The word ‘teacher’ often comes loaded with many ideas, stereotypes and adjectives. A teacher is often associated with being kind, generous, loving, nurturing, supportive, and most importantly a noble person who helps you become the best version of yourself. Wow! It must be quite something to be a teacher, eh?! Are those the expectations my students have from me? Where is my superhuman cape? Just kidding! For most part of my childhood and schooling years my social conditioning also made me view teachers in a similar fashion. And I often wondered, “Are all teachers the same then?” Well, I was young then (not saying I’m not now) but I hadn’t quite seen the “real world” yet. I had a pretty good relationship with my teachers in school. But all those implicit and sometime in-your-face messages about being a ‘good student’ made me wonder if my relationship with my teachers was contingent on my academic scores and extra-curricular participation. However, there’s no denying that the teachers in my initial foundational years as a student reflected all those adjectives I mentioned earlier. I should probably write about how all of them helped me become the “best me” then? That would probably make for a great read but I guess I’ll save that one for later.
As I ventured into the “real world” after school, I realized that if my teachers were to judge me according to those conventional standards of a ‘good student’, I’d be setting out to meet unrealistic and unnecessary expectations. I soon learnt that teachers were more than just ‘good student ambassadors’. Through college and the years after, I met teachers who broadened my concept of a ‘teacher’. They showed me that teachers were not just there to give you ‘feel good messages’ or to judge you on your academic achievements but that they could be your sources of strength and courage.
I remember vividly the first few months during my graduation course at a college known for its hep crowd and location attracting students from many of Mumbai’s elite families. And as someone who didn’t quite fit that tag, the initial months at college were tough. To make it simpler, imagine an 18-year-old walking with a constant grey cloud of self-doubt hovering over her. I knew better than to try and ‘fit in’ but nothing else I did mattered. Things would have continued to be the same for months and years until I’d graduate without any fond memories of those three years. Except, life had other plans. Change scene: Enter Mrs. Dias, an aesthetically dressed woman in her late 50s with a perfect bun and eye liner, a bindi to go along with her hand-picked ethnic wear that only accentuated her elegant style and strong presence.
Mrs. Dias, the vice- principal and professor of history back in those days, was the personification of a woman of substance for someone like me. Dias ma’am, as we fondly called her, was one of my initial mentors in life. She heard me and helped me recognize my own voice. I remember my initial conversations with her outside of class where she challenged me to go beyond my comfort zone, at all times assuring me that she believed in me. She asked me to take on opportunities that would help me discover and at times rediscover myself, even if it was intimidating. I took up challenging roles and responsibilities, made many mistakes, developed beautiful relationships, learnt what I definitely wasn’t good at but most importantly recognized what it meant to believe in oneself and keep moving ahead. As a teacher, Dias ma’am taught me way more than the Renaissance, World Wars and history of Mumbai. She helped me gain the courage to believe in myself and move out of my comfort zone. Dias ma’am left us too early and while nothing can fill her void, she left behind an echo of encouragement and learnings to reflect on. She taught me one of my biggest lessons till date: Believe in yourself and challenge yourself to learn and grow.
At a time in my life when I struggled (correction: struggled more than I do now) with all the possible self-concept issues ranging from body image to self-esteem, I thought that was it. That there was nothing good that could come out of it. Except, once again, life did have better plans. I found my personal cheerleaders in all my professors who saw beyond my external flaws and issues. I know what you’ll say, ‘Don’t most teachers do that?’ Maybe yes, but not all teachers go out of their way to help you realize your true potential. During my graduate degree course in psychology, my teachers recognized what I had to offer to those around me and celebrated those aspects. They gave me opportunities and did not leave a single moment to appreciate or celebrate my little ‘big moments’. I still remember their voices telling me “This is great news. You’ll do bigger things in life.” I’m not sure of what those bigger things still are but I did realize that I was more than just my acne and that I do have some potential even when it is least apparent to me. Their belief and words of motivation taught me my second lesson: You are a sum of many different parts so do not let just one part define you.
As I navigated through those tough but exciting years of graduation, I felt I was quite ready for what life had to bring. But this time, life threw unexpected lemons. And you know what they say about life giving you lemons…. Except, I didn’t quite know how to make lemonade. And that’s when, yes you’re right, life threw in some lemonade chefs. My post-graduate degree course in clinical psychology was a whole new journey of self-work and delving into social, personal and interpersonal needs and issues. And if I may tell you the truth, you know all those defence mechanisms Freud talked about, they’re real! As a trainee therapist in a gruelling academic course, my professors served as coastguards during a stormy night. Amidst all the support they provided, every interaction with them was a learning experience. I realized that in the lowest and toughest of times, all I had to do was reach out to them. They may not have always had the answers I wanted, but they gave me the space to be myself and heard me out, without judgment or resentment. And having that space made me feel privileged because my teachers respected my life story, even though it wasn’t as great as a Spielberg script! And they taught me a life lesson: Reaching out for help* is absolutely OK and doesn’t make you weak! (*to a trusted adult/person)
My years as a student passed by and I delved into the lean, mean world of 9 to 5 jobs. OK, maybe that’s a bit exaggerated. My experiences in the workspace have in fact all been happy learning experiences. However, it was during my stint as a Research Officer on a mental health project when I experienced a lot of distress due to some personal experiences. And of course, things would have gone downward but… ta da! change scene and enter Dr. Chetna Duggal, a mentor, guide and someone who embodies the values and ideas that she often preaches. Through my interactions with her, she has been someone who showed me what kindness, humility and work ethic mean. She also showed me how to balance that thin line between professionalism and a personal touch. During conversations with her, her mere presence and approach teach me a lot. While I’ve learnt so much about research, psychotherapy and many other ideas related to the field from her, she left me with one of my biggest lessons so far: Let your presence embody the values you uphold or simply put, practice what you believe and you won’t always have to preach!
I’ve only shared few of the lessons I’ve learnt from my teachers. I could probably write annals of all my learnings from my teachers so far. Each of these learnings continues to influence my practice and like I always say, I’m still learning… I wouldn’t blur any boundaries to say that my teachers became my friends, but I do know that they went beyond their designated roles and responsibilities to offer opportunities for me to learn and become a better version of myself every moment of each day. While I write about the influence of my teachers, I cannot undermine the role played by experiences, friends, colleagues, people I’ve met and family in shaping me into who I am. Here’s to every teacher who has been the wind beneath my wings!
This piece is dedicated to all my incredible teachers wearing invisible capes in school, junior college, Jai Hind College Mumbai, School of Human Ecology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and my art, music and dance teachers.
The author is a practicing clinical psychologist in Mumbai. She can be reached at [email protected].