More than a decade ago, sometime in the latter half of 2011, I wrote an article titled “Coloured Judgments” for an ELT (English Language Teaching) e-newsletter. In it I had spoken about racial biases within me; how during an official visit to Sri Lanka, I had seen a lady in unkempt clothes, untidy hair, and dark skin, sitting in an interpreter’s booth and assumed that she was a clerk, when in actual fact she was one of the leading national level interpreters who could listen to experts talking in English on testing and evaluation and simultaneously translate into Tamizh. When the editor (calling her PSP from now on) of the newsletter read my article, she rang me up to ask, “Are you sure you want this published?” From the tone of her voice I understood that such a ‘harsh’ critical self-reflection about hidden racial biases within all of us, did not go down well with her. It must have shaken her up, held up a mirror, making her see her own biases, which she probably could not face or confess let alone write about openly. Her query, however, did not upset me. I had the courage of conviction about what I wanted to write and therefore emphatically asserted, “Yes, I am very sure” and even went on to ask, “Why not?” I had deliberately chosen to write about my biases and how and why we need to get over them. For me, such sharing was not just about getting over my biases, but helping others see the hidden biases in themselves so that we can all get over them. PSP had no choice but to publish it, because she had invited me to write it. I did not gloat, but was glad it was read by other teachers. A few months later, I was approached by the editor of this magazine, Teacher Plus, and asked if I would write for them. Not having written for schoolteachers till then, I was not sure if I could effectively reach out to schoolteachers. I therefore sent her the piece I had written for the newsletter and asked if something like this would be okay. The editor was delighted. Not only did she ask me if this piece itself could be republished, but also convinced me to start a bi-monthly column, Touchstone, which some of you may be familiar with. “Coloured Judgments” became the first in the Touchstone series, published in February 2012. But another friend of mine took 12 years to learn to gain the same confidence that came to me naturally. My friend’s growth was hard and laborious because she was caught up with all the negativity of PSP and could not get rid of her as she was a colleague and a ‘boss’ at work. Post 12 years, my friend finally grew for the better*.
I am reflecting on this more than a decade old experience because I could have very easily been put down by PSP’s questioning and doubting. I would have then remained someone without confidence, stuck in my old prejudiced colonial biased ways, not able to grow. That did not happen because I had confidence in myself. All of us as teachers, at some time or other, will encounter such negative people, particularly if we want to step outside the box and do something different. We have to make sure that we do not allow such experiences and such negativity to adversely affect us. We need to maintain our self-esteem and ensure that our identity is not defined by other people’s perceptions of ourselves. One of the ways in which we grow as teachers is to believe in ourselves and not be ruled by other people’s opinions or evaluation of either our work or our ideas. This is crucial, for such ‘being put down’ by colleagues/peers either because of jealousy, or their own masked inadequacy, or negative nature happens more often than we realize. As teachers, we feel it happens only to us and never talk about it. We need to rise above it to grow.
This type of courage of conviction alone, however, is not enough to ensure that we grow as teachers, although it is a very important component. In another article in this issue, Dr. Shree Deepa has written about how she draws from personal life experiences to make her classes a joyful art. In nearly each of my articles written for Teacher Plus, and particularly the Touchstone articles, I chose to draw on either my personal experiences or my observations of everyday life to trigger thought processes in you my readers and also to help me grow not just as a teacher but as a humane educator.
In the September 2012 issue of Teacher Plus, I wrote an article called “Running, walking, hopping, and jogging” where I spoke about how I wrote four ‘odd man out’ words (multiple choice, vocabulary exercise) on a blackboard for teachers in a testing workshop to discuss the value of good distractors, but took the meanings of words like ‘hop’ and ‘jog’ for granted and realized that this was not the case. I learnt that day that “when everyday life includes running to catch a bus or train, and where one walks a few kilometers to reach the nearest bus stop, the notion of jogging does not exist!” As soon as I got a research associate to demonstrate the difference between hopping and jogging, the odd word was immediately identified. The use of two simple words taught me that we need to learn to “hop into a learner’s mind and jog in his shoes to understand what learner-centredness truly means”.
Three years later, in the January 2015 issue, I wrote an article called “A Slide, a saviour, a solution”; in this article, I reflected on my observations in a children’s park near my house. This time, I gained better insights not just into learner-centredness but human-centredness as well. In this article I wrote about how I had seen a young girl sitting on the top of a slide in the park, petrified, not knowing how to slide down, and how a 12 year old boy had instinctively known what to do and given that girl her first joyful slide ride. That boy had human-centredness in him, which we often miss out on as teachers.
Learning to be humane is something we have to strive for all our lives, and there is no age limit to such learning. If we keep our eyes and ears, and most importantly, our hearts open, we can learn and grow by observation and reflection. When the Sri Lanka incident happened in 2011, I was already 55 years old, and a professor at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. But that did not prevent me from learning or growing. I did not sit back on my laurels and think that I have learnt all that there is to learn. If we as teachers wish to grow and be active and find satisfaction in our teaching, we need to remain learners all our lives.
One other way in which we can continue to remain learners is through interaction with peers. This is important because while observation and reflection are valuable, they can cocoon us into self-contained islands where we feel that we do not need to interact with our colleagues and peers. One of the purposes of asking teachers to attend conferences and seminars is to enable peer interaction. But mere attending does not always enable growth. Genuine sharing and discussions with non-judgmental peers is equally important.
A good example of this is the way I have grown post retirement through my interactions with Dr. Shree Deepa. I had, like many other ELT professionals and experts in the field, assumed that language ability is all about mastering a skill and that proficiency as a language user is the ultimate goal of language teaching. In the August 2022 issue of this magazine, Dr. Deepa wrote an article called, “The what and how of teacher talk”. In that article, she spoke about how language has the potential to be used in a constructive, neutral, or destructive manner. Inspired by her thinking, for I had not encountered this argument about language potentiality before my interactions with her, I wrote an article in that same issue, titled, “Do we use language to hurt or heal?” Such an article, based on my own reflections of experiences would not have been possible without the valuable interactions and discussions of alternative perspectives with her.
As teachers we cannot afford to become complacent and think that we know it all. As the Tamil poet Avvaiyaar succinctly put it,
katradhu kai maNalavu, kallaadhadhuulagaLavu
(What we have learnt is akin to the handful of sand that can be held in the hand; what we have not learnt is as big as this world.)
To observe, reflect, discuss, and then take that next step forward, to write about our learnings, is what keeps us alive as teachers and will help us grow; by sharing our ideas with others, we grow and help others grow. Remember when something sets you back, read the following poem to help pick yourself up!
Aranmula Grandmother, let me be
The muses continue to inspire me and I thank them in peace and I shall grow!
You let me be and you be!
You bury me? and I am a seed!
You burn me? I am phoenix!
You drown me? I am whale!
You fling me? I am a bird!
You mute me? I am an ascetic!
You kick me? I am a landmine!
You foster me? I am a child!
You be gentle? I am a lotus flower!
You question me? I am Socrates!
You forget unpleasantness? I be amnestic!
You be kind? I am a grandmother!
I am a potent mother of many children of all kinds, shapes, colours, sizes and ages!
You be nice? I be the nicest!
You let me live? I be your sanjeewini!
I am my guru’s devotee! I will be till and after I am dead!
Forget not I have my guru protecting me here and hereafter! He is the sun to my solar panel!
*Today, my friend’s growth is captured in the poem at the end of this article and she used the setbacks as her muses.
The author is a retired professor from the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.