When I was asked to write on ‘what makes a teacher’ I realized that the number of years of teaching has been very minimal for me to prescribe any doctrine or theory. However, I would like to share the ways in which my practice of teaching has been shaped.
One of the things I cherish doing as a teacher is keeping my daily journal. The time spent on maintaining my diary is quite sacred. It is an inviolable space where there is a constant dialogue between my classroom experiences and my thoughts. My initial entries in the journal were aimed at just record keeping and focussed on what I did in class. I do not remember when, but slowly this act of writing shifted focus and I started writing about the children and their experiences with learning. I became the actor and the witness at the same time allowing me to look at my practice objectively and this involved dealing with a number of questions that arose within me like questioning my own assumptions and theories that I held valid (scholars sometimes call these overarching theories) – is there one ‘best way’ in which I can teach? Are some children born intelligent? Is ‘the textbook’ the only resource available to me for teaching? Is my role as a teacher to continue everything the way it is? Am I a passive onlooker subservient to the text and the system?
I was teaching the various states of India to grade 4 children as part of the geography syllabus in my first year at a formal school. The next year when I was to teach the same to another set of students, I realized that as a teacher I could run the risk of teaching and responding in a mechanical and repetitive manner with every passing year. When my students are not the same each year and their responses and contexts also are different, then how can my way of approaching learning be the same? In a tribal school near Coimbatore, the teachers meet every year to discuss how they would teach the theme of ‘soil’ to children from class 1 to class 5. Despite the theme being the same every year, the activities, songs, poems and games differ. The children are thus implicitly made aware that knowledge is not static and knowledge is the organization of experiences through concepts. The teaching process thereby becomes a learning experience for the teacher as she sets out on a new journey each year. This enables a teacher to experiment with new ideas and strategies of teaching. When learning is not a mechanistic process of acquiring knowledge, then how can teaching be monotonous?
This was a time when the family was noticing the birds around us. My instant reaction was to get hold of a book and read about the characteristic physical features of the birds that we spotted near our house. I would go strictly by the size of the bird and the beak, the wingspan, the colour and so on. One day, whilst we were inside the house, there was a particular bird- call; one of my sons went out to recognize the bird, but the other one just stayed put at the dining table and said, ‘that is a raket-tailed drongo!’. Both the boys recognized the bird but in two different ways. By appreciating the different ways of learning and making room for as many kinds of learning, my repertoire of teaching strategies expanded and made teaching more exciting. If I had a test on the physical characteristics of birds, then one of the boys would have done better; if I had tested on identification based on bird calls then the other one would fare better. Hence, we understand children’s learning is based on the kind of questions that are asked. When the way of teaching is open-ended, then the children become active participants and they generate ideas and are also able to see various perspectives from the same source. Working closely with my own children has allowed me to see that the debate on whether intelligence is innate is a futile exercise. My effort as a teacher has been to find ways to provide a meeting ground for nature and nurture and not treat them as watertight compartments.
Pradita is a teacher at Vidyaranya High School, Hyderabad. She is keen to make teaching joyous and looks for ways to meet children at the level they are at and build on what they know. Her other interests include connecting research to practice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.