Ever since teaching was first acknowledged as a profession, people have pondered upon the qualities that make a teacher. As the aims of education have evolved, theories formulated and pedagogies developed, certain qualities of teachers have emerged as the preferred ones. There have been countless attempts to identify and describe those qualities. Certain people use a teacher’s accomplishment as his essential quality and argue that the students’ well-integrated personalities and abilities are definite evidence of successful teaching. There have been institutional attempts in this direction that define the making of a teacher in terms of the richness of experiences, variety and extent of preparation for the task of teaching. All of these efforts, however, fail to define the teacher in the realm of any constant connotation. They detail qualities to fit a particular setting but they do not set forth a set of attributes that would classify a person as a teacher whatever the circumstances may be.
To enable us to describe a teacher, in steadfast terms, it seems feasible to turn to the one constant factor in any learning situation – the students. Whatever the type of school, whatever the philosophy of education, whatever the context may be, a person becomes a teacher only if he has students to teach. If there are no students to teach, a highly interested or even qualified person cannot be considered a teacher in a real sense of the word. This idea comes across splendidly in a story titled Brahmrakchhas ka Shishya by Gajaanan Madhav Muktibodh. The story is about a teacher who doesn’t get an able student to teach all the knowledge and wisdom that he had acquired. As a result, he doesn’t get freedom from the world after his death and becomes a monster, stuck in this world. The story brings out the significance of students in the existence of a teacher.
This idea takes us forward but not by much because we realize that in the present times, there is no dearth of students, and especially students who are able and keen to learn. In fact, anybody who wants to be a teacher can easily get students representing a wide range of ability and interest. There are students who come to an institution of learning, but have lost their intrinsic desire to learn; and on the other hand, there are students who are most eager to learn from the teacher irrespective of all the obstacles.
Whatever the case may be, the first conviction that a teacher needs is the possibility of the mind’s development and learning. He has to reckon to re-ignite the flame of knowledge in those students who have lost it and increase it in those who have maintained it on their own. For this, a teacher has to like his students and take a genuine interest in them. When I say this, I consider liking as a matter of feeling and interest as a matter of the intellect; both are important in teaching. A strong conviction that it is possible for every student to progress from where s/he is now to a better state of existence – in the teacher’s company – is what makes a teacher.
In light of this, it may be argued that a teacher should be kind, sympathetic, patient, with a developed sense of humour and also a sense of proportion. A teacher is one who maintains a perspective on students’ progress as inevitable and does not lose it in the great mass of details with which he must deal on a daily basis. In this sense, the essence of a teacher does not lie in technical expertise, but in a complex combination of pedagogical qualities. In this complex, two momentous attributes are persistence and consistency. When the teacher remains persistent in his demands from the students to make efforts to learn and continue with those efforts, he acquires a prominence in their mental world. It is then that the flame of knowledge gets nurtured. While doing this, the teacher might have to momentarily smite the string with all the energy and become a forceful personality. In such moments, the teacher may appear demanding, and authoritative, but that gets compensated for when he drops back to his gentle suggestions after the purpose has been achieved. This constitutes the web of what some people call as the ‘mystical’ qualities of a good teacher. However, in my understanding, anybody, who wishes to be a teacher, has to develop this attribute. It is in the persistence of the teacher’s expectations from his students that his existence can be felt most radiantly.
In this sense, the teacher has to maintain his own enthusiasm for knowledge and its implications for human life and be consistent in his efforts. A teacher has to make his students a part of all he has experienced and gained. For this, a teacher must be consistent with his words whether they constitute an idea to do something for the students or against them. Sylvia Ashten Warner, a New Zealand teacher epitomized the significance of consistency in a teacher’s life beautifully. She was absolutely consistent in expecting children to give her a new word everyday to learn reading-writing. And, she was consistent in her rules of the game. If she stipulated that lunch would be taken only after the children had written a full page of their life-story, she lived up to her words. Her consistency developed a habit in her students to read and write every-day, the method which she called organic reading and writing.
We can say that it is the presence of students that characterizes a person as a teacher but it is the virtue of persistence and consistency in his expectations and efforts that make him a teacher.
Latika Gupta teaches education at Delhi University. Her latest book is Education Poverty and Gender: Schooling Muslim Girls in India. She can be reached at email@example.com.