No matter what the field, it is difficult to conclude in black and white what makes a person good or bad at his or her profession. The teaching profession is such that every interaction is subjective. Children in a school belong to varied backgrounds and different age groups and each one faces a unique experience with the same set of teachers. Yet, it is these very teachers who hold an important place in their lives because it is they who shape young minds and make the future of our country.
I have spent most of my life moving from place to place and so have my children. They have studied across different continents and educational systems and with many different teachers.
So what made a teacher “good”? In all cases it was the teacher’s ability to motivate, to teach the subject rather than teach how to score marks, to enable the students to question, to show kindness and strictness at appropriate times and above all, a very thorough knowledge of the subject. A teacher who is passionate about his or her subject often rubs off the enthusiasm to the children who in turn get interested in what is being taught. A good teacher keeps her students motivated and interested in learning.
Sometimes, however, it is not about what is being taught but rather how it is taught. Robert Frost once said of himself, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
One year my daughter’s English teacher shocked the students by completely setting aside the syllabus and instead focused on getting them interested in the language by arranging for field trips to hear people speak, motivating them to read widely and ended the term by publishing a book with their written work. The school authorities were quick to penalise the teacher for not following the syllabus and not conducting examinations but the students benefited enormously by the unusual approach. How would you classify this teacher – good or bad?
Often classes are fun when teachers use unusual approaches to teach a particular subject, and are also those that students find most interesting and may be most motivated to learn from. Unfortunately, schools are bound to adhere to certain standards which can only be enforced through a set curriculum and testing. Structured testing methods, thus often come in the way of inspired teaching and over time, conforming to the rigid test boundaries becomes the norm for most teachers.
At times, teachers tend to generalize and compartmentalize students and focus on teaching a few bright students and ignore the others. Often when challenged, they resort to sarcasm and ridicule students who are “weak”. Such teachers have been forced by the system to only respect results and so the tendency to focus on results is often the main goal of teachers.
“A good teacher has the best results,” would this really be considered a fallacy?
In an age where even a fraction of a mark can make a difference in getting admission into a college, can we really blame the teachers? Even increments for teachers are based on the results of the students and the teachers themselves receive very little encouragement to do things differently, thus the desire to conform is strong among teachers.
My elder daughter was only five years old when I was called in by her kindergarten teacher to be informed that my child was not scoring as many marks as she had the capability for and that as a mother it was my duty to make her “learn properly”. As a five year old, my child was forced to spend her evenings rote-learning spellings and information that she did not comprehend the need of. In contrast, my younger child was studying in a kindergarten that did not believe that a child should be given a pencil or taught to read and write before the age of six and I was the one who went to complain that my daughter had a higher ability than the school work being prescribed. Who had the better teacher, I wonder?
It would be naïve to expect that every child can be painted by the same brush and be taught and will learn in the same manner. When siblings brought up together often differ so widely, then in a school, the needs of the various children could also be widely divergent. Often teachers have large classes and have to juggle the differing needs and abilities of so many children. There are some teachers who will guide students far beyond the classroom, sparing time during their free lessons or after school hours to help, such teachers serve as a role model and continue to inspire even after many years.
One of my fondest school memories is of a teacher who had himself studied in a Hindi medium system, yet prepared hard to teach his lessons in English and would spend hours after classes explaining difficult concepts until each student had understood. He laughed at his own English along with the students, but his effort was so visible that every student respected him.
Teachers sometimes play a nurturing role in our lives. Students may lose self-confidence before examinations and sink into depression. One such student, in my daughter’s class, was nurtured by a particular teacher who supported her with constant words of encouragement and built up her confidence till the student was able to successfully write her examination. Such teachers may truly play the role of a guardian angel for a troubled student.
It is perhaps easier to classify a bad teacher than to describe the various nuances of a good teacher. A good teacher has so many different aspects which make him or her worthy. Sound and thorough knowledge, hard work and preparation, the use of innovative methods, the ability to motivate, to be nurturing and kind, to be a positive person and yet be able to help students achieve excellent results.
It is not often that a single person can put together all these abilities, but as a parent, I have seen that my children were lucky enough to have a few such teachers who fitted the description of a good teacher and it is such teachers who are, without trying ostensibly, also able to get their students to excel and achieve extraordinary results. A good teacher’s worth may thus be measured by the happiness of his or her students.
Priya Mathur has been a successful educator who believes in and practices inclusive education. She has worked in different continents for the past 30 years and is a mother of two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.