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By The commodification of education has changed the ways in which teachers are both rewarded and disrespected in India today, writes Devi Kar The author is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta
  • Published 14.10.14

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.” — Jacques Barzun

As in other years, we celebrated Teachers’ Day in India on September 5, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s birthday. This philosopher-president of ours kept strictly aloof from politics, but was one of the best loved public figures of his time. He was internationally acclaimed as a profound scholar, but was proud to be known as a teacher.

Many wonderful things have been said about teachers and teaching. And we teachers hear them annually on September 5. Teaching, it is said, is a profession that creates all other professions. Then, there is the all-time favourite attributed to Henry Adams, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” The proverb, “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day spent with a great teacher”, has climbed to the top of the charts in recent times. In this flurry of trying to make teachers feel good about themselves, the greetings-card companies make a killing. But the cards that most of us treasure most are the ones that are made by the students themselves.

There is no denying that we teachers take great pleasure in being pampered and fussed over on this one day in the year and we simply love being remembered by our former students. This year, the prospect of another warm and happy Teachers’ Day suddenly assumed a bureaucratic complexion. All schools were notified to make arrangements for students to view on television the prime minister’s speech to the nation’s children. The schools were required to give an official report on the entire programme thereafter. Much has been written about this initiative on the part of the PM. To be honest, I had wondered why our special day was being suddenly hijacked. Eventually, when I heard the speech I realized that it was partly an effort to instil in children a love and respect for their teachers. “They [teachers] are like candles,” he said, “who burn brightly to enlighten others... We, in India, are inheritors of a sacred tradition in which our gurus ... have selflessly nurtured our minds and shaped our intellect.” But Narendra Modi also questioned why the value of a teacher had lost its sheen and why students didn’t want to be teachers anymore. I wonder whether the PM will address us, teachers, on Children’s Day to tell us how we should treat our children. From the ghastly incidents that are reported in the media from time to time, it is clear that we need a talking-to.

Since the flavour of the season is Chinese, I should mention that China celebrated Teachers’ Day shortly after us, on September 10. A report in The Economist said that in China, too, there was government intervention with regard to Teachers’ Day, but it was of a different sort. Their ministry of education imposed a ban on gift-giving and extravagance in schools. It was an attempt to prevent Teachers’ Day from becoming an occasion for bribing teachers with lavish gifts. The ritual of giving cards and flowers to teachers had, over the years, turned into a gift-giving exercise with parents competing with one another to give their offspring’s teachers expensive gifts ranging from iPads to designer handbags and pre-paid shopping cards. It was reported that the ban was effective, and children were going back to cards and flowers. The disturbing thought is that the teachers did not impose the ban themselves and happily accepted extravagant presents from their students. I am not too sure that we are not guilty of the same practices in urban India.

Perhaps with the teacher-student relationship in mind, there has been some talk about shifting the Chinese Teachers’ Day to September 28 — the birthday of the great teacher-philosopher, Confucius. Confucius was quite unambiguous about what he expected from his students: “I do not enlighten those who are not eager to learn... If I have presented one corner of a square and they cannot come back to me with the other three, I should not go over the points again.” It did not matter to him how far his student had advanced, as long as he was working to continue to improve himself. This approach was in accordance with the Chinese proverb, “Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.”

Looking around me, I find different sets of expectations from teachers today. The most common would be to help students to earn high scores in tests and examinations. This entails distributing notes and ready-made answers to ‘expected’ questions; administering mock-tests and solving problems for students. Unlike Confucius, many teachers are happy to do things for all their students, including those who do not wish to make the effort or do not feel like exercising their minds. Teachers are often expected to be all of the following as the situation demands — surrogate parents, counsellors, friends, instructors, tutors, facilitators and role models. Then there are teachers who are expected to do everything from putting up political posters, attending meetings, doing election duty to cooking mid-day meals. I suppose they are also expected to teach.

In this scenario, I wonder if we should ever use the term, guru, for a teacher or even look for the teacher-pupil equation that used to be prevalent even a few years ago. Without a doubt, there is a marked erosion of the social status of teachers today. One explanation given for this is a combination of low salaries and poor service conditions. But I am not convinced that merely raising teachers’ salaries and perks would lead to a parallel enhancement of society’s respect for them. A highly paid teacher in an international school in Bangalore confided in me that affluent parents often told her to refrain from conveying their children’s school problems to them as she was being paid to fix these. According to the Global Teacher Status Index, 2013 (findings from a survey of 21 countries), teachers are most respected in China, although teachers in other countries are paid substantially more. However, in most countries there is a perception that the teacher’s status in society has been considerably eroded. Several factors have been cited by teaching and non-teaching persons for this steady deterioration of teacher-status. The effective use of technology in education is definitely one of them. With technology changing equations completely, the general feeling today is that the teacher’s role is not as important as it used to be. After all, the teacher is no longer the main source of knowledge.

The commodification of education is yet another factor that has changed the way in which teachers are regarded. Parents and students have suddenly transformed into consumers, customers or clients. The old veneration for, or indebtedness to, teachers has been replaced by an economic relationship of demand and supply of an essential service.

The profile of the teacher has changed as well. For many, teaching is just another job, and they refuse to romanticize it by labelling it a ‘calling’. Tuitions at home and other lucrative pursuits are far more attractive and important. Just as there has not been enough investment in schoolteachers, teachers in their turn compromise on dedication and even integrity. Even so, you need to appreciate what a teacher is required to do today. She must be able to control a class of 40 to 50 boisterous children without using any harsh words or threats of punishment, she must make her classes interesting so that every child pays attention, she must make her lessons interactive and be “a guide by the side” rather than “a sage on the stage”. She must be able to identify learning difficulties, counsel children and be extremely tech-savvy and handle smart boards, tablets and laptops with ease and aplomb. She has to mark exercises and examination papers, and prepare reports. She must respond to the queries of hundreds of parents at parent-teacher meetings. She is expected to develop professionally by attending workshops and seminars. I can carry on indefinitely.

In spite of what a teacher does on a daily basis, year after year — please don’t grudge the vacations she gets, she would burn out if they were not there — she is usually not valued as much as she should be. In fact, I have often been asked to write about the prevalent culture of teacher-bashing. We teachers seem to be blamed for almost everything. We are at fault if we scold children or if we don’t; for giving home-work or giving too much of it or too little. We are accused of not giving appropriate grades and criticized for not writing appropriate remarks in reports. We are hauled up for being too firm or not firm enough and reprimanded for not understanding child psychology in depth. It goes on ad nauseum. We are also discussed and dissected on Facebook, and if anything about a teacher is not to someone’s liking, one of the first reactions is, “We will go to the press!” Not surprisingly, children have a field day manipulating the situation.

But parents, children and other people also say nice things about us and our work. In his second state-of-the-union address, President Barack Obama said, “If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child — become a teacher.” Our own PM said the other day that most people remember their teachers over all other people they have known.

So do we like being a teacher today? The answer is a resounding yes. We believe that no other profession brings the kind of rewards that we still get. You will not understand the worth of these intangible rewards unless you are a teacher. Some of them are: the theatre of the classroom, the everyday drama in school, the sheer variety of our activities, the love and remembrance of our students, the camaraderie of our colleagues, the laughter and tears at reunions. I can carry on indefinitely. You may not accept this, but we also think that we do the most significant work of all — we believe that we are builders of people.

Most importantly, in today’s dark times, it is the teachers who have to keep the lamps of learning burning brightly.