To “Bio Sir” with love

Jyotsna Vijapurkar

This morning I had a glorious start to the day. A sun bird, sporting resplendent crimson on its front, visited the little balcony garden I maintain. Along with two female companions, it was feeding from a few blooms of Clitoria alba. To confirm that I had identified it correctly (the details of the colouration were different from what the guide books showed), I called up an expert who discussed it for a while, and then asked – why did you not study biology?

In high school, unable to choose between biology and mathematics (if you opted for science, you had to study physics and chemistry, and choose between either biology or mathematics), I had taken all four subjects. In college I found I had to choose – was it going to be biology? Or mathematics? I chose the latter. The reason was simple – I had a most wonderful biology teacher in high school. He rarely taught out of the textbook. He held classes in the lab, instead of a boring, bare classroom. If he saw something interesting on his way to class, that became the starting point for the day’s discussion. A lesson on plant nutrition? It would start with ‘have you seen those bushes by the playground, near the fence? Did you notice that yellow stuff growing on them?’ We learned that was dodder. We learned about parasitism in plants. How wonderful to have tangible examples right in our surroundings, instead of depending on a picture in the book! Often the pictures have no scale, nor the size mentioned. For the longest time I used to think that a hydra was a few inches tall!

His class plans were tentative, and classes were driven by student responses, long before researchers in education started recommending it. Yet he managed to teach us all he had to according to the prescribed syllabus, and then some, without staying within the narrow confines of the textbook. Most of all, he was excited about biology. That excitement infected us all. Quite a few of us became his adoring students. Our families almost tired of us talking about ‘Bio Sir’. In the excited chatter at home in the evenings, somehow stories of what happened in the ‘Bio class’ were highlights.

So why did I leave biology? Having older siblings, I had an idea of how it was taught in college. It was not bad, but compared to my high school classes it was pretty ho hum. Dull. It totally put me off from studying biology further. This is what would have happened in high school – my interest in the natural world around me, sustained (and possibly kindled) by my mother would have died a natural death had it not been for this teacher.

It is too bad that I do not remember in detail the anecdotes from his classes. But perhaps that is not even necessary. Here I am, decades after the last formal instruction in the subject, and my interest in it is still alive. I work in education now, and am publishing my research which includes biology education. I still keep abreast of interesting developments in the field. I still continue to observe plants and animals as keenly as I did when I was a kid (when it comes naturally). I still have questions about my observations, which I take to experts. Some, it turns out, are answered in relatively recent publications in journals. And after having spent more years working in the physical sciences than all the years of formal biology instruction I received, I have often been mistaken for someone who comes from a biology background! Could there be a better tribute to a teacher?

So thank you, sir. You have no idea how effective your classes were – you not only taught high school biology, you made a lifelong biology learner of me (and no doubt many others). This tribute may have been more appropriate on Sep 5, but teachers like Mr. Indramani Singh are remembered far more often; indeed, any day can then be teacher’s day!

The author is on the faculty at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. She can be reached at jvijapurkar@gmail.com.