We inadvertently imitate people we have come across in our lives. As children, our impressionable minds have imprints of behaviours, and even beliefs that we witness. We don’t need more research to prove it. Children and adults learn through observation, imitation and influence. Despite telling myself that I wouldn’t do the things my mother did, I find myself speaking and acting just like her. I promised myself that I wouldn’t ever sacrifice my happiness for the sake of others, something I saw her do, quite to her detriment, but years later I see myself compromising to accommodate others. We all also do as our own teachers did. Once in class, I heard some students speak in Hindi and turned around and said the exact same words spoken some years ago by a teacher of mine. “Who’s speaking in Hindi?” This, in spite of truly believing that all languages should be encouraged in class!
Some experiences are thus deeply ingrained in our minds and we tend to repeat these behaviours. Often we have found some of these behaviours to be useful. We saw some of our teachers saying things that moved students or read a remark on a report card that encouraged us and because we have witnessed the impact of these actions, we tend to repeat them too, especially as teachers ourselves. Today, as an educator, I can recount several instances that have shaped my teaching practice and my manner with my students. Over a coffee, a few days ago, I shared with my sister, who happened to study in the same school as I and was taught by the same teachers, how some experiences so deeply affected me that I remember them so vividly even today; and it is these that have shaped at least some part of who I am. Here are some instances that made me more authentic, non-judgmental and play the role of resource broker in my students’ lives.
Teacher as human
We mostly see our teachers as superhuman unfailing beings. In the Nineties when I was a student, our teachers’ personal lives were deeply guarded. We had no social media and had no visibility into our teachers’ lives. Teacher’s Day or anniversaries would be days when our teachers would bring their children or spouses to school. It would be our chance to get a glimpse into the very human person our teacher was. But one of my teachers, regularly, brought her human self to school. She taught me history, and every single day, she would share her hopes and dreams for us. She taught us in the 10th standard, the last year of our schooling and was worried about each one of us and went out of her way, often inviting us home, for some extra classes. Around a few days before our final exams, she made a prayer for us and we closed our last class on a solemn note. Her prayer had touched all of us teenagers who were otherwise often prone to sniggering at such human displays.
Years later, when I taught my students, I did not stop myself from being my natural self with them. I knew that when they saw me as human as I did my teacher, I would be able to build a deep and lasting connection with them.
Teacher as guide
When I was in the 9th standard, two of my teachers, teamed up, for what seemed liked the first time in my schooling history, and taught a class. They had created special modules on value education and covered most topics that adolescents would encounter – substance abuse, smoking, romantic relationships, fashion and lifestyle, parental relationships and so forth. They divided us into teams and heard our perspective on the problems we were facing. They had also clearly done their ‘homework’ to bridge the generation gap and appear in tune with our lives. We were so comfortable with the environment that our teachers had created that we felt free to ask questions, which would have otherwise been kept secret.
I remember when my students turned 14 and I discovered that almost all of them were dating, I was taken a bit by surprise. My natural judgmental self, leapt up wanting to remind them that life is long enough for dates but pretty short for great academic grades! It was my experience in the 9th grade, where my teachers came together to befriend us, so that we had someone to go back to when we had questions about a confusing time of our lives that guided my response to my students. I dug deeper into my thoughts and what was causing my initial resistance and moved past to help create a relationship that enabled my students to ask me some of their questions. More importantly, it helped create a space, where, as a caring adult, I could share some of my concerns openly with them.
Teacher as window
I studied in a college that boasts of exceptionally illustrious alumni. Graduating from school, I was deeply aware of how many had been part of this historical institution. I was a bit intimidated but also hopeful of my journey as a college student. Although my peers came from equally inspiring backgrounds, it was the teachers who made a huge impression on me. One of them, being an excellent professor of sociology, had authored her own textbook. On being asked why she did it, she shared that there were none available in the market. It was a simple textbook, but it showed me what it meant to aim for a higher purpose. My professor of political science played an active role as a social activist and shared authentic real life experiences in class related to the sociopolitical situations of the country. Another professor had a flourishing side career as a radio jockey, who also contributed at college festivals and programmes.
One of my professors used her influence to enable students’ representation in news programmes while yet another involved us in charitable activities for the visually impaired. Almost all the professors went beyond their work as lecturers and influenced some part of public life. Through their work, they opened a window for us through which we could see what life beyond the classroom could be. Distinguished alumni are possible largely through the influence of capable teachers. It was this experience that guided my activities as a teacher and later as a vice principal. I searched for platforms where my students could publish their writing, got them together to conserve butterflies, enrolled them in art competitions and programmes and build partnerships so that the world could enter our classroom. I also pushed myself in my own endeavours, as I knew I had to role model hard work and excellence for them, just like my teachers had for me.
Teachers as non-examples
While I was speaking to Kiran Bir Sethi, founder of Riverside School and Design For Change, a few years ago, she shared how it might not always be clear what we want to do. What might help at such times is the clarity of what we do not want to do. As much as there are warm and happy memories of teachers who have touched and inspired me to do well, these stories are peppered with non-examples too. It is heartbreaking for a teacher to be misunderstood, as we are also imperfect humans, no matter how well we mean, we make mistakes.
I remember two of my students writing me a letter, sharing how much they resented me for asking them to help others. I felt terribly misread, how can something so noble be so unwelcome? However, my students checked out of my life calling me unfair. I sometimes pushed my students so hard with my feedback and remarks that they saw me as lacking in compassion. I have also taught a few classes unprepared. And I often experienced this in my teachers, those who used corporal punishment, never taught well, were impatient, were extremely biased and thwarted any kind of questioning of their authority. Some of my teachers seemed to be in need of clinical therapy, for the anguish they put us through. Of course, as a school leader (and now a trainer) I know that teaching is emotionally demanding and some of my teachers do need some kind of therapeutic intervention (and it is not an insensitive statement to be made), but my sisters and peers, have all been equally scarred by the actions of some of our teachers.
I remember my friend, who is also a teacher, sharing with me that a teacher impacts students. This impact could either be positive or negative. A teacher who does not have any kind of impact is hard to find. It is vital, therefore, that a teacher is acutely reflective of where they are coming from and be open to criticism and correction when warranted. Teaching is a two way process – the teachers and the taught often switch places, when each of them is open to the other’s influence. Students reminisce about their teachers and teachers also recollect students who have touched them in both positive and negative ways. The question each one of us, in our roles has to answer, is on which side we would like to be. A very thoughtful Teacher’s Day to all of us!
The author has been a teacher, school leader, a teacher trainer and curriculum designer. She is currently preparing herself to start a school in India. She can be reached at email@example.com.