Can I be a teacher like my teacher?

Nidhi Gaur

“Would you like to share an experience where you felt discriminated on the basis of gender at home? For instance, you felt that your brother was given more importance than you?” my teacher asked while initiating a discussion on gender socialization. She was addressing a group of 17 to 18-year-old girls in a college affiliated to the University of Delhi. Little did I know that this teacher would change the course of my life. She adorned a teacher-like simplicity, which drew respect from all of us.

“No, I come from a modern and a progressive family. My brother and I are treated equally. We have attended the same school.” This was the essence of all the responses to the questions. Each of us was certain of our response. This was the beginning of our first year in college. I wish the teacher had asked us the same question towards the end of the fourth year. Our responses might have been different. Probably, she knew it, so she didn’t ask us again.

She taught us in three out of four years of the B.El.Ed programme. Her pedagogic style was simple. She would give us a text to read prior to our class. We were expected to read the text before coming to the class. Unprepared for our class would make us feel left out in the discussions that always went beyond the text. During discussions, she enjoyed assuming the role of a devil’s advocate, a phrase she often used. Every time she took on the role, she questioned our ideas, our line of thoughts and our socialized self.

“Why did you join a teacher education course?” she asked us.
“To become a teacher,” was the obvious answer that everyone gave.
“Do you want to become a teacher?” she probed further.
“No”, came a reply in chorus.
“Our parents pressurized us to join the course,” my classmates replied.
“Was your brother also pressurized to join a certain course?”

There was a mixed response.
Why weren’t you pressurized to join that course? The response became even more muddled.
“If you felt so pressurized, then what would you have done to prevent your admission to the course?” She had once asked us teasingly. We mulled over it.
One of us said, “We could have failed the exam.”
“Which would have resulted in us getting nicely scolded and reminded of our failure for years to come,” replied another.
“Why would you be scolded for something that falls under your personal domain? It is your life. It is your career. Shouldn’t you be taking responsibility for your actions and for your life?”

Her questions unsettled us and often travelled with us to our homes. We began to question our actions, our use of language and our choices. With her guidance and constant probing, I learnt to see myself as an individual. I sent my first opinion to a newspaper because of this newly found self-confidence. I learnt to plan my life. I learnt to find ways through negotiation and sometimes by taking a stand, to follow my plan. Interactions with her in and out of class guided me in innumerable ways to engage with myself and others. My parents found it difficult to deal with my new-found independence of thought and my decision-making. They perceived teaching as a safe career option for girls as they could enjoy their family life and provide better education for kids. My teacher helped me perceive teaching as a profession that requires commitment, accountability and consistent reading, writing and reflection.

This learning was strengthened and deepened by another teacher to whom I owe a lot more. I met him for the first time in his large office. We were meeting to discuss a two-page statement of purpose that I had prepared for my M.Ed dissertation. After an introduction, he picked up the first sentence from the document and asked, “What do you mean by this?” I began to explain. After patiently listening, he told me that the statement does not convey this at all. I read the sentence again. I agreed. This exercise was repeated for the next five sentences in the opening paragraph. This meeting went on for more than an hour. During my bus ride home, I could hear him point out the difference between a statement and a sentence. I jotted down every word I could remember he had said during the meeting. Six months later, that two-page document turned into a twelve-page proposal. I learnt to see writing as essentially re-writing.

What are you trying to say here? How do you know this? – were the two questions I learnt to ask myself while preparing for the class. He would ask these questions and many more during our discussions on my writing assignments. These questions trained me as a researcher. His pedagogic style was also simple. He would recommend a text a week before the class. While recommending the text, he would often introduce it to us.

For instance, he would introduce us to the author and also the nature of the text. In the class, he would quiz us on our reading of the text. If we passed the quiz, he would take out the notes he had prepared for the class. In these notes, he had planned the entire 60-minute discussion around the text. This discussion would consist of situating the text in its temporal-spatial context. It would also refer to the philosophical leanings of the writer. There would be questions, such as ‘Why would the writer say this? How is this writer arguing his point?’ ‘How does it relate to our time and our society?’

I remember in one of our PhD course work class, we were asked to read the book, The Malaises of Modernity by Charles Taylor. A dense text written for the students of philosophy studying at the American and European universities, he had warned us. He also said that we will be reading this text slowly and closely, that is chapter by chapter. This was the third text prescribed in our course. So, by then, we knew that while preparing for our class, we not only had to read the prescribed text, we also had to look at the bibliography shared at the end of the text. We also had to read about the author. We had to, at the very least, try to think about the choice of words selected by the author.

I followed these steps while reading. I thought I was prepared for the discussion. At the beginning of the meeting, he started quizzing us. At every question, I felt as blank as I could be. The third question he asked us was how the author was using Kierkargaard, Nietzsche in the text. I knew where these names were mentioned in the text. I opened the page. I looked for clues but could not find any. These names were mentioned together in one sentence. He asked if the author was using these to substantiate his argument. Was he critiquing their argument to introduce his own argument? I had no idea why these names were mentioned at all in the text.

When we couldn’t answer, he said that we had not read the text. I had read the text as well as I could, but I did not know where the answers to the questions could be found in the text, I said. He laughed. Then he introduced us to the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The class ended early. I knew that I had to go to the library, open the handbook of philosophy to read about these authors and the others mentioned by Taylor. I also knew that I was expected to do the same for other texts too.

In this manner, he taught us to read a text. Merely seeing each word with our eyes is not the kind of a reading a scholar is expected to do. When you read a text, you read it in its entirety. While reading a text, you also need to constantly refer to other sources to engage with it. Reading needs to stimulate your mind. It must cause disequilibrium for sometime at least.

During these discussions, he also listened to our every idea, thought, interpretation or extrapolation of the text. Not once was he impatient, even when our ideas were not well substantiated or they were over-analyzed. He read with us. He also asked us to suggest readings to include in the course. We felt valued in our classes. He is an exemplary figure for us. He still reads and writes voraciously. He reads and writes to make sense of the world. He encourages us to do the same. Can I be a teacher like him? I will certainly try.

I later found that my first teacher Ms. Shirley Joseph was the student of my second teacher, Prof. Krishna Kumar. While Ms. Shirley Joseph encouraged me to take control of my life, Prof. Krishna Kumar gave me the necessary education to lead this life. Both my teachers helped me see teaching as a profession that demands commitment, consistent reading, writing and reflection.

The author is working as an Associate Editor at Ektara, Takshila’s centre for children’s literature and art. She can be reached at ni.gaur@gmail.com.