Reflections

Yasmin Jayathirtha

After 30 years at a school that I was involved in starting, last year I finally stopped teaching there. Until Teacher Plus asked me if I would write about my teaching career, I hadn’t really looked back at it. It seemed the right time to move on to other interests; it also seemed the right time to move away from school teaching, but I hadn’t looked at the sweep of those years, I had just been in the present. It was interesting to look at the past and see what changes there were in the content of what I taught and the responses of the students to my classes and to me.

I taught chemistry to the 10th, 11th and 12th standard students and did science projects with the younger children. I also took library classes, taught Kannada in primary school. I went out for evening walks with the 6-8 year olds. Looking back on all these activities I can see changes in how groups reacted across the years.

Take walks for instance; in the earlier years, when the students played, the stones and rocks they picked up were fruits, vegetables, plates and so on. About 10 years ago, they became phones held to the ears, keyboards, monitors …. This is not unusual, children play act what they see around them, but I noticed something more that was (is) disturbing. Shown some cool reaction in the lab, earlier the students would be awed and a few would say, “My mother (father) showed that to me.” Now, the more or less uniform response is, “Oh, I saw it on YouTube” and “Can we do that cool experiment I saw on the net?” This is worrying not only because only two of the senses (sight and hearing) are engaged, but also because no school lab can compete with the media. So science becomes entertainment rather than exploration. I should point out that digital natives may have a different take and I do see the advantage of having good videos to show, but I am not sure about what we are losing. One thing definitely seems to be a sense of wonder and freshness.

With the older students, the change is clearer. As all teachers do, I have examples that I use to illustrate certain concepts. I realized a while ago that I could no longer use photography as an example for light causing a reaction. Students today have not seen photos and negatives. They only know digital photography. This is not a problem because it keeps you thinking about the subject and keeps you alert and interested.

First names are the norm now, in an alternative school anyway and I have moved from ‘aunty’ to ‘Yasmin’ in the school, while outside on buses and so on I am now ‘ajji’. The most hilarious occasion was at a school function. Just as a little girl was calling out ‘Yasmin’, a parent was addressing me ‘aunty’.

The other big change is that of what makes a good education. When the school first started, the ideas underpinning the education offered were considered radical and unworkable: no competition, no weekly tests, they need discipline, you don’t teach them grammar, they don’t learn their tables…. The common refrain was, “How will they deal with the real world?” Now, even if the methods may not be used very well, they are mainstream and respectable.

I have taken these changes in my stride and enjoyed doing so. So I have been wondering about why I felt it was the right time to move away from the school and find other things to do. It wasn’t boredom or lack of energy. But, I realized that over 30 years you meet all the problems there are from teaching to counselling to administration. You cannot unlearn the responses that worked, the way you have dealt with it. However much you want to bring a fresh mind to the problem, you realize that you cannot. This then seems to be the point where you pull back and let others take the lead. And you find something new to do.

After having taught in schools, the author has now moved to working with student teachers. She says it is interesting to explain to others and herself the methods of teaching. She continues to be interested in sharing her fascination with chemistry and its teaching with others. She can be reached at [email protected].

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