Going by the rule book

S Upendran

When I had completed my PhD in the US, and was bidding farewell to my teachers, one of them said, “Why don’t you stay back and work here? You can easily get a job, you know.” What the poor man didn’t realize was that having worked in a university in India for over ten years, I had been thoroughly spoiled. The American Dream held no fascination for me. I wanted to go back to a world that would allow me to put my feet up and chew on the occasional paan. I told my teacher, “Back home at my university, I work five days a week. I get the weekends off. I also get six weeks off during summer and a month off during winter. In addition to this, we have nearly 20 national holidays. I am also entitled to take ten days off as and when I please. We lose a few working days now and then because either the students or the teachers are on strike. I work less than two hundred days in a year.” The teacher looked at me for a few seconds and then asked, “Can I get a job there?”

When you think about it, who wouldn’t want to have such a job? If you ask me, being a teacher in India is probably one of the best jobs in the world. True, we don’t make the big bucks that software engineers and doctors do, but the quality of life we lead is so much better. We get time to read, watch movies, and spend time with the members of the family. Which software engineer can say that? Of course, the fact that you are home quite a lot is not always appreciated by the other members of the family. Take for example, my case. Even before I tied the dreaded knot, I always went home for lunch as I lived on campus. My wife, who was more used to the corporate style of work, found this rather strange. Two weeks into our marriage, when I rang the bell around one o’clock, she greeted me with a romantic, ‘You’re back already?’

teacher_cartoon Software engineers and doctors not only have to put in long hours, but they also have to dress well. We teachers, on the other hand, are not always expected to be sartorially resplendent. For someone like me who has little or no dress sense, teaching is the ideal job. Of course, this habit of mine to dress any which way I like has sometimes gotten me into awkward situations. After I had been admitted to the PhD programme with a teaching assistantship, I received a note from the department asking me to meet the Dean around two in the afternoon. Since the university hadn’t officially reopened, I was dressed casually. I walked into the department office dripping with sweat, in shorts, t-shirt, and a baseball cap. Before I could say anything, the Office Assistant who saw me enter asked, “Have you come to learn English?” The question floored me, and I didn’t know what to say. Convinced that I didn’t know any English, she asked the same question again. This time she said each word slowly and spoke much louder. Once I informed her who I was, she apologized profusely and pointed me in the direction of the Dean’s room. As I was leaving, I saw a poster to the right of the Office Assistant. It read ‘Free English classes for migrant farm workers’. Looking at the colour of my skin and the way I was dressed, the woman probably thought I was some illegal migrant from Mexico working in one of the local peanut farms in Georgia!

As teachers we are expected to be in school/college on time, spend time preparing for classes, teach to the best of our ability, correct homework, and if possible set a good example for the students. But, being a teacher wasn’t always this simple. Here are two documents that show how much more was expected from the teacher in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Read and enjoy.

Instructions to Teachers (Mason Street School, San Diego, 1872)

  1. Teachers will fill lamps, clean chimneys, and trim wicks every day.
  2. Each teacher will bring a scuttle of coal, and a bucket of water for the day’s use.
  3. Men teachers may take one evening a week off for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
  4. Women teachers who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
  5. The teacher who performs his labours faithfully without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents a week in his pay – provided the Board of Education approves.

By 1901 the rules had become even more draconian.

  1. You must not marry during the term of your contract.
  2. School mistresses shall not keep company with men.
  3. You must not travel beyond town limits without the written permission of the Chairman of the Board.
  4. You may under no circumstances dye your hair or wear bright coloured clothes.
  5. School mistresses must wear at least two petticoats. School masters shall wear a suit, coat, and suspenders.
  6. To keep classroom neat and clean, you must sweep the floor once a day and scrub the floor at least once a week with hot soapy water.
  7. To keep the classroom warm, you must start a fire by 7 AM so that room is warm by 8.

Aren’t you glad you weren’t a teacher then? Happy Teachers’ Day!

The author teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at supendran@gmail.com.

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