“... above all he is a great teacher...it is India’s peculiar privilege to have [him]... as her President. That in itself shows the kind of men we honour and respect.”
The above words were Nehru’s on Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, whose birthday on September 5 is observed in India as Teachers’ Day every year. As teachers, we feel great to have a designated day in the calendar year all to ourselves, when our students felicitate us or remember us. The greetings card companies make a killing on this day, but, to be honest, we rather like the hand-made ones. Of course, our ex-students make use of texting facilities and we hear from them from far and near. A recent phenomenon is that vendors who have something to sell to schools, such as IT systems, excursion packages and books, have also started sending us Teachers’ Day messages. And surprise, surprise — jewellers and car manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon and have started giving special discounts on their products to teachers on Teachers’ Day. Jewellers claim that we teachers ‘shape, polish and shine’ our students. I don’t quite recall whether the car-makers have said anything nice about us but I suppose they wish to sell more cars anyway.
One thing may be inferred from this. Today, schoolteachers who are on standard pay scales can afford to buy jewellery and cars (and I am not taking into account the money that many teachers make from private tuition and coaching centres in addition to their regular salary). Surely this is a good thing? I mean it is high time that the ‘poor schoolteacher’ image is dispelled, otherwise school teaching will never attract first-class minds. Years ago, Radhakrishnan had pronounced that teachers should be the country’s best minds. It is not fair that teachers should be expected to do without many of the good things of life that money can buy, because they are led to believe that they have chosen a ‘noble’ profession. John F Kennedy’s comments on this are telling. He said, “Modern cynics and skeptics... see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.” Anyway, today people have realized that poorly paid bad teachers can cost more in the long run.
Our own government has an ambivalent attitude towards schoolteachers. On the one hand, teachers are chosen from across the country to be given awards by the president every year and, on the other, the same awardees are handed out a humiliating code of conduct during the national awards event. The code of conduct, which was recently published in the front page of The Telegraph, just shows what government officials think of teachers. The sheer ignominy of the directive, “Have your refreshments at PM’s home in a dignified manner”, should be enough to want to ask for the award to be sent by post. Actually, I am puzzled as to what this particular directive means. How can a teacher eat in an undignified manner? Are teachers the only group to be handed out a code of conduct? I cannot imagine poets, writers, musicians, actors and sports personalities being told to mind their table manners. How about grooming lessons for members of parliament before they visit Rashtrapati Bhavan? Some of them need them much more than teachers do. So despite Teachers’ Day awards and messages, we teachers cannot help believing what is being generally said these days, that teaching is not a lost art but regard for it is.
You will certainly believe that this is true if you have been following the news. Recently, the governor was so appalled when a teacher was beaten up that he made a public statement expressing his shocked reaction. Teachers today are liable to be gheraoed (an interesting word we have contributed to the English dictionary), beaten up and even killed. Perhaps we ourselves have asked for this state of affairs, but then, this is not the platform for discussing the entry of politics in education. However, we do need to reflect on the matter of teachers attempting to indoctrinate their students and on the fact that teaching can become ‘subversive activity’. In fact, all teachers end up influencing young minds. We did not realize it then but our teacher in Presidency College, Professor Asin Dasgupta, was very careful about not imposing his opinions on us. He never taught us what we ‘ought to know’. Rather, he asked us probing questions and let the lesson take its own course. Not every teacher has these skills. Anyway, it is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for teachers to be neutral about all things and be apolitical at all times. Besides, we run the danger of being insipid and colourless if we refrained from expressing our views altogether.
Down the ages, great teachers have been persecuted for spreading their ideas. In more recent times, Bertrand Russell was not permitted to teach because of his views on religion and morality. He had proclaimed that in most religions there were specific ethical tenets which did definite harm. “You find this curious fact”, he had said, that “the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs.” That he eventually won the Nobel Prize was a triumph of rationalism.
The focus has long shifted from teacher-centred to child-centred education and from teaching to learning. The teacher is no longer expected to be the sage on stage but rather the guide by the side. And what’s more, in view of the flood of information pouring in from everywhere about everything you want to know, and many things you don’t, the teacher is now expected to curate and not pontificate. Further, many feel that today’s technology allows us to dispense with teachers altogether. Recently, the British Council and Qatar Foundation held a debate on, “Is teaching obsolete?” One of the speakers expressed her fears about future models of learning involving young people spending prolonged periods in front of faceless computer screens. She certainly did not want that to be the way forward and proceeded to speak passionately about flesh and blood teachers being needed to make learning ‘real’. The general consensus is that teachers can never be replaced by technology but teachers who use technology effectively in the classroom will replace teachers who don’t.
Good schoolteachers are even more valued today simply because they are in short supply. Very few young people I know plan to be teachers in the future. Probably because a teaching career is perceived as neither lucrative nor glamorous. But those of us who are teachers hear wonderful things about teachers and the teaching profession every Teachers’ Day: that we teachers touch the future and that no one knows where our influence stops, that ours is the profession that creates all other professions, and so on. And despite all the cribbing about teachers not getting any respect these days, if you ask any teacher trainee today about her chosen occupation, she is more than likely to use the word ‘noble’ to describe it.
Whatever one’s perception and expectations of teachers and teaching may be, it is true today as it was true in the past that teachers are not of a kind — indeed every teacher is unique. But if as an idle exercise we sit down to categorize teachers, we can identify those who are highly professional and deliver their subject clinically and competently. Students (and their parents) are beholden to them for facilitating their (or their wards’) academic journey forward and bringing their career goals within easy reach. Many feel this is just what is required of teachers — no more, no less. They feel that there is nothing wrong in the relationship between the teacher and the taught being that of service-provider and consumer.
But then there is a Japanese proverb which goes, “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” I don’t know what makes a great teacher, but I do know that the teachers we remember are not the ones who just taught their subject well but the ones who were charismatic and, sometimes, eccentric. Merely being with them was exciting for us students for one simple reason — they stirred us. I remember a cartoon where an old boy is shown telling his old schoolmaster that he had learnt a lot in his algebra class: “I learned about the value of hard work, integrity and striving for excellence,” he said. The crusty looking mathematics teacher’s response was, “What about algebra?”
Lastly, don’t we all remember the marvellous teachers we detested in school? This is what someone had written about her fourth-grade teacher in her blog: “We called her ‘old flea bags’. She scared us to death! Demanding. Stern. (Set) Outrageously high standards for us — she always expected us to be well behaved and to perform at our best. We hated her... and we knew she was one of the best teachers we would ever have!”
Today, this fourth-grade teacher would probably have been reported to higher authorities for inflicting cruelty as would the beloved teacher of fiction, Mr Chips, be. Mr Chips never lost an opportunity to tell his “foolish” students that they had inherited their qualities from their foolish fathers and grandfathers, whom he had taught. Never mind if they were baronets or chairmen or governors or held posts in the League of Nations. The curious thing is that they all laughed uproariously and continued to love their grand old teacher and enjoyed his quaintly humorous proclamations.
Let people say whatever they want about school teachers. We wish to remain teachers — not facilitators and service-providers as modern theorists would have us be. Because some of us know what magic there can be whenever students and teachers meet.