Care and the teacher

Sonali Sathaye

Is the teacher-student relationship of necessity based on artifice?
A pavement being re-done, pulled up chunks of concrete, broken stones and gravel, holes and rubble. On the narrow strip left by the side of the road, a woman squats on the ground. A little girl stands in front, belly sticking out. Her hair in two round pigtails, her frock a frill around her underpants, she stands straight, extending her limbs out to her mother who bends over them, a small chambu of water beside her. They talk a little, the child with her neck bent, eyes tracing her mother’s hands on her skin; she accepts the ministrations like a queen, expecting no less. Dipping her hands into the water, the mother pulls her still closer to pass her hands over the child’s face. When she is fully satisfied with the little girl’s toilette, the woman gets up, pulls down her hitched, high-worn sari, clasps the child’s hand in her own, and they make their way over the torn-up pavement together.

This incident got me wondering about care and the role it plays in relationship especially for those who interact consistently with the young and vulnerable: parents and teachers. Understandings of what it means to be a parent vary – with circumstance, with culture, with religion and region, not to mention with species. Yet, it is immediately obvious that to be a parent is to protect your child from harm. Whether by the side of the road or in plush palaces, whether in English or in Kannada, to be a parent is to accept responsibility for the psychological and physical safety of your young.

Humans are not unique in this. All of the natural world has parents. A clue may lie in the fact that if it feels funny to talk of a lizard “wife”, it seems only natural to call a tigress a “mother”. You don’t have to be human to be a mother or a father – a parent by any other name would still care for their offspring. And in an ideal scenario, if allowed to grow in safety, a child too takes for granted the care that is due them. The parent-child relationship ideally is supposed to need no training. It springs sui generis, it is supposed, from instinct.

No such supposition exists for the teacher-student relationship. Rarely do we talk of “instinct” when it comes to teachers; instead teachers have to study to become teachers. And why not? Unlike the family, the institution of a “school” is a uniquely human fabrication. It is, moreover, a recent one even in the history of human existence, only dating back to the time of the Industrial Revolution in the West. The division between “home” and “work” central to the industrial economy meant that schools became the young person’s “work place”, where they could be formally taught the skills that until then they had absorbed by being around their elders. Given the artificial nature of a modern school, then, what can one expect in the matter of care within the teacher-student relationship? Does it even make sense to talk about such a subjective thing as “care”, since teachers, unlike parents, are being paid for their services?

Many – teachers, students, and parents – might claim that it most emphatically does not. They will cite the difficulties that teachers battle, and/or create, which go to make the notion of a caring teacher-student relation laughable. The difficulties are indeed many, and overwhelming. They include the nature of the current educational system which focuses on marks as a measure of a teacher’s worth, the infrastructure in which there may be one teacher for many tens of students, the oppressive nature of the school administrators, the fact that teachers are desperately underpaid. For all these reasons, what comes to the fore in many classrooms is power. A classroom based on the imbalance of power between teacher and student – and in some cases between students and the teacher – is one where sycophancy, deceit, arbitrariness, aggression flourish. And perhaps this is true of many of our experiences of teaching or being taught.

And yet. View those very young persons who enter school for the first time. They exhibit the same trusting regard towards the teacher that they do towards the parent. The child takes for granted the care and affection of the teacher – why shouldn’t she? And often the teacher responds in kind. For, again, why shouldn’t she? It seems entirely natural that a trusting, vulnerable small person is met with concern, with love. The response is instinctive, not bound by the structures of what is proper or permitted, to the divisions between the person and the role.

Is a student best cared for when a teacher is aware of herself as a “teacher”?
But it seems as people, young and old, students and teachers, grow in experience, they come to see that instinctual response as something to be mistrusted, or scorned. It is replaced by a value for form, for rules and structures. That trust and affection is construed as something naive is surely a loss for all of us. It is a loss not just at the individual level but at a much bigger societal level too, when we accept that power and not care will account for our relationships with each other.

And of what is power constituted? In the most egregious ways, power involves, of course, corporal punishment: shouting, hitting, standing out in the sun, etc., etc. But that is only the grossest expression of it. It seems to me that at its most fundamental, the exercise of power would mean – must mean – a withholding of oneself. A refusal to communicate with, to recognize the other, as a person like oneself. It would mean becoming a “teacher” to the child, rather than a concerned adult. Thus, automatically, making the child a “student”.

That playing the role of a teacher may be at odds with caring for the child might seem a strange notion. After all, the role play has been sanctified over generations by tradition, rationalized by bureaucratic authority, internalized by our own notions of correctness. It must seem that playing the role of a teacher is, in fact, the only way of caring for a student. In other words, the most caring way to be with a student is to exert power over them.

Increasingly, we find, for example, that teachers are exhorted to be “professionals”. This is often code for reminding the teacher to not relate as a human being with feelings of her own but rather to follow well-laid institutional chains of command. Increasingly, also, professionalism seems to mean that the most caring teacher is one who best prepares the students for any given board examination. Indeed it can even be suggested that the best care we can take of the student lies in “preparing” them for an examination, never mind the nature of the preparation or, for that matter, of the exam. (In fact, the examination context seems to wed perfectly our twin requirements that the teacher care for the student, expressed in an appropriate “teacherly” way.) The borders seem already well-laid – not to say secured – in the land of the teacher-student relationship.

When teachers are pressed for funds, for time, for love, it seems to make sense to build structures that are thus well fortified. Where on earth is there room in such a scenario for the uncharted waters of an engagement based on care, based on relating as we are, contradictory, often confused humans? Is it not immeasurably easier, safer, to meet as the uni-dimensional cut outs of “teacher”, “student”?

Is there a “parent instinct” which is separate from a “teacher instinct”?
To ask this question implies that care needs certain sets of conditions to flourish. That in the absence of those it is only right and normal that we take recourse to fixed structures, to roles. As if to engage with students fully, as an individual, were to do something “extra”. As if that kind of engagement were a luxury for those who could afford it. But – is there a technique to learn to care? A twelve-step programme? Or does it only operate, of its own, in certain special sets of relationships, such as those between parent and child in a biologically programmed manner? And if that were the case, then where does that leave the teacher-student relationship?

These questions only make sense if one accepts that human relationships spring from nature – and that thus sprung, they adhere to our social compartments. That they are, in other words, both biological and social and both at the same time. In practice, it is hard to know which is which. Society has equipped us with a role for almost any eventuality, and the role of “parent” has more detailed instructions than most (ironically barring perhaps that of being “woman” (or “man”)). One learns to become a parent as much as one learns to become an engineer, the former the more dangerous for seeming natural – and therefore unchangeable. Being a parent, in other words, is no guarantee that one will care for one’s child in the way the child needs. Parents may ensure the continuing unhappiness of their children, permitted as they are by society to assume they know the child better than she knows herself. Conversely, teachers may allow a child to express herself more freely and fully than she can with her parents, especially when parents take their role so seriously that they can no longer see the individual child in front of them.

Structures exist, and the problems of structures exist. We need better, much better, schools in which teachers have the support needed at every turn – in terms of time and money and space. We need schools in which teachers trust their own capacity for engagement. But structures on their own will not create spaces where children are listened to and cared for. Just as acquiring the socially-sanctioned label of “parent” does not automatically attune us to our children. In a way it seems like neither biology nor society is absolutely necessary to human relationship. What does seem necessary is, perhaps, the desire to understand, to connect. Luckily – even though some might say unluckily – to accept or not accept this state of affairs is not a matter of will. One cannot will into existence a feeling of care. Which is to say, while the quality of care cannot be shifted around at will, brought to where we think it most needed, say, the flip side is that it can also not be denied to anyone.

The author is trained as an anthropologist. Apart from sociology, she has also taught drama and English to young people in school and college. She currently works in the undergraduate programme at Azim Premji University, where she is involved in coordinating the Academic Resource Centre. She can be reached at