Students today, doctors and teachers tomorrow

Geetha Durairajan

Sometime last month, I happened to show my book, Assessing Learners: A Pedagogic Resource to my orthopaedic surgeon, Dr. C T Alagappan, who is also a family friend and well-wisher. He glanced through the book and then began talking to me about his teaching days in Stanley Medical College, Madras. Most of what he said was in Tamizh, for this conversation took place in my house in Chennai, but I am writing it in English. He said:

“I used to teach a lot in those days; we did not have LCD projectors then but I would get my assistants to take photographs of operations done by me, convert them into slides and show them to my students.

I used to tell them: I will teach you all the secrets of orthopaedic surgery that are not usually taught in medical college. I would take care to teach them how a particular ligament should be moved aside, or how a muscle should be separated during surgery. I used to also take time to explain how to make the first cut, particularly the angle at which the scalpel should be held, the point of entry. etc. An inch here or there would make a huge difference, either while trying to reach the bone, or later during healing.

classroom-1 When they could watch during actual surgery, I would talk as I worked and explain why I was doing something. This way, they got to not only read about surgical procedures, but also watch, learn, and understand the procedures. I did all this for a very specific purpose. I always told myself: tomorrow, (at some date in the future) one of these students may have to operate on me. When and if that situation arises, that doctor should be able to take good care of my body and help me heal well. He should be able to operate on me the way I would have, if I had done the surgery. To make this happen, I should teach him well today.”

And then, he continued: “In your field, your students will not become your actual teachers (the way my student could become my surgeon) but they will teach thousands of other students.”

When I heard all that he said: I thought to myself: This is what generous teaching from the heart is all about. All of us have heard the mantra: A good teacher is one who makes herself redundant for the learner. Here is a doctor who has actually practiced it.

In his field, medicine, particularly surgery, what he said will always hold true. If he ever needs surgery, someone else will have to operate on him. Through his teaching he is doing his best to ensure that not only himself, but all those whom his students operate on, will be lucky enough to be operated on by someone who takes great care.

classroom-2 Is this principle of ‘teach him to operate in such a way that if he operates on me he will do what I would have done for myself’ true only for surgery or medicine?

What about our field? Do the same standards apply?

All our students will not become teachers but they are going to use the knowledge and skills we give them in many ways at different times in their lives. Our students may become lawyers, web designers, bankers, etc. We ourselves may have to go to them for help.

We need to teach our students to use the knowledge, skills, and expertise they have in a caring manner, the way they would use it to help their kith and kin.

Those of us who teach teachers need to spread this ‘teaching from the heart’ a little differently. We have to ask ourselves: “How would we like our own children to be taught? What is the kind of guidance, support and help that we expect our children’s teachers to give them? Once we get an answer to these two questions, and hopefully, the image will be that of a caring and sharing teacher, we need to become that teacher and also make sure that we teach our teachers to also follow this mantra. If we don’t practice this (learner-centered, humane, caring teaching) we do not have the right to preach it.

There is a belief in Zen Buddhism that says that when a master teaches a disciple, however young that person may be, the master must teach that disciple knowing that in some future birth, that disciple may well be his teacher.

In Buddhist teachings we know that the notion of teacher and student spans many lifetimes. In our world of teaching and learning, we may not think of many life times but we must think of the many generations of students who will learn from us, our students and their students in turn. In the field of medicine, particularly surgery, the ‘teach others the way you want to be taught’ perspective may actually result in Dr. Alagappan’s student operating on him, taking as much care as he himself would have. In education, we need to share our teaching with caring so that the caring and sharing can be passed on.

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.