The “Unteacherly” advantage

It has almost been five years since I retired from a career, mostly as principal, spanning several schools, in various parts of India. I feel this is a good time to remember the teachers who helped me understand various aspects of school education.

A brief background will help put things in perspective. I did my B.Tech from IIT-B and MBA from IIM-A and worked in private corporate organizations in India and Nigeria for 17 years. Then I shifted to school education since I felt that my basic interests and core competency was in education. I was not allowed by the education bureaucracy to enroll for a B.Ed. I could become a principal only because CBSE relaxed its rules in the Nineties.

I had to learn many things about managing a school, which most principals learn through apprenticeship, from my teachers, a few fellow principals and some extraordinary mentors!

I did my schooling in SIES School in Mumbai. Natarajan Sir became our class teacher in class 6 and continued with us until class 10. He was liked by most students and I do not remember any time he ever “put down” any student for not being good in academics. He had a knack of softening even his harsh messages with a dash of humour. He was a role model and possibly the idea of becoming a teacher was sown by him.

Vaidyanathan Sir taught me Tamil only for two years. But he made it interesting with his deep knowledge of Tamil literature, ability to make it accessible to students and liberal doses of humour. It is due to him that I still retain my interest in reading literature and contemporary writings in Tamil.

I learnt that if teachers use humour, students respond positively.

Looking back at my post-school education, I realize that the engineering course was more a “training” than an “education”. In IIM Ahmedabad, it took me several months to get used to the unconventional pedagogy. I remember asking a professor a question during a class and being flabbergasted when he bounced the question right back to me with “What do YOU think?” The “case method” taught me that there are several ways to think about any situation and that we need to think out a way which is relevant to the current situation.

Talking to the teachers, trustees, visitors and parents of Rishi Valley School as the Bursar, was itself an exposure to many perspectives on education. Roshen showed me the power of disciplined thinking in synthesizing and digesting vast amounts of knowledge.

However it was only after leaving Rishi Valley and leading schools on my own that I realized the deeper meaning of many ideas of J Krishnamurti. Ravi, a young manager in SRF, Delhi, introduced me to Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. Kohn’s ideas on education were very similar to that of JK, but he presented them in a language and with examples which could be easily understood by a layperson. I consider Kohn as one of my “virtual” mentors and his books a bible for understanding issues in motivation and learning. Surprisingly I have never come across this book in any school library!

I realized that Rishi Valley had developed an ethos of its own over the years due to people who deeply believed in the educational philosophy of JK. It was this shared ethos which gave a sense of continuity to the spirit of the school, in spite of teachers changing continuously over a period of time.

Rishi Valley taught me that every school needs to evolve an educational vision relevant to its stakeholders, time and place. This vision should belong to that of the management of a school. If it is that of a particular principal, then there may not be continuity when principals change. Managements should choose principals whose ideas are in consonance with their vision.

I was lucky that my first job as a principal was with SRF Vidyalaya in Chennai which had just come up to class 5. Since the public examination was five years away, we were able to experiment with various ideas in learning, teaching and administration, without the parents getting alarmed and taking up arms against any change! Managing a school with a large percentage of “first generation” learners constantly challenged my own understanding of education and forced me to continuously learn and re-learn! Primary school is also an area which offers real understanding of children and educational issues. By not prioritizing it, many principals are losing valuable opportunities to learn.

I used to observe many classes and discuss issues related to teaching and learning with the teachers. I learnt that when teachers say “learn it” they usually mean “memorize it”. I also found out that there was no clear understanding about what understanding is! I found that their lesson plans always started with a paragraph titled “Motivation” and most of them were never really able to explain what it meant. While observing an English lesson for class 2, I heard a teacher say ”A for Apple “which got me thinking as to what it really meant for the child in that class, and set me on a journey to understand the nuances of language teaching.

In another class 3, I found that students were diligently writing down answers to some subtraction math problems. I wondered as to how the children with a limited English proficiency could read a math problem and figure out the solution. When I asked one of the students, her answer was revealing both to me and the teacher! The student said (of course in Tamil) “Easy, Sir. The problems are at the end of the subtraction chapter!” This taught me that textbooks needed to be used with caution!

The British Council Library provided me with excellent books on various aspects of education. I requested my teachers to try out many of these ideas in the class and give me feedback. I was lucky that Jayanthi, Lakshmi and Mary, among others, took my relative inexperience in school management as an opportunity share their school experiences with me and to learn new ideas along with me.

At my farewell, Jayanthi remarked that “Sir, in the first six months we were wondering if you knew anything at all about running a school!” Another commented that since I did not teach in the classroom, I gave them all kinds of ideas to try out without understanding the difficulties of doing so!

Having become a principal without the necessary “apprenticeship”, I visited many “well known” schools hoping to get answers for many of the issues faced by me. Most principals viewed me with suspicion and did not want to share any information with me! But a few, like Malathi Gopalakrishnan and Sushila Raghavan, welcomed me, appreciated my efforts and offered me a lot of guidance. They became my mentors and good friends forever.

Suma at Atul Vidyalaya showed me that students of class 3 could orally come up with innovative problems in addition and subtraction which could be given as class work to another section! Problems need not always be at the end of chapters in textbooks! She also demonstrated how math activities could get children into a “flow” of learning, forgetting everything else. Not being allowed to go to the Math Activity Centre was seen as a punishment!

Sinny and Sheela at the Reliance school in Jamnagar regularly shared their classroom experiences with me. Sinny made me understand the difficulties which day-to-day language can cause in learning math. She once reported that her students thought only zero, six, eight and nine were whole numbers! It was, after some effort, that she realized it was because these had “holes” in them! Another teacher made me realize that students in class 6 thought that only vertical and horizontal lines are straight lines and others are slanting! They had not realized the difference between a geometrical definition versus a real life understanding!

Prof Rajiv Sharma of IIM-A wrote a case study on “academic change” in the Jamnagar school and showed me the power of trust, delegation and autonomy. The coordinators of the pre-primary (Sasmita) and primary (Pallavi) sections convinced their teachers to take complete ownership for the change process, because I had delegated a lot of authority and responsibility to them. They had solved many issues in consultation with their teachers without even bringing them to my table. This was something I myself had not realized until Prof. Sharma brought it to my notice!

My most memorable teacher was Shri P K Srinivasan (PKS) from whom I re-learnt primary math, at the age of 42. I met PKS at the Rishi Valley School, around 1990, where he had come to conduct math workshops for teachers. It was the beginning of a friend-guide-philosopher association for the next 15 years.

He showed me that while I was good at “doing math”, I had not “understood” many basic concepts. He taught me the difference between concepts and information and how teachers mistake one for the other. He also made me understand, through a framework of values-concepts-skills and information, why and how different subjects needed to be taught in different ways. His favorite quotes were “Concepts cannot be taught. They have to be caught” and “if a student cannot catch a concept in one way, try throwing it in a different way”. He talked of the importance of intrinsic motivation in learning. He introduced me to the use of visual pedagogy using activities in math and the various ways in which teachers can motivate students to “catch” the concepts in math. It is he who transformed a manager who had never taught math to students in a classroom into a “math consultant” who could train math teachers!

Another friend-guide and philosopher I was lucky to interact with was Rasikbhai Shah who was the advisor to Atul Vidyalaya. He handed over to me a school which was already implementing “project-based learning without textbooks” in the primary school. He had already done the difficult work of convincing the management, parents and the teachers about the efficacy of that method. So I had a solid foundation to build further ideas on.

I also remember a few teachers who taught me how teachers should not teach! I had a math teacher in school who would give a problem and ask students who had completed the problem to stand up. As soon as the first five students with the correct answer stood up, that problem was given to the rest of the class as an imposition-homework to be done five times at home! I survived because I was usually one of those students who stood up!

Looking back on my school career, I realize that my management training and lack of experience as a teacher have really been an advantage. I had no idea about the norms followed by a traditional school principal and was willing to ask questions and look around for answers. Many doors opened when I knocked on them.

The author has worked as a principal, teacher trainer and educational consultant in several schools in different parts of India. He retired as the principal of the Reliance School in Jamnagar in October 2013 and has settled down in Chennai. His areas of interest are primary mathematics, school leadership, quality in education and technology in education. He is currently working on a book on understanding the various concepts underlying all the topics in the K-8 math curriculum. He can be reached at sundaram48@yahoo.com.