weren’t many innovative educational programs run by our department except those initiated by the national government. So, I initiated Uttarakhand’s first Pravesh Utsav (enrollment festival), a festival held every year in April to recognize and motivate newly enrolled students and parents because we identified that we still lagged behind in school enrollment and retention. In the first year of the festival itself, we were able to enroll about 80,000 new students in government schools.  We stayed committed to bringing more children to schools and the number of students enrolled every year kept increasing. In fact, in 2019, we enrolled more than 182,000 new students in government schools! This is one of my biggest accomplishments in the education sector.

I believe that to retain children, schools need to be child-friendly and need to implement activity-based learning in classrooms. To ensure this, I introduced Pratibha Divas (Talent Day) and a monthly Basta (bag)-less Day. We provided our schools with a Pratibha Divas Guide (Talent Day Guide) for grades one to eight, so that the schools could conduct activity-based learning like sports, and cultural activities, as well as educational activities like Drama, Science and Mathematics fairs. These activities had such a positive impact that now students look forward to the Pratibha Divas every month. We also identified that the quality of education in schools needed to be improved as the schools lacked in effective implementation of various programs. We launched the Mission Koshish (Mission Effort program) to help teachers in identifying learning deficiencies in students and in emphasizing on developing numeracy and literacy skills.

Education is a complex issue in India that has its roots in culture, traditions, social norms, politics and so much more. How have you as an educationist ensured in your leadership roles that children are at the center of every decision made and that education inequity is being addressed? 

In all my work so far, attention has always been given to ending discrimination of gender, caste, religion, and economic status in the field of education. One of my major efforts to reduce these inequities was through summer camps and Balika Panchayats (student parliaments for girls) that I organized in the rural and urban slums. Under Balika Panchayat, several activities have been designed to enable young girls to explore their natural talent and leadership instinct. These camps became a platform for students to showcase their talents through various sports, cultural and literary activities. I also introduced the Bal Sakha (Child Support) programme for career counselling for students from grades 9 to 12 in 2017.

The biggest challenge I have faced in maintaining equity in education is during the time of COVID-19, with schools shutting down and moving to online learning. In a hilly area like Uttarakhand, not all children have access to laptops, the internet, mobile phones, or televisions. So, we trained 12,000 teachers virtually by providing model lessons and helped the teachers prepare worksheets for students and got them delivered to their homes.

What have you learned as a woman in leadership?

Working all these years in the education industry, I have realized that an academic leader needs to be a skilled administrator as well as an effective employer and academician. In the Indian society, women are usually considered skilled only as homemakers. I am no exception to this. Being an educational planner, I have always sought out opportunities to weigh in on policies issued by the government. In fact, I had the opportunity to give my suggestions for the National Education Policy 2020 draft to the Central Government of India as State Nodal Officer, and it has been a matter of pride for me to make available the draft education policy implementation plan to the state government.

As a woman in a policymaking position, what are some challenges you have faced? 

My life has always been full of challenges, and it is because of these challenges that I have become independent and can make decisions on my own. One of the biggest challenges has been that people could not always accept the fact that I was in such a high position as a woman. I can recall one instance when I was posted as Basic Education Officer: I was around 26 years-old and whoever came to visit me would often ask me if they could meet the ‘Sir’, as they would expect a male to be in my position instead of a young woman like me. On one hand, there were pre-conceptions that women could not make it to higher positions at such an early age, while on the other hand, it was tough to supervise direct reports older to my age.

I have come a long way, and I have established my credibility in the education sector through hard work.  For this, I give credit to my mother who always inspired me to keep going, no matter what the circumstances are.

What is your message to upcoming women in the policymaking arena internationally? 

In my opinion, women leaders are the best leaders in the world. One of the biggest challenges for women in powerful positions today is that we sometimes feel pressured to focus too much on our professional lives. One of the reasons I was able to face the various systemic challenges professionally was that I could find equanimity personally. I also feel everyone should enjoy what they do and should be stress-free because if you are stressed, you will not be able to focus and give your best. I believe that policy making is done by people, with people at the center. In my case, children at the center, always. Therefore, it’s important to nurture the people around you. When I am at work, I get work done with my team but at the same time, I also ensure my team enjoys work. Each month I organize a get-together with my team where we take out one day for ourselves and are free-minded.

 

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