He Came, He Saw, He Conquered- The Incredible Journey of Sonam Gyaltsan

What started as a dream in one man’s head is now a reality for many. With his out-of-the-box thinking and personal attachment to his job, Sonam Gyaltsan transformed the lives of numerous underprivileged children and their families.

The new world is never created by those who conform, it is the job of the outliers, the ones who push through when adversity is the only sight others can see, they are the ones who bring about real change. Most people live for themselves, their families, and their ambition. To live for others is a rarity. But sometimes, out of the blue, some names transcend these boundaries. Sonam Gyaltsan, is one such name.

Do watch our Interaction with Sonam Gyaltsan here

This Ladakhi man, a Gov. school teacher since 2003, a recipient of the National Teacher Award 2020, and also the winner of the Best Teacher Award at a Zonal level, changed the status quo and put a Sarkari School on the global map.

Team Meeting

The Vision

In 2016, when Mr. Gyaltsan joined as the headmaster of the Government Middle School, in the quaint area of Taknak, in Sakti, everything was in shambles. The old, dilapidated school building with a mere enrolment number of four expected nothing special of this new entrant.

But Sonam had some different plans.

When asked about his source of motivation, he says, “There was never a thought about any recognition or award that prompted me, I just saw it as my duty, as work and kept working towards my goal”. His goal was to make his school at par with the other private schools in the area, and that’s what he achieved in a short span of 3 years.

Through his sheer will and what he calls a combination of ‘heart-work and hard work, the school which had only 4 students in 2016, by Apr 2021, at the time of writing this article, now, has 118 students, with a 0% dropout rate.

But all this was not easy. You may ask how and that’s where this story lives.

The Stepping  Stone

Mr. Gyaltsan recalls the initial days, “The situation was quite bad when I joined. The building was in a bad condition, the school was finished and was about to close, only 4 students came, of which 1 was local while others were children of migrant labourers, who were not very regular. The first step I realized was to mobilize the community.”

“I told everyone that we need to embrace this school as ours”

When he joined in April 2016, most parents and teachers sent their children to private schools. He identified his first goal as to make the villagers of Taknak embrace the idea of sending their kids to his school. Walking door-to-door, talking to parents, conducting recruitment drives, he tried to make them understand about his dream, but many did not agree.

“There was a misconception that private schools were better than government institutions. But I wanted to change this notion and show that government schools can be far better than private schools”, he fondly remembers.

But the school was in dire need of infrastructure. He contacted the authorities and an MoU was signed between the village representatives and the Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council(LHDAC) and the Education department. Under this MoU, the villagers had to provide greater enrolment and the departments would support the school’s infrastructural needs.

He says, “As I was setting up and asking people to send their kids, my daughter was in a private school, and it felt somewhat wrong to me, so I and my wife decided to withdraw our child out of private school and put her in the village school”. He led by example, and he and his wife, who is also a teacher, decided to put their daughter in his institution.

This was a pivotal step that invoked trust and prompted the important figures of his community to do the same, he was successful in convincing the Sarpanch, the chairman of the School Management Committee to send their kids into the school, against a personal guarantee. He assured them if the school didn’t run or had to be closed then he would personally arrange for their kids’ admissions and fees in the school of their choice. This further pushed up the enrolment numbers as the trust in his initiative started to increase.

Finally, with 32 students, the school started its operations in 2016.

Taking The Next Turn

Mr. Gyaltsan now was one step ahead in this journey. He had the students and it was time to teach them, but there was a problem. The old building of the Gov. Middle school wasn’t in good condition, years of neglect had worn it down and he felt it wasn’t conducive for an effective teaching environment. Moreover, this building was situated on a hilly patch of land and was far away from the village, which also discouraged parents from sending their children.

In March 2017, he made the decision. The school was relocated to a main and central area of the village. While teaching through April and May, the old building was renovated with the help of the local community, and the parents of the 32 children. Help poured in from all corners, one of his friends, contributed Rs. One lakh towards the renovation works, while others donated money for whitewashing the school, repairing the furniture, windows, repair of doors.

His work won him support from public representatives as well. The then MP Thupstan Chhewang contributed Rupees 5 lakh from the MPLAD fund which was used to build the ice-skating rink and the compound wall.

Changing The Status-Quo                                                 

After dealing with the operational challenges of the school, his next attack was on the teaching infrastructure. The books recommended by the local system were substituted for ones used by the best private school in the area, which was appreciated by the parents. The mid-day meal program provided by the government of India was augmented by changing the menu, the addition of proteins like eggs and chicken to also take care of the nutrition needs of the children.

For UKG and LKG, he clubbed the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) and invited them to open a centre at the school. They were provided a kitchen and a room to take care of the children.

The old uniforms were swapped for new, attractive ones, the classrooms and the whole school were painted with infographics in the process of beautification. From Periodic elements to alphabets of multiple languages now adorned the walls of its premises.

This Mr. Gyaltsan says had another motive, he explained this was all done under experiential learning – a process of learning through experience. The greatest accomplishment of these decisions was in leveling the playing field for the under-privileged kids from Sakti at par with a kid studying in a private school in the region. Parents too liked the fact that their kids were getting a quality education at par with private schools. This pushed for a further increase in enrolment.

He also observed that the conventional method of teaching of children sitting in one room for the whole day and the teachers visiting different classes led to poor learning by the students and low productivity of the teachers.

The next step was to build Subject-based Labs. Each subject, from Maths & Science to languages now had their classroom and were assigned to a single teacher. Mr. Gyaltsan tells,” Our classrooms are always in excellent condition. This is possible due to the teachers being assigned a single classroom under their care, and this inculcates ownership in them and they are motivated to maintain the standards.”

There is also a DIGI-LAB, where students are exposed to smart learning through tablets and PCs. Apart from this, the school also focuses on extracurricular like dance, theatre, painting, and art and craft for holistic learning. To maintain a healthy balance between work and play, the school engages the students in sports, and it has an environmentally sustainable field and an ice-skating rink for the children. All these innovations, and measures enhanced productivity and learning experience and enhanced the image of the school, and by 2018, 91 students were studying at the campus.

The Transportation

As the popularity of school grew, more and more parents wanted their kids to be a part of this change. Even guardians from neighboring villages were willing to send their pupils, and they enquired Mr. Gyaltsan if anything could be done, but again, there was a problem. The tough mountain terrain and climate of Ladakh were unsafe for these kids to commute on their own. Sonam then hired a bus service to provide transportation for these children, and as a result of which, the enrolment number had grown to around 91 in 2018. This steady rise was a long way ahead from where it had all started, but Mr. Gyaltsan was still not satisfied. He talks about how he wished then to see his school kids on a new bus and how happy they might be if this wish was realized. His will to give the best to his children turned that into reality too.

Mr. Gyaltsan through his 3 lakh rupees in savings took a 15 lac rupees loan to get a new bus, whose EMI he is still paying out of his pocket. When asked about this decision, he replies, “I only imagined the happiness in my children’s eyes and how proud they will be when they too have a new bus, and that made it all easy. Also, the never-ending support from my wife and family made it possible”.

The Friend, Philosopher, And Guide

Mr. Gyaltsan knows the importance of the right direction and the right environment. A child at such a malleable age needs varied experiences and learning not just through books but also real-life situations. For this, he organizes multiple excursions for the school kids throughout the year. He has conducted multiple trips across India including the Rashtrapati Bhavan visit for his kids under the programs of the Indian Army and ITBP.

He also conducts winter camps for his children, during the winter vacation, where students from Class 4 to 8 learn about Ladakhi culture, folk songs, traditional instruments, ice-skating, roller-skating, essay writing, and conduct cultural programs.

He regularly invites experts to speak on multiple issues concerning both teachers and students. Various skilled craftsmen are also invited to the school to interact with the students. There are also student exchange programs.

There are monthly meetings with the teachers and they are also taken on monthly excursions to other well-performing private schools, also TLM workshops are conducted in the school itself. Technology is also well-integrated within the school administration. Through the school’s Facebook page, the activities of each day are posted, and WhatsApp is used for coordination among parents and teachers. In 2020, his school was the best performing school in the entire Ladakh region, and the Department deputed him to attend a lecture on “Leadership for Quality Improvement in Schools” by NIEPA in Delhi.

From ‘Hard Work’ To ‘ Heart-work’

What started as a dream in one man’s head is now a reality for many. With his out-of-the-box thinking and personal attachment to his job, he transformed the lives of numerous underprivileged children and their families.

To give them an equal platform, to enable them to compete with the kids on the national level, these are the greatest achievements of his school. He never doubted his children, he knew that the potential was there waiting to be untapped, all it needed was some direction. Some of his students even got selected into the Jawahar Navodya

“This would never be possible without the support of my local community. The teachers, parents, LAHDC-Leh, Education Department, my friends, and colleagues. All credit goes to them.”, says Mr. Gyaltsan.

“My message to my fellow teaching community is to never put your excuses in front of your duty, when you apply ‘Heart-work’, hard work comes easy and no goal seems unattainable.”

We at SarkariSchool.in salute Mr. Gyaltsan’s indomitable will and perseverance in the face of truly unique challenges and wish him the best for all his future endeavours.

(With Utkarsh Nishant)

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All the stories are originally designed by team Sarkari School. Strict action will be taken against plagiarism.

About the author: Abhishek Ranjan

Abhishek Ranjan is the Founder and Director of SarkariSchool.IN

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