When Nikki Sharma, 17, fell sick and missed two days of school last month, catastrophe loomed.
In that little time, her fellow students in class 12 had started and completed two poems in English, a poem in Hindi, and two sections of a chapter in economics, while her political science class had ploughed through its sections on partition and on the status of the country immediately after partition, and moved on to an entirely new chapter.
"You can miss a lot in two days," said Nikki.
This is a regular feature of the autumn rush undertaken by teachers at the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar, where Nikki is a student. The Delhi department of education stipulates that schools citywide complete their syllabi between April and the end of November, when students must start preparing for the exam season of January to March.
As a result, Nasreen Bano, Nikki's political science teacher, has at most seven months for 18 chapters of material. That means that she gets only a week to teach sections on World War I and World War II.
Nasreen Bano, who teaches political science at the pahadi school, has to finish 18 chapters of material in just seven months.
Every minute counts. The first 15 minutes of Bano's classes are spent on review. If students have questions, answering them also usually takes 15 minutes. That leaves only another 15 minutes to sprint through new material.
The frenzy to finish by November means teachers have less time to explain their material and answer questions, while students strain to keep up and discard extracurricular activities on the way. These are the results of a school schedule that prizes test-taking over learning.
The schedule's emphasis on exams has a pronounced effect on how teachers at the pahadi school organize their classes. Priyanka Gupta, a history teacher, said she skips over entire "unimportant" chapter sections — those that haven't been tested in the board exams for the past 10 years or so — if she thinks she does not have the time.
Rather than teaching them, she tells her students to read about the material at home and then ask her if they have any questions.
The schedule is just one example of the pressures that the exams put on teachers. Bano attributed the tendency of teaching to focus on test preparation to the fact that the government's appraisals of schools and the school's appraisals of teachers are both tied to students' board results.
Teachers say that if they taught the way they were trained to in their B.Ed programme, they would never complete the syllabus.
These appraisals do not affect salaries, but they do help determine, Bano said, what classes the vice principal assigns teachers. "I know she would probably not let me teach the 12th standard students if my students don't perform well."
Lakhan Singh, the vice principal of the boys division of the pahadi school, is resigned to this state of affairs. "If we were to teach the way we were trained to in our B.Ed and teacher training programmes, we would probably never really complete the syllabus," he said.
"According to our training," he continued, "we are supposed to review what we did before, link it to the current topic at hand, and then ensure that the student has understood it enough to be able to link it to other relevant topics in the future. This becomes almost impossible to do in the time we have."
The emphasis on test-taking teachers are forced into does not make for an effective approach to learning.
"By completing the syllabus well in time, students get time to reflect and that is important," said Saumen Chattopadhyay, a professor at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at JNU. "However, actual learning takes its own time. It is difficult to assess if somebody has learned something by using tests or exams. The peculiar thing about learning is that you can't be sure if you have learned anything unless you are able to apply it in real life."
Nikki suggested that the current schedule leads to a vicious cycle. "We learn quickly, but we forget just as fast too, so we need to revise," she said.
Bano and her colleagues agreed that some classes should be devoted to revision, but also said that more time spent on teaching new material would mitigate the need for revision while also enabling more detailed, explanatory lessons.
As it is, 15-20 minutes is not nearly enough time to cover some topics that Bano's 12th grade class must get through in a single period.
"How do you cover something like World War I or the formation of the League of Nations in that time?" she asked. "For political science, context is very important, and we constantly need to link things to current events and how they affect the present day."
Bano often cannot do this. Under the current system, for example, she teaches her students about the significance of 9/11 only with reference to possible exam questions about it. "There are entire books about each of the chapters that the kids learn," she said. "We cover what is in the textbook."
Told of the concerns of teachers at the pahadi school, Atishi Marlena, advisor to the Delhi deputy chief minister and education minister, Manish Sisodia, said that the Delhi government has been exploring how to institute more meaningful forms of instruction and evaluation for grades 1-8. "However, classes 9 to 12 fall under the purview of the CBSE," she said. "There is not much we can do about it."
Students bear the brunt of the rushed school schedule. They lose time they could have spent learning other things, developing interests outside school, or simply enjoying themselves.
At school, Bano says she sometimes keeps the teacher of the class following hers waiting outside in order to finish her own lesson — and even five minutes of waiting makes a big difference when the schedule is so packed. Bano also occasionally takes over what should be physical education, Hindi class, or a free period.
During the summer, all class 12 students are supposed to attend a month of special lessons, eating into the little free time the students have for rejuvenation in a stressful environment.
When she was in class 9, Nikki Sharma wanted to learn how to sing. She signed up for weekend vocal classes, using the money she got for tutoring first and second graders without telling her parents. They had believed she was attending computer classes, like she did the rest of the week.
Nikki Sharma wanted to learn how to sing. But between special classes, zero periods held before school and her nightly workload, that dream is now a luxury.
"I had thought I would surprise my parents," said Nikki. "But my neighbours asked my parents, 'Why should girls attend singing classes?' My parents forbade me from going."
Though her parents have said since that they would consider allowing her to take singing lessons, Nikki does not think she has the time any more. Between special classes held during the summer vacations, zero periods held before school, and her nightly workload after school, learning how to sing seems like an impossible luxury.
"I have to focus on my education to get a job and become independent," said Nikki. She believes her future depends on her board results and is willing to put up with whatever it takes to do well. She may be right.
"The system is flawed," admitted Marlena. "Board exams are about regurgitation after rote learning. Unfortunately, your life and career depends on this regurgitation."