Who is a teacher? This deceptively simple question hides a tense relationship between the theory and practice of teaching. Often, teachers who have some years of experience argue about the gap between the theory that they learn during pre-service and in-service trainings and the reality that exists in schools. This article presents a unique example in which theory has met practice. The example is unique because it is situated in a rare rural educational experiment, Nai Talim (proposed by Mahatma Gandhi). Secondly, it is an example of a rare artist-teacher who put into practice the now oft-used phrase ‘teacher as a facilitator’.
An answer to the question – who is a teacher? – emerges from the idea of teaching. This article makes use of Montessori’s idea that teaching is a relational activity to discuss the topic further. Montessori’s idea of teaching implies a different role for the teacher. According to Kumar (2009), Montessori discusses the “spiritual preparation of the teacher and the role of the teacher as being essentially a person who creates an environment and nothing more, and for whom it is important not to have pride and not to be afflicted by anger…” (Kumar, 2009, p. 51) In the following paragraphs, this article illustrates the practice of this idea by a celebrated artist and teacher, Devi Prasad, in a craft-centered school in Sevagram.
Devi Prasad, reflecting on his experience of teaching in a craft-centered school in Sevagram ashram in Art: The Basis of Education, arrives at a similar understanding of the role of a teacher. He compares a teacher to a mother “who allows him (the child) ample freedom of movement. Nonetheless, she keeps a constant eye on the child….She does not stop the child from experiencing the heat coming from the stove, but takes care that the child is not harmed.” (Prasad, 1998, p. 98) He adds, “A good teacher is one who is unassuming and whose presence gives a feeling of assurance to the children,” (p. 98).
An illustration of this idea of a teacher can be found in many instances that he quotes from his own teaching experience. In one such instance, he discusses the case of an adolescent girl who attended his art classes. He describes this girl as shy and lacking in self-confidence, so much so that she hardly participated in any school activity. She was considered an unproductive member of the school community, both socially and intellectually. For months, she did nothing in the art classes facilitated by Prasad. His awareness about the girl’s sense of inferiority led him to decide that he would “make it a point of talking to her and tried to make her feel that I was always happy to see her and hoped that she would one day start making pictures. To my surprise, one day she came from behind my seat and pushed a piece of paper in front of me and ran away.” (Prasad, 1998, p. 37)
In this example, by acknowledging the girl’s presence, Prasad expressed his unconditional acceptance of her. This encouraged the girl to attend art classes. Prasad’s unconditional acceptance for her was aided by his expression of trust and hope that eventually she will draw in the art class. The girl reciprocated her teacher’s behaviour towards her by presenting him with a drawing. Prasad writes that the girl went on to become one of the best artists in the school. Probably, if Prasad had not shown such acceptance and trust towards her, she may never have learnt to draw and she would have lost an opportunity to explore her potential as an artist. Not all students require so much time and emotional support to respond but Prasad demonstrated the amount of patience teachers develop gradually through experience. Patiently waiting for the student to respond to the teaching is another quality of a teacher that Prasad shows in his illustration.
This instance also shows that Prasad allowed ample freedom to all students. Otherwise, he would have reprimanded this girl for not drawing in the art class. He discusses another instance that indicates the amount of freedom his students enjoyed in art classes. Prasad writes that when teachers visited Sevagram school and particularly his class, they would ask him, “‘Are these children making their pictures or clay models according to your instructions?’ My answer was: ‘No, not in eighty to ninety percent cases” (p. 112). He explains that ideally his answer should have been an emphatic ‘No’ because children should be able to freely express themselves through their art but that requires an atmosphere of genuine freedom not only in school, but also at home. He observed that not all students enjoy such a free and aesthetic atmosphere outside of the art class. These children needed a stimulating talk as well as a sense of confidence to enable them to participate in art classes. Thus, as a teacher his primary task was to create an enabling environment in which students could experience ample freedom and reassuring warmth.
Prasad’s practice of allowing ample freedom to students in the class becomes clearer in another instance that he shares about a boy who drew the same picture for eight months with a few changes. Prasad writes that he tried every argument to convince the boy to draw something else but he continued drawing the same picture. One day, Prasad took the whole class to visit the school farm for a picnic. The farm was covered with golden yellow sunflowers, almost as if ‘the sun has come to visit the earth’. The excited students enjoyed for half an hour in the farm. After returning to their class, the students began drawing. That day this boy’s “heart opened up to things other than his ‘favourite’ house” (p. 120). Reflecting on this experience, Prasad writes that a teacher needs to be aware of the child’s needs to evoke his creative urge. The child drew a new picture when something appealed to him more than his favourite house on a curved path. In this instance, Prasad’s role was not authoritative or instructive. Rather, Prasad tries to appeal to him. It is the student who keeps ignoring his appeals, not because he was ill-mannered but because he was unable to find anything more interesting than the house on the curved path.
A teacher is also a role-model for his students. They are attentive to these qualities of their teacher, which influence their inter-personal relations. They also learn to be patient with each other and give enough space to each other to be themselves. Like their teacher, they also try to listen to and understand each other. Montessorian ideas on education have been applied in many schools all over the world. Prasad’s illustration is another instance of their applicability. Prasad shows how an environment for learning can be created through a teacher’s acceptance, trust and patience with the student. These three qualities make a teacher.
- Kumar, K. (2009). Montessori’s Role in Twenty-First-Century Educational Reform. The Namta Journal, 34(3), 41-69.
- Prasad, D. (1998). Art: The Basis of Education. New Delhi: National Book Trust.
Nidhi Gaur has recently submitted her PhD in the Department of Education, University of Delhi. She is presently working as Assistant Professor in Guru Ram Dass College of Education, Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected].