T for Teacher

Mounik Shankar Lahiri

One of the greatest ironies in our society is to do with our understanding of the profession of teaching. While there is no end to the platitudes concerning the almost sacred profession of teaching, in reality there is little recognition or status accorded to teachers, who tirelessly do their work in our nations classrooms, sandwiched between all sorts of expectations, from various quarters, be it the school management, students, parents or curriculum makers. What indeed, should be the status of our school teachers in our society and how exactly are we supposed to know their worth?

In search for these answers, I became aware of an initiative called T for Teacher started by two individuals, in a Masters of Education classroom at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences (TISS), where they have frequently debated these issues among themselves and with others. They seek to provide answers to such questions and also do their bit for the plight of teachers today by advocating more attention to these critical issues related to the role of teachers in our popular imagination and in practice.inflatable toys

Simran Luthra and Rohit Kumar, both passionate about education, believe that if a true transformation is to come about in the field of school education in India, it is imperative for society to realize that it will happen only by empowering our teachers. I interviewed them to find out more about their initiative and their intrinsic motivation to champion such a cause.

Mounik: Please tell us something about your backgrounds and your primary motivation behind this initiative.
Simran: I definitely experienced the ‘childhood romance of teaching’ and was interested in education/teaching since my school days. After my masters in English, I got into English language training in Kolkata working for MNCs. However, my interest in education got me to apply for the Masters in Education (Elementary) at TISS, Mumbai and once that happened, I was extremely excited to enter the education space. Although I got a lot of support from my family, a lot of my friends considered my decision to quit a job at an MNC and join a school downright stupid! I also worked with an NGO that works in education and when I used to tell people that, they used to think I was doing social service – people are not aware of the development sector as a regular career option. While working as a teacher in a private school and being simultaneously exposed to educational theory in my TISS classes, I began looking at the school space more critically. Interacting with teachers from other schools, I realized that teachers are not really happy in their professions and face various kinds of problems because of the position they occupy – they actually bear the brunt of everything and are made scapegoats by the managements, parents, and even students. Rohit and I both have worked as teachers and in sharing experiences felt a lot of anger at how this extremely significant profession has been de-valued and that was the genesis of this initiative.
Rohit: Born in a small town in North India, the only aspiration for a male child is to study science and become an engineer. I did become a software engineer and developed software for a long time before I realized that this country needs more people who can help develop better minds before they can develop good software. I switched careers, and today I can proudly say – I teach. However, while being in the education space for the last couple of years and having friends from IT and other industries, I realized there is very little motivation amongst people who are in the teaching profession and there is very little respect for this profession amongst people who are outside it. This, I find, affects the quality of work a teacher does in the classroom. Now, if I want to affect the quality of education in India, I will need people who have pride in their work. How can a de-motivated person deliver quality in any field, for that matter? While I started reading about it, I found, there was very little research around the status and motivation of teachers in India compared to the work done around curriculum, pedagogy, child-centric education, etc. What’s the point of having the best quality curriculum if you don’t have motivated teachers to deliver them? But the next question was, why was there such an intrinsic dearth of motivation among teachers? Who are they being perceived as? How does the perception of their work affect their work? And while discussing these questions with Simran, I realized it would be important to find the answers.

Mounik: What are the main objectives of T for Teacher?
Simran: The long-term aim of T for Teacher is to work towards the improvement of the status of school teachers in India through research, promotion activities, and advocacy for the status of teachers as well in popular imagination.

Mounik: What according to you is the current status of teachers in Indian society? Do you think it is uniform across schools catering to different economic or social groups or do you think teachers are disadvantaged in some sections more than in others?
Simran: I think Bernard Shaw’s unfortunate maxim: “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach,” has been taken rather seriously in India. The general notion is that, it is a profession for housewives or people who are not really career-oriented. The salaries paid to teachers are again reflective of their low status. Primary school teachers who in fact work the hardest are paid the least in private schools. The pay scale in government schools, which was revised is attractive, which is why even men vie for teaching positions in government schools. So yes, the status is not uniform across different kinds of schools. Also status can be defined in two ways – one is in real, material terms such as salary or benefits and the other is at the societal level, in popular imagination. And at present the status of teachers is low in both terms.
Rohit: In the past few years, I have visited many career fairs and interacted with many students. When asked, what they aspire to become, they would happily respond – a doctor, engineer, actress, police, armyman, journalist, air hostess but very rarely a teacher. This clearly indicates how our children and their guides – parents, friends, and the society – perceive teaching as a career option. In my own case, it was quite amusing that my father didn’t take pride in informing my relatives that I left a career of a software engineer to become a teacher.

Mounik: How do you propose society treats its teachers? What transformation do you advocate at an individual level to improve the status of teachers in India?
Simran: If not anything grand, teaching should be as high as say other professions like engineering or medicine. Teachers put in a lot of emotional labour in their work but that is something that is never acknowledged. People need to stop thinking that teaching is something anyone can do. Teachers themselves need to feel a sense of pride in the identity of a ‘teacher’. Unfortunately there are no teachers’ unions or platforms for addressing the grievances of teachers. There are no measures to ensure that teachers do not face injustice at the workplace. There is perhaps no school which has a sexual harassment cell, for example, in the country, while it is not uncommon for teachers to be at the receiving end of sexual harassment. In fact at times students also harass teachers sexually or emotionally. The discourse has changed in favour of the child, so that more empathetic parenting styles and child-centric education have now become the mainstream discourse. However, this shift should not be at the cost of the teacher’s status.
Rohit: In a free market economy, the demand and supply determine the value of a person or profession. The problem is we have a somewhat erroneous perception of educational demands. And places where private demands are being met (read coaching centers) have further compromised the status and respect for the profession. It has moved to commoditization and has developed a service outlook for the process of educating a child. We, as parents and as society, need to recognize that education has broader aims. There should be higher standards for selection, higher remunerations, and of course higher expectations from our teachers.

Mounik: How important is it to realign the goals of education to one that gives teachers the freedom to innovate for better learning outcomes for society?
Rohit: Dileep Ranjekar, CEO, Azim Premji Foundation, in one of his interviews has said, “Teachers make the highest impact on quality in the classroom. They are at the heart of education but the status of overall teacher education in India is pathetic, to put it mildly.1” I closely associate with it. It is quite sad that in the industrialization of the education system, the role of the teacher has reduced to product line workers in a factory. Education has to be very organic and in that sense, a teacher’s role is like that of a farmer who enriches each child like a sapling… a teacher’s role is like that of a parent who doesn’t discriminate between his/her children and provides equitable care to each. And with a role like that, we need to think about restructuring our systems, keeping the person of a teacher at the centre, along with the child.

Mounik: Do you think the commoditization of education has adversely affected teachers in the elite private schools? In other words, do you advocate more private involvement in school education or would you want that to be left to the government?
Simran: Most people are oblivious to the reality of the commoditization of education. The fact that private schools treat education as a lucrative business is not something people are unaware of, but the implications of treating education as a solely profit-making venture has severe problems, and most people do not engage with this aspect of privatization. I am not against privatization per se and of course I believe that the government should be involved in terms of regulation and more, but it comes down to what the aims of education are. When the end of education in a private school is profit, I feel that the labour of the teacher is where the profit of the school also comes from – i.e., teachers are not remunerated well enough. The implications of commoditization are also that education becomes a ‘service’ being provided to children and their parents and this further lowers the status of the teacher to a service-provider from being perceived as a competent, respected professional. School managements also treat teachers shabbily and as employees who are dispensable. This I believe is the reason the teacher turnover or attrition is so high in schools.

Mounik: We see a huge reliance on technology in our classrooms today. How do you conceptualize that and how do you think it affects our teachers today? How do you think the increased reliance on technology affects how teachers are perceived by parents and society?
Rohit: Recently, I happened to come across an organization which is working on technology-based classrooms where technology replaces the teacher. I find that ridiculous. ConceptNet4 (The smartest Artificial Intelligence system) has an IQ equivalent to that of a 4-year-old child2. Keeping that in perspective, what are we replacing our teachers with? The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where many children of employees from Silicon Valley companies study, focuses more on physical and hands-on task based learning, rather than heavily relying on technology3. We need to recognize that technology can only be assistive and not a replacement of the teacher.

Mounik: One of the objectives in your Facebook page talks about creating a sense of pride amongst people in education? How do you propose to work towards this objective?
Simran: Yes that is indeed one of the most important aims that led us to create T for Teacher. Very often I have been asked: “What is there to study in education?” Or: “Isn’t education boring?” The fact is that people, in general, in India do not understand the relevance of importance of the discipline. So generating awareness about issues related to teachers and the aims of education are certainly part of our agenda. We are looking forward to getting ideas from teachers themselves to make this their movement.

Mounik: Finally what message do you have for the majority of our readers who are school teachers and what can T for Teacher do in the long run to help them understand better, their value in society?
Simran: Teachers – you need to feel extremely proud of yourselves. For whatever reasons you have entered the profession you must remember that you are in one of the most relevant and significant professions. But my request is for teachers to also assert themselves in any situation in which they feel their rights are being compromised. It may be difficult, but it is important that the teacher community in India starts uniting – so share your experiences and troubles, T for Teacher would love to hear your stories.
Rohit: Love yourself, love your work. Remind yourself each day that it’s you who has the potential to give this world its next Savitri Bai Phule, or Gandhi, or Mandela, or Obama.

You can look up and like T for Teacher on Facebook. Come and be part of the movement!

____________________________________________________________________________________
References

  1. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-07-24/bangalore/32827126_1_teacher-pupil-ratio-head-teacher-education-act
  2. http://www.businessinsider.com/best-artificial-intelligence-smart-preschooler-2013-7
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

The interviewer is an educator and freelance writer on education and holds an advanced PG diploma in Public Policy. He co-founded ‘Fill in the Blanks’, which aims to conduct workshops for teachers and students to supplement regular classroom interactions. He can be reached at themounik@yahoo.com.