Looking beyond failure and learning

Nidhi Qazi

If asked about the struggles of childhood, readers may remember some of their teachers who may have tortured them in the name of teaching. But the same readers may also remember those heaven-sent angels who shaped their perspectives, made learning possible and helped them become better humans. What a contradiction! How is it that our lives have been impacted by teachers in good and not-so-good ways at different points in life?

It is with this pain and these questions that I lived for years before venturing into the space of education. The pain grew immensely, the hatred escalated. But thanks to my M.A. Research Guide, who silently paved the way for perspectives unknown and unheard that soon there was no looking back. Getting to read educationists such as Prof. Krishna Kumar, Vimala Ramachandran and others opened a new world. This new world aimed at humanising teachers, understanding how this profession became the most-sought-after and what our histories have done to shape the image of teachers.

Today, I work wholeheartedly in the space of teachers’ professional development. The interactions with this community are enriching and challenging. But what’s bothersome is the shift in expectations from teachers in the name of professional development. A lot of people and organisations are talking down to teachers in the name of building the latter’s professional capacity. Government training programmes are not far behind. They seem to push their teachers to accept their roles and responsibilities without understanding how these additional roles and responsibilities are actually viewed. Add to this, teachers are burdened with the moral responsibility of creating future citizens. But that’s the sole purpose of teachers, isn’t it? Then why bring this up as a concern?

There isn’t any disagreement that teachers ought to take up the responsibility for building futures, but this cannot be done without building an adequate space where teachers can express their fears and failures. This profession will be reduced to mere symbolism if teachers are constantly pressurised to perform better. The more the pressure, the better they will perform – right? Wrong! It is one thing to feel the pressure and another to actually work under administrative pressure which doesn’t want to address the woes of teachers. The latter deprives teachers the opportunity to deliberate about their practices, pedagogic challenges, resulting which their needs go unheard. It is true several schools do bring this up and provide platforms, but they are in the minority. And no, it isn’t about urban vs rural or private vs government or low-cost vs elite – this isn’t about binaries. It is about platforms which aren’t adequate and go beyond these binaries.

This article attempts to do that – offer a space where teachers candidly share their side of the story, their side of ‘being human’.

On facing failure as a teacher
Pushpa Shukla, a primary government school teacher from Gariyaband, Chhattisgarh, says, “Yes, I have seen failure in my journey. I still feel hollow inside due to this. The experiences are varied – maths in middle school, teaching science, not understanding the language spoken by children in smaller classes, not being able to converse in English. The middle school where I was posted for the first time had a shortage of teachers. Children and parents both expected me to teach in the middle school and the primary section, both of which were in the same campus. I often organised various activities such as games and exercises, and taught subjects such as hindi, science, social sciences and sanskrit. But I was not able to help the children in maths as I was weak in maths and chemistry and I was afraid of these subjects. So I used to be sad and every year so many children from my school would suffer in these subjects leading to failures and drop-outs. This experience was painful.”

On not knowing the children’s language, Pushpa shares, “My first posting was in a region bordering Odisha and children spoke Odiya. I faced many difficulties in understanding them.”

Dron Sahu, a primary teacher from Mahasamund, Chhattisgarh recounts, “There was a time when I was a single teacher of the school; handling classes 1-5 with 106 children. To make it worse, I was also responsible for the construction of the schoolbuilding. That was the time when I really wanted to leave my profession. A teacher should not be burdened with non-academic tasks, he/she needs to focus on teaching.”

For Hridesh Goswami, a middle-school science teacher from Lalitpur, UP, failure is something that he often runs into. “When academically weak students do not respond as per my planning, and my efforts to bring them to mainstream do not succeed, it demotivates me, causing a lot of frustration. Our textbooks are filled with concepts and terminologies which children find difficult to understand. I try to show them some real life practical examples
to get home the point. But it gets too difficult. Also, since one topic comprises sub topics, the linkages between those sub topics become quite difficult to deal with. For example, a topic like refraction and its sub-topics such as opaqueness and transparency, then concepts like phloem, xylem, so on and so forth. Such nuances are also not dealt with in detail in the textbooks. Hence the lack of understanding when I was a student myself gets reflected in my teaching as well.”

“Content-understanding has been my strong area for which I have always prepared before teaching but I have often failed in understanding children’s psychology and the way they learn. It has been difficult for me to understand different strategies of teaching-learning that will work,” shares Neelima Srivastava, a primary teacher from Durg, Chhattisgarh.

For Sweety Sharma, a primary teacher in Kurukshetra, Haryana, failure and achievement go together. “I know my children and their various learning needs and that has been an achievement but I have not been good at drawing. A class-1 teacher must be good at drawing and that’s where my weakness lies.”

Moments of self-doubt
For Smridhi, a primary teacher at The Heritage School, Delhi, it is the diverse backgrounds of children that pose a challenge. “When we work with children who have certain concern areas, I feel doubtful what exactly will work best with them considering their backgrounds and other aspects. Also, there is an underlying concern that things that I am trying may fail, they may not work.”

“The textbook language is sometimes incompatible with the context of the children, which causes selfdoubt about my capacity to teach that topic. My lack of practical knowledge or practical utility of that concept or topic also creates this doubt,” says Hridesh.

For Dron, when his children do not comprehend a topic or when they do not feel joyous, he begins to doubt his capabilities as a teacher.

Neelima goes into self-doubt when people, especially students, build expectations and she is not able to fulfil them.

On responding to their own challenges and weak moments
In Pushpa’s case, she chose a way out as, “I learnt the children’s language from them, but I still fear maths and science.”

For Sweety, addressing challenges can be easy when one is part of a learning environment. “The fact that I enjoy teaching lessens my challenges. Having said that, I keep myself in the learning sphere, by attending seminars, workshops, nourishing my perspectives through books, social media and interacting with fellow teachers regularly and also visiting schools to see their good practices.”

Smridhi notes, “There is a range of strategies that I apply. But not every strategy works with each and every kid since they all are different, and come from different backgrounds. So, you never know what will work with a child. So, you have to keep applying and be open to the fact you may fail. And when there is a point where nothing works, you keep asking others, fellow teachers, surf the internet, or refer to teacher -training notes but sometimes all these also don’t help. At times, children listen when you talk to them with love, sometimes being firm works. Talking about the so-called difficult children, a teacher has to be open to the possibility of failing multiple times. All this is exhausting and takes a toll. Sometimes it takes one complete year to know what exactly will work.”

“I keep trying to create a joyful environment for children. I prioritise a joyous learning environment followed by teaching,” shares Dron.

Does the ‘ideal’ teacher exist? “To imagine an ideal teacher can inspire us towards professional excellence, but to see various skills and capacities associated with our profession flourishing in a single teacher, looks impossible. I am yet to come across an ideal teacher,” says Dron.

“No single person can be considered ideal. Every person’s virtues make her/him ideal and we should accept only those things,” feels Pushpa.

Neelima vouches strongly for an ideal teacher. Her idea of ‘ideal’ is built on the premise of values and behaviours. “An ideal teacher does exist. A teacher must imbibe human values and also practice them
and if not, then that person is not a teacher, in my view. A teacher is instrumental in developing a child and the society, and this can only be done on the foundation of strong values which a teacher must possess,” she opines.

How do schools and communities evaluate teachers and understand them?
“If we work in a school for long, the staff members do judge each other in ways unsaid. They keep evaluating each other. As for the society, they evaluate us on the basis of two things – their child’s feedback and our behaviour with the community,” shares Dron.

Smridhi says that her school has been supportive and understanding. “My school gives space to fail and rise. Many a time I have failed but the school has never so far pressurized me. Also, there are instances when parents hold us accountable in harsh ways and shout at us, but our school tries to pacify them in neutral ways. They understand that humans can go wrong.”

“My challenges are not accepted with the required sensitivity and thus I fight my own struggles in my own way,” shares Neelima.

On opportunities for growth and achievement through failures “That failure can be endured and paves the way for growth is important. Only if this awareness is present in teachers, can they really look beyond their failure and learn something new. Online courses, subject based teacher-trainings, discussions on education, or seminars can be some ways to bring about this awareness and growth,” says Pushpa.

“Mahatma Gandhi had proposed the theory of basic education. The present policy of merit-list has ignored the true purpose of education, and securing a place in the merit-list by rote learning is considered as an indicator of success. This has seen a deterioration in the quality of teachers and teaching. Making a plan for learning from mistakes and solving problems should start with teachers and involve the support of society and administration,” says Hridesh.

Hridesh further says, “A critical lacuna in our system is that no one asks us or discusses with us, our weaknesses. There is no space to talk about our failures. Since there is no acknowledgement, there is no redress. Time and again we are given training, but those have their decided agendas. None of the trainings, at least the ones that I have participated in, want to talk about teachers’ weaknesses and what struggles we are facing in terms of our conceptual understanding.”

Dron supports the need for the space to understand each other. “It is important to keep having a dialogue with fellow teachers on our failures and create a platform for sharing these and addressing the same. It is important to take each other into confidence that no one would demean you if you express your flaws. Further, our challenges should be taken seriously by the staff and the school administration. This means we need to keep bringing up our grievances tirelessly for which we seek pointed solutions which would help us grow.”

“Teacher-trainings, apart from building conceptual knowledge, should also focus on personality development. This aspect will help us become better versions of ourselves and help us see failure as an important step for growth,” feels Neelima.

So while this article was a small attempt to give us a peak into the lives of teachers and see them as humans, the hope is that these views will help you accept yourselves and also to get talking on issues and challenges around failure. The coming of Professional Development Communities (PLCs) into existence has also been a significant step in this direction, and there is hope that such work will continue to happen.

The author works as a consultant with Language and Learning Foundation, Delhi. She is into teacher-trainings and material development in early literacy and has a keen interest in children’s literature and drama in education. She can be reached at qazi.nidhi@gmail.com.

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