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Polka-dotted teachers

1 August 2016 No Comment

Pratiksha Chopra

It seems like an incredibly short decade of teaching. By teaching, I mean teaching English as a second language to a consortium of learners, handling editorial jobs, chiselling public speakers out of uncomfortable English speakers, scripting, directing (and acting out) self-scripted plays, writing founder’s day speeches, drafting emails of formal as well as informal stripes, being a parent counsellor, reporter, and event manager. I was forgetting the homework load!

When I started teaching in 2005, I was convinced I’d found my calling. Naturally there were bad lessons, days, and even weeks, but they were mirrored by just as many positive ones. The world seemed a wearisomely gratifying and productive place with the classroom being home; a sanctuary you could draw your confidence and motivation from, until Stephen Spender’s ‘An Elementary Classroom in a Slum’ stirred a beat and a half in the heart with –
Break O break open ’till they break the town
And show the children green fields and make their world
Run azure on gold sands, and let their tongues
Run naked into books, the white and green leaves open
History is theirs whose language is the sun. (Stephen Spender Trust 2015)

And then the calling happened! Querencia happened! My endeavour to break away from full time teaching and explore new faces, places, and challenges was the calling as well as the Querencia I mention so passionately. I knew I am going to find the intellectual gratification and be at home seamlessly with the whole idea of diversifying my educationist tag.

My first endeavour to merge knowledge and real-life learning was at an outbound learning camp.

Out there, the children were children
And teachers were also children.
And the world was at fire.

tatkse-International-1 The camp was an opportunity to understand how important it is for teachers to be empowered, be futurists, and be driven to make an impact on the world. But who would be able to take on such responsibility? The majority of teachers on my planet were busy completing the top-led, one-way curriculum. And then there was the larger question – Who would do it effectively? Who would think like a forerunner of skill-based, thought-driven, strategy education that will ride the winds of change?

Not that there is no one leading the way! And I was sure about joining that league of the committed few, leaving behind 3650 days of toil, morning bus rides, of planning and seasons of mirth that the students had brought.

“But what else can you do?” people asked me as I began untangling myself from my life as an English teacher. Some version of this question is often lobbed at people with the arts/humanities training, and I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of our skill set. Those of us trained in these fields are masters of critical thinking and problem solving; we know how to research; we can work independently and as part of a team; we can secure grant moneys and fill out paperwork like nobody’s business; we know how to write and use a semi-colon properly; and on top of all that we have content-specific expertise. I think a better question might be: “What can’t you do?”

And in my case, when people would ask the additional question, “What job could be better?” I realized that straddling would be better. I realized how meaningful it would be to sit at the back of the classroom and understand how the minds of teachers and students worked; how challenging it would be to comprehend, appreciate, and redesign those 40 minutes of a classroom session.

But most of all, I realized I didn’t want a job anymore. I wanted to be the one making the jobs for other people. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice my mental and physical health after 10 years of teaching for the promise of a pension.

Quitting is never easy, especially when professional competence is so hard-won. Also, the decision to quit means turning your back on job security, good pay and the students you love. When I talk to teachers, and increasingly head teachers, looking for a career change, they are often highly capable, but unsure how to make the best use of their skills and stay true to their personal values. But if they do choose to change direction, there are plenty of possibilities.

The research and awareness regarding the growing trends in academic opportunities also struck saying that it is very lonely at the top and the road to the presidency is becoming less linear. The paths are becoming more varied for those seeking to lead at that level. The traditional roadmap of faculty member to department chair, to dean, then provost, then president is becoming the road less and less travelled, as surveys of provosts reveal that fewer and fewer of those in such positions aspire to become presidents.

And I, for sure, wanted to be part of the classroom rather than lead a herd. I wanted to find a new-fangled surface of educational psychology with varied faces, varied contexts and haul in my own small revolutions – ones that would make students love and be comfortable with the colonial legacy that has become our oxygen – English Language!

Over the past year, I have had my professional legs straddling two different fields, teacher training and sessions with underprivileged students, sprinkled with some content development propelling the ideals and benefits of Bloom’s Taxonomy. It has been stressful at times, but I have also discovered that code switching between full-time teaching and teaching the teacher is not so difficult. I’m more confident at speaking to large groups of people, planning, and record-keeping. It’s been most helpful in terms of how I engage the schools I work with.

tatkse-International-2

Like many academics, I have multiple roles, each with interesting and useful titles. I write and publish poems. On my tax returns, I use “poet” as the best descriptor of my work in the world. Yet, poet feels not quite right for a title associated with peer review. The broader descriptor, “writer or trainer,” could be used to explain my place in the world, but it seems more like just that, a description not a title. I edit academic books. I could use Editor, as a title. Many people use Independent Scholar. Perhaps I will settle on that designation as it seems to be an emerging convention for scholars outside of academia.

For now, I have settled on the phrase, Scholar and Poet, to accompany my name when needed for biographical statements. It is not satisfying; it fails to place me, but perhaps exactly in that failure is the success of the title.

Finally, Fulbright Scholarship transpired, taking me to the land of John Dewey to discover the alleys of learning myself.

And lo! Querencia happened – a place where I draw my strength from, where I am my authentic self, a place which is home.

The author is an English Language Specialist and works as a teacher educator and content developer. Currently, she is researching active learning strategies to aid Motivated Literacy in ESL (English as a Second Language) as a Fulbright Scholar at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indianapolis. She can be reached at pratikshachopra@gmail.com.

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