Days come and go with such a seamless gallop that causes me to gasp in surprise when one week is over and another begins. That holds true for months and weeks too. There are some markers on the calendar though, that cause me to pause and think of the path traversed. Teachers’ day is one such. I sat down to write on the central question: What does a good teacher do?
This year, the answers seem to want to go beyond their self effacing usual rhythms. I am drawn to my school years and the teachers I learnt from and with in school. College and later years I can’t talk enough of in one post. So, School.
First off, the disclaimer. My family tree has teachers galore. Dad. Mom. Scores of Uncles, Aunts, cousins. On occasion, I do too. So, if you see hagiographic prose about teachers and teaching, I accept guilt and leave the sentencing to you.
That disclaimer out of the way, I return to the central question: What does a a good teacher do? There are teachers and there are teachers. There are some who play a formal role as a teacher. Others for who teach as they go about performing another role. Like that of a manager of a team. Yet others, teach by living life in a certain way, like a Gandhi. Or my milkman who with his ingenuity and sincerity teaches me that a lack of a formal education is no barrier for wisdom.
The word ‘teacher’ requires some parsing I realise. As the years recede and memories fade, the value of what people did stands taller than how it felt at that time of the lesson! Whichever way you look at it, the teachers that you remember are people who have made a difference to you. They are not limited to the people who were nice to you. That is a good hook to hang my hat on.
Bear with me for a minute as I take a detour. A related one at that and ask another question. What is the purpose of education? A twitter friend asked that question that provoked some conversation and thinking.
My dad used to state it crisply, “the purpose of education is education in itself. Do not reduce it to the economics of a job”. Much of what he said then went over my head. Some of it stayed back because we would talk about such statements. He reasoned with arguments and articles from Plato to Martin Luther King and J.Krishnamurti. “It is not my duty to inform you”, he would say and point in the direction of the books that he made us gluttons for. That is a good teacher to me. Someone who hold the space for debate, dialogue and provoke thinking.
Education provides for the future of humankind. Even as it goes about doing that, there are jobs and economic value in the immediate circumstance. Our focus on the latter far too intensely for far too long explains what plagues much of the world today. Martin Luther King said it well, “Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society”.
Upstream and downstream
Set against that backdrop, people who play the formal role of a teacher have much stacked against them. Getting the world to understand that the whole point to education, as is imagined by the world now, is besides the point, is no easy ask! Not so much in what the student can recollect or perform but how the student connects dots! It is not getting jobs in a decade as much as making the minds for the century ahead!
Getting a job or having an economic and immediate outcome off education sure is useful. But providing just that much at the exclusion of all else prioritises immediate efficiency over long term good. “98% of the class is in the top percentile” is good to state and easy to understand!
The Teacher Jackpot
Throughout my life I have hit the teacher jackpot. I am ever so thankful I was with teachers who regarded their role as an usher to hallways of knowledge and let me be. Ms.Ameena while talking about Krishnadeva Raya or Akbar would always pepper it with thoughts about how history is often written by the victor! That wasn’t in the syllabus. Mrs. Viji Seetharaman who would instill the curiosity to see what lies behind a blooming flower. Mr. Seralathan who would break into a sweat if he didn’t see me drenched after a game of basketball, taught me the value of play.
Mrs. Sundari’s chemistry lessons on compounds and mixtures didnt stop with chemicals but extended all the way upto human nature. What remains from Mrs. Meenakshi Srinivasan’s trigonometry is not as much as Sin and Cos but the importance of angles and nuances to life. Mrs. Ruth Ashley’s French lessons were not restricted to just French the language. It was rather an invitation to explore French, the culture and revel in diversity. Mrs. Shanti Mohan’s english lessons were triggers to read, reflect and evolve a style of my own. I could go on and on.
They would push mildly. A nudge here with a question. Sometimes a whack with a firm look. It always ended in a conversation. Always encouraging me to go back and start all over again. Even when I thought I had done well! The serial jackpot of good teachers kept leading me up an alleyway of confounding inconclusiveness. There was no dogma or a stern prescription. “Given thise, what do you want to do?”, they would invariably ask. It was confounding at that time but critical in hindsight.
For it meant, I never took their word as final. It mean I viewed them as a partner in an exploratory journey. Even as they engaged me with the immediacy of marks and such else, their true sights were upstream. That is so precious.
It was as though each kept adding pieces of a giant puzzle that I could fit in ways that I wanted to. They encouraged me to disassemble it and rearrange it in my own ways and draw continuous meaning. For that, I would always be thankful for.
The Teacher In Covid Times
The teacher in Covid times deals with several complexities! Power outages, distracted kids difficult parents and anxious households are par for course. The rich opportunities for learning, play and education that the classroom offered has evaporated leaving behind the dull glow of a 14 inch screen and discrete realities of individual households.
It is in these times that the role of the teacher stands paramount. I have seen in close quarters how teachers in my daughter’s school have managed to create an ambiance of interest, curiosity and challenge. It is fantastic. Neither is it perfect nor is it comprehensive in a traditional sense. But given the trying environment and terrible conditions their efforts hit home on many fronts. Teachers on any given day play roles stretching from IT Systems Support, Network administrators, Care Givers, Graphic Designers and much else to both kids and parents! Besides of course teaching subjects assigned to them.
Now, I know a thing or two about digital change and familiar with the nuances of what it takes to change human behaviour. But if this pandemic has proved something beyond doubt, it is that teachers are cut differently, when it comes to change. In my daughter’s school, coursework has been broken down and reimagined for the digital medium. The methods of engagement have been redrawn with imagination and purpose. Every passing week has had several iterations. I wish this level, scale and pace of adapting to change is more common in the corporate world too!
If I was looking for a good answer to “What does a good teacher do?”, I don’t have to look any further. A good teacher learns and changes.
At every academic institution that I have had the privilege to be a part of now, teachers have excelled in re imagining their role. It’s not perfect at many places but then so is the case with life now. Imperfect, fragile and needing re imagination. In the re-imagination at multiple levels teachers have done with their ceaseless enthusiastic striving to make a difference to student life, they fill me with hope. Teachers are learning and changing themselves and not merely coping for the present while counting days.
Social media has been filled with stories of how teachers have find ways to plough on despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Borrowing tools and tackles from their kids, they have wielded their phones, tripods and lights with elan, as they enter the world of online learning. New vocabulary like “please (un)mute yourself” or “Can you switch on the camera” dot the airwaves! The community of learners and teachers are indeed growing together.
So, What Does A Good Teacher Do?
Covid or otherwise, a good teacher leave indelible imprints on minds with the excuse of teaching a subject. They leave their wards curious and yearning for more. Leaving them with more questions than answers and obviously are not limited by what the syllabus requires.
A good teacher listens and has, as Carl Rogers would say, “unconditional positive regard” for learners. There is space for the learner to debate and dialogue. Times like Covid also point to how much teachers have to lead by example that learning is important! That has been stellar!
But most of all, a good teacher cares beyond the boundaries of the syllabus and the present times. A good teacher is an investment that societies make on their future. For that reason, teachers must be celebrated!
One More Thing. Actually, Two.
I sat down to think about teachers and remained focused on people who have formal roles as teachers. My respect, regard and appreciation of the many friends, classmates and family members who are teachers, increases each day.
I realise that I haven’t quite examined the role of those that teach by the way they live their lives. Or the way they think and care for others. Colleagues, managers, business leaders, clients, neigbhours, friends, friends in Social Media and several other tall people who make a difference to the world. I learn everyday from them. With them around, every day is teacher’s day.
Finally, the picture up there is by my daughter. From her I am learning the basics of life and living. She tells me that each colour is a favourite teacher of hers. “You can have many favourites appa”, she tells me. I love this abundance! It leaves me with hope. What else do we need now?