Stories about our gurus, acharyas and teachers abound in our folklore, literature and history. We are also a people who go to a great extent to celebrate our teachers and leaders. It is quite another matter that we do not show the same enthusiasm to practise their teachings or follow their advice! In spite of this, let me share here anecdotes about a few teachers who inspired those who came in contact with them – starting with Dr Radhakrishnan, to whom Teacher’s Day is dedicated.
These recollections are mostly from the annual teachers’ residential camps held during the Eighties and Nineties by a group of schools in Arunachal Pradesh, with which this writer was associated. Life then, in those remote mountainous areas, was stark simple. Power supply and newspapers were a luxury. If the teachers could still rise to the challenges of living ten months with first generation Arunachali children, imparting them a good education and a base for future life, the credit goes in a large measure to the impact of these annual camps – and the close interactions with many eminent educationists and personalities, who urged us, ‘still hold on yet, a while, brave heart, the victory is sure to come!’1 Such is the power of ‘Satsang’!
One of Dr. Radhakrishnan’s former students at BHU, a professor2 from Kolkata shared these impressions during his visit. As a student, he was struck by the style of his teacher’s presentations: every class brought forth new ideas, new perspectives into the subject – no scope for monotony when Dr Radhakrishnan was at the podium. He also told us that in June 1963, Dr Radhakrishnan, on a ten-day Presidential tour to the United States, delivered a series of around 17 public lectures3 in the US. ‘None of these lectures on Indian philosophy, religion and culture, was a repetition, but presented refreshing viewpoints to the audience at every venue!’
The late Prof K Subrahmanian, an English professor at the then CIEFL, Hyderabad, was gentleness personified: one who will be remembered only with the warmest feelings by anyone who met him. On a visit to our teachers’ camp in 1983/84, he enlightened us not just on the teaching of English to first generation learners, but on many more aspects of dealing with young people. Interacting with him after the class was always illuminating. One day as we came out after the early morning prayer, a teacher asked his three-year-old child to wish the Professor ‘good morning’. Turning to the teacher, Prof. Subrahmanian gently explained that as per the Indian shastras, a child up to five years is considered a manifestation of the Divinity; and it is we adults who should salute the child! All of us who were around were deeply touched…. This was the very message transactional analyst Muriel James echoed in ‘Born to Win’!
The Professor could also present unconventional ideas to teachers. Discussing the challenge of ‘completing the textbook’ in English, a most common problem raised by teachers everywhere, his ‘solution’ was stimulating: he told us that the textbook should be a reader – for stirring young learners to take to reading (a new language) joyfully. Hence the teacher’s focus should be to introduce the children to something beyond the printed text; and train them in the skills of using the language. Thus, he said, you can ‘cover’ a textbook in just three months and spend the rest of the time teaching them grammar and usages and guiding children to do interesting activities, using the textbook and many more! A very out-of-the-box piece of advice, which a teacher, who treats language learning as ‘answering the question answers at the end’, would find hard to accept!
A few years later, we experimented by using five language textbooks for primary classes, giving teachers the freedom to use them as creatively as they wished, and reducing the stress on the “question-and-answer writing”. While the children enjoyed it a lot, several over-anxious ‘day-scholar’ parents (and the new creed of tuition masters who started emerging in Arunachal) complained of not knowing which questions and answers had to be learnt for the exams!
I recall that it was Prof. Subrahmanian who introduced us to cumulative evaluation for finalizing the promotion of students to the next class: we introduced it in our schools long before CBSE prescribed it as the evaluation pattern.
If a teacher could impress by his grandeur and meticulousness, few could match (late) Brig. Krish Pennathur, a renowned expert on ‘Productivity’. Majestic by his army background, but very refined in his interactions, he awed us during his three-day stay with stimulating sessions on how productivity and effectiveness can be enhanced in our campus life. He was thorough not only in his ability to present concepts in an appealing way, but in the delivery of his sessions. Punctuality was his hallmark. His skill in concluding his talk to the minute was amazing to us, steeped as we were in our casual indifference to school bells! His talks were always peppered with witty anecdotes. The Brigadier’s attention to practising what he preached was striking: never would he forget to switch off the lights and fans before he left his room, or be casual about scattering his items around the room. Well past 60, he came from Mumbai to an unknown place and programme, after a gruelling journey, only because of his enthusiasm to share productivity principles with a new audience – school teachers. Brig. Pennathur’s impressive personality, his inspiring sessions and witty stories will long remain in our hearts.
If a teacher can be endearing, then his name is ‘Arvind Gupta’! Of his first visit to Arunachal in 1990/91 as a ‘low-cost teaching-aid-maker’ whom none of us had ever heard of, it can be said, “He came, we saw, and he conquered!” In just an hour-long session, he mesmerized an entire gathering of teachers, who were willing to miss their other sessions to attend ‘Arvind-ji’s presentations. He will also be remembered for introducing us to books that gave us new insights about teaching and children, accompanied by astonishing stories behind these books: Divaswapna, Totochan, Gay-neck….. we sat enthralled as he told us about John Holt, Gijjubhai Badheka, Mary Ashton Warner and Kuroyanagi. This visit by Arvindji turned out to be a landmark for many of us as teachers, educators and parents. And he has since been a most loving and ever-accessible guide for teachers and learners in Arunachal, as he is to thousands elsewhere in the country.
I conclude by adding here one more name, who, though not connected to school education, opened new windows of realization in the minds of his listeners.
Late Dr. A. K. Joshee, a zoology professor in a Mumbai college was a very friendly teacher, though I did not become close to him as a student. It was years later, on a visit from Arunachal, when I met him at his Mumbai home that I discovered the great human being in him. Learning about my experiences in Arunachal, he suggested that children from the hills, accustomed as they are to hunting in daily life, must be sensitized about compassion for animals. This would help them evolve as better citizens and contribute to conserving the rich and rare natural wealth and biodiversity of the Himalayan forest. “The schools and dedicated teachers can do a lot in promoting such values,”, he said. This was an eye-opener to me. He presented me with copies of “The Animal Citizen”, a journal of the Animal Welfare Board of India and advised me to subscribe it for all our schools. Since then we used to be in touch through letters, till his untimely death within two years. I consider it a personal loss.
We all meet such teachers in our lives – in the classroom, office, factory, farm fields, even in a smoky village kitchen – casting their magical influence over keen learners. May their tribe increase! Gurubhyo namah!
- From ‘Sermons in verse’ from Thus Spake Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai (1987, 17th edn).
- I regret, I am unable to recollect the name of the Professor, after many decades.
- The number of 17 lectures is from memory. No confirmation could be received from the American Library Information Service, Kolkata, and my search in the internet for details of Dr Radhakrishnan’s US tour of 1963 did not yield any results.
The author is an education and library activist, with four decades of close association with Arunachali youth. Apart from being the coordinator of Lohit Youth Library Network, he is also the Academic Advisor of RIWATCH, a cultural research institute at Roing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.