Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Teacher’s New Clothes

Everyone agrees that there is something wrong with India’s education system. But sometimes, it takes an outside view to understand just how low we have fallen.

In 2007, Brown University student Thane Richards came to India as an exchange student. Thane spent 7 months at St Stephen’s College, one of India’s crown jewels in education. While he had rich and varied experiences outside the classroom, the value addition inside the classroom was close to nothing.

In Thane’s own words:

In one economic history class the professor would enter the room, take attendance, open his notebook, and begin reading. He would read his notes word for word while we, his students, copied these notes word for word until the bell sounded… If it were not for the fact that attendance counted towards my marks, I would have never showed up at all.

This was not an isolated incident but typical of the teaching pattern. Another pattern was classes being cancelled because teachers failed to show up. The students worked out a system to inform each other about which professor is bunking today, via sms.

Similar stories can be heard from students across colleges and universities in India. Everyone clamours to get into the ‘best’ institutions but it’s got nothing to do with the quality of education. It’s for the right branding and the company of highly driven, intelligent and interesting peers.

Occasionally, individual professors rise above the system. Driven by passion, motivated by some deep internal reservoir, they stimulate, challenge and nurture young minds. They give knowledge and they give of themselves.

Every one of us has had teachers like this. Just one or two of them but they have made all the difference.

Maybe they are born with the right temperament and attitude. The question is – can we create more?

First of all – and let me be blunt about it – a teacher must be a psychologically sound person. Far too many teachers I have seen and experienced have terrible issues related to self-esteem, anger management and deep insecurity. No doubt such issues are common and therefore would be seen in any industry.

However I single out teaching because, teachers are in supreme position, a position of power. A teacher rules over his or her class of 30, 60 or 100 students. There is no question (in the Indian system) of who must listen to whom. And that’s where the problem starts.

You are not happy within yourself – what do you do? Take it out in class. The children cannot protest. They cannot ‘quit’. All they can do is switch off. And let out their frustration by giggling and making jokes behind your back.

The lower you rank in students’ eyes as a human being, the worse you are as a teacher – no matter how proficient you may be in your subject.

This, I think, applies more strongly in school, when children are young and more impressionable. But it stands good at university level as well. Apart from sound academic knowledge, a professor must have a desire to share that knowledge. With young bodies warming the benches - even if they are looking sullen, sleepy and bored.

The professor with low self esteem will see such faces and see a giant problem. He will say to himself, “These useless young people today – they are not interested. Why should I put in efforts!”

This professor will do the bare minimum and justify this as the ‘right approach’.

But a professor with high self esteem will see the class as a challenge and an opportunity. He will think, “I know these are all bright young minds. If I put in my best effort and teach them well, they will get interested in my subject.”

Right intention achieves right results. The proactive professor’s classes are always full, and full of energy. These are the ‘living legends’ on every campus.

The professors who go the distance in the classroom are also - invariably - the ones available to students, outside the classroom. A student can walk up to such a teacher with a personal issue or an academic issue and get a patient hearing. And some sound advice.

I do not know how and when the entire education system will get fixed. But if we can create more procative and self-motivated teachers, it will start getting fixed - from within.

I would go so far as to call such teachers as ‘entrepreneurs’ because with the same limited resources and raw material to work with, they are able to ‘solve’ a problem. Which is, how to transfer both knowledge and wisdom to young people.

The least we can do is to celebrate such teacher-entrepreneurs. If you have experienced such a teacher, who has altered your mind and spirit, do write in with the details as follows:
- name of teacher/ professor & school/ college
- period you were taught
- what was different or unique about him/ her in the classroom
- what impact he/ she made outside the classroom
- any specific personal experience or encounter which impacted you for life
- a picture of this teacher if possible (either alone or with you or with entire class)
- is he/ she still in service
- contact email id/ facebook page of the teacher (so that more past students can be in touch).

You can email the information to rashmi_b at yahoo.com and I promise to feature them in this space over the next few days.

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