On being a teacher

Alok Mathur

Alok-Mathur I have been a teacher most of my life. And could it not be that you have too? Teaching and learning are fundamental to growing human life. Right from the time of birth, not only do we learn from our caregivers and from our environment, but we also teach. Parents are, of course, the first teachers of their children. But young children too, even as they learn, ‘teach’ their parents. For parents, even as they undertake the daily tasks of care-giving, can also imbibe a renewed sense of wonder at the growing life amidst them: curious, awake and responding to everything around. Siblings too teach and learn many a thing from each other. Living in a family, or more widely, in a neighbourhood or community, is full of occasions for teaching and learning: a wide range of skills, concepts, attitudes and values are learnt well before a child goes to school. Veteran teacher, Parker Palmer, in his book, Courage to Teach* goes as far as to say that “teaching and learning are critical to our individual and collective survival and to the quality of our lives.”

Some of us choose to make teaching our vocation and become teachers by profession in later life. This locates us in the more formal learning environment that we call ‘school’. I became a teacher at 24 years of age, when I joined a co-educational residential school. I was drawn here by the exuberance of its young students and a strong impulse to be a part of their growing life. I was assigned to teach mathematics to younger students and chemistry to older ones. I was also involved in physical education, on the playground and in the swimming pool. Very soon, alongside my teaching responsibilities, I became a house-parent to a group of pre-adolescent boys between the ages of 10 and 13 years. This was the beginning of a journey through teaching and education that continues today, 35 years later, with my primary role now being that of a teacher educator. In this article I examine, through my experience of living and working in a residential school: ‘what makes a teacher’. In doing this, I dwell on the need for teachers to retain the quality of reciprocity in teaching and learning that is alluded to above, such that it goes beyond the purposive curriculum-based teaching that is expected of all teachers in schools.

Teaching is a deeply human profession that touches many dimensions of a teacher’s and students’ lives. As a teacher you are assigned to teach particular subjects to specific groups of students, and so your initial relationship with students develops through your attempts at making the subject matter comprehensible and interesting for them. This in itself is a considerable responsibility, for you need to not only delve deeper into the structure and nuances of the subject, but also figure out different ways of connecting your students with its curricular content, its concepts and skills. This requires forming a perspective on the subject and its connections with life; it also involves imagination in planning and teaching, close observation of students’ responses, and a growing ability to enable different kinds of learning in a variety of students. A concern for the wholesome growth of the intellect and skills in your students would necessarily lead you to widen your repertoire of modes of teaching-learning, of assessing, of providing feedback. In doing this you may engage, encourage, support, and challenge individual students. Some of them may in turn challenge you, with their questions or the specific interests they want to pursue. There is much to be learned in the arena of teaching and learning a subject with a group of students.

The classroom relationships you establish develop over the course of a whole year or more. You become connected to the individual lives as well as group life of your students. Amita, Narayan, Shefali, Gautam, Manjunath, and all the others, are experienced as distinct persons: growing, changing beings, who bring their unique flavours to the overall ‘chemistry’ of the class group. As their teacher, you may come to know and respond to each one as an individual. You meet and talk with them not only in the classroom, but also over meals, in the playground, or just walking from one place to another. Each child becomes a distinctive strand in your consciousness, woven into a tapestry of relationships that are dynamic and evolving. The children are conscious of your presence in their lives, your responses matter to them. In multiple interactions with them, much more gets communicated than the subject matter: attitudes, values, a quality of thinking and feeling. As a teacher, you are responsible for becoming aware of this living current that flows back and forth with your students, a flow that could be energizing for the students as well as the teacher. On the other hand, forming fixed images, leaning towards some favourites, ignoring some, or becoming mechanical, authoritarian in one’s dealings: these cut off the flow, and leave us in an isolated space vis a vis the students. Students become either dependent, resistant, or shrink away.

This responsibility for being self-aware – of one’s expectations, one’s reactions, one’s impact on a child – is even more acute when one is a house-parent. In this role you are a ‘surrogate parent’, overseeing and participating in the daily life of a group of youngsters. Along with managing the living environment and the rhythm of their day, relational and emotional issues often arise, sometimes between the students, and at times vis a vis another teacher or even with you as their ‘house parent’. There is home-sickness; group-formation; someone feeling left-out; at times aggression and bullying; a difficult encounter with one of their teachers; and the occasional student who is weighed under by problems at home, perhaps between his own parents, and who seeks to unburden himself. How do you deal with such situations as they arise? How do you maintain a sense of fairness and objectivity in your dealings, even as you connect with each student in particular ways? This is no easy responsibility. It cannot be met by simply projecting common ideals of behaviour, and expecting others and onself to live by these. It calls for alert self-awareness, a dynamic understanding of oneself as well as of complex human situations. This is an arena where there is much in terms of emotional intelligence to be learned. And any ‘teaching’ that happens is less with reference to the dos and don’ts of rules that are framed or a moral code that is suggested, and more through the development of human sensibilities in both the house parent and the student. Sometimes a student can show the house parent, if he is open, his own errors of judgment, his lack of understanding of a particular situation. And reciprocally, the house parents’ responses have a significant impact on students’ lives, on their sense of well-being.

Inevitably, such questions arise in the life of a teacher: Why am I a teacher? What do I intend for the students in my care? How does this matter in today’s world? Do I have some purpose in life? For these questions to have value, they must be held in a deeply personal manner; and not quickly answered through ‘received wisdom’ or commonly held notions of the place of teachers in today’s society. Then they push you into thinking and feeling at greater depth about your vocation. In doing this, we must look squarely at the world we are living in, and which young persons are growing into. It is a divided world, with much conflict, violence and sorrow on the one hand, as well as the ever-present possibility of doing well by others and by oneself. One needs to get a fuller measure of the forces that shape our lives, our minds and hearts: family and community influences, traditions, media and technology, political and economic forces and the aspirations they have unleashed, and of course, school and education. Do these not tend to generate a sense of inner division, of fragmentation and conflict within? And is this not responsible for destructive human actions in the world?

Can the teacher gauge for himself this constellation of forces shaping him and his students, and so help students become aware and mindful of all that is influencing them? This may allow for a space within them, an inner balance and stability, that enables them to grow up as sensitive, thoughtful, alert individuals, who are able to bring out something original in their response to the world, something that leads to a sense of well-being as they grow up, rather than a perpetuation of sorrow. This enagement harks back to what Parker Palmer has said about teaching and learning being critical to ‘human survival’ and the ‘quality of our lives’. His statement acquires a special poignancy today, on a planet that is on the brink of environmental degeneration through human greed and callousness. This necessitates a renewal of the sense of wonder and a capacity for human goodness that each child may have been born with, and which education – teaching and learning – has the responsibility to re-awaken, rather than smother. This is perhaps the greatest task for the teacher, who needs to be a learner through all the days of his life.

Alok Mathur has been a teacher for over 35 years in the Krishnamurti Foundation Schools. He has taught mathematics, chemistry, geography and social studies, has been a house parent, and also served as an administrator at the Rishi Valley School. He is currently the head of teacher education at the Rishi Valley Education Centre. He can be reached at alok@rishivalley.org.

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