The subject of the matter

This is the year of mathematics, so declared in December by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in commemoration of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s 125th birth anniversary. The year-long celebration features a variety of events including conferences and popularization exercises aimed at generating greater interest in mathematics. Last year, 2011, was the International Year of Chemistry. Adding to the several events organized by science organizations around the world, the Tata Chemicals Limited launched the Best Chemistry Teacher Award to honour teachers of chemistry in colleges and schools across the country. Two high school teachers were among the six who won the award: Mr Ravindra Bhaskar from Akola and Ms Tasneem Kaur from Aligarh. The four others teach at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The awards were based not only on the experience, expertise and innovativeness of the teachers, but also looked at their impact on students. One award was based on student responses to the nominations as shared on social media platforms.

Subject teachers at the school level have a major responsibility in terms of inculcating learning attitudes and generating interest in a particular subject. We all know that our own interest in a field comes in large part from how we experienced the subject in school. The inspired and passionate teacher of language probably led many a student to go on to study language at the university level; the inventive physics teacher most likely kindled a passion for the science in more than a few students; the clarity and precision conveyed by the math teacher perhaps motivated many a student to go further in search of numerical truths. Even in cases where we may not be motivated enough to take the interest through to a university degree in that subject, the interest at least carries us through the examinations and makes study of that subject pleasurable – and not the chore it could otherwise become.

The inspiring teacher is one who cares. About the student, primarily, but also about the subject she or he deals with. It’s when you care deeply about a subject that you can share the excitement and energy while talking about it. When we care deeply about a subject, we are also motivated to share that with others, and we care that the others (in this case students) also come to share that excitement with us. It’s through this shared excitement that an environment of learning is created. Then you really don’t need to “teach”. The learning just happens, and the student experiences the true pleasures of discovery.

Awards such as the TCL award for chemistry teaching, or government awards for long service do their bit to encourage and motivate teachers. But the true motivation comes from engaging with the subject.