“We are the sum total of our experiences. Those experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us are the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow.” – B.J. Neblett, Writer
Have you come across people whom you could listen to hours on end and hang on to their every word? So much so that you feel pain, joy and fear all at once. It seems like in those few moments, you’ve lived a lifetime. What is it that makes them interesting? In one word – experience! I do not mean this in the number of years spent on earth but in the sense of going that extra mile, taking risks, moving away from your comfort zone and challenging yourself, having the courage to question your beliefs, listening to others who are different from you and also being grateful to people who taught you things on the way.
Teachers, who very kindly shared their experiences and stories for this article, are few among the many interesting people who continue to take risks and challenge themselves every single day. For example, Laxman who travels four hours every day to teach children in his school; Asha who continues to learn and unlearn through conversations with her peers and science researchers she currently works with or Sabyasachi who continues to work in innovative ways towards making mathematics accessible to every child facing multiple challenges along the way. These teachers have bitter-sweet memories of their teachers and others, whose actions challenged their understanding of education, only to bring about a much needed change to their own practice.
Teachers encourage future teachers
In the movie Kung Fu Panda, Master Shifu doubted his student Po’s potential. Oogway, using the analogy of the peach tree says,
“…maybe [Poa] can, if you are willing to guide it, nurture it, believe in it”
Each student has her own talent and interest. It takes a sensitive and observant teacher to recognize it and provide the necessary encouragement to hone it. Laxman Vangara, a teacher in a government school at Warangal, recalls,
“When I was studying in class at 10+2 level, my English lecturer found that I had interest in poetry. One day she asked me to write a poem in Telugu or English. So, I took it as a challenge and wrote a small poem on ‘The Lotus’. I presented the poem the following day in class. She praised my attempt and encouraged me to translate it in English, which I did. This incident changed my way of thinking and I started to perceive English language in different perspective.”
Very often than not, changes in education are thought of from a macro perspective, i.e., large-scale changes required at the curricular or management level. However, as one teacher’s anecdotes suggest, it is the small acts that sometimes make the most impact for a student. Sucharita teacher, working in a government school in Hyderabad, says, “We were encouraged to think on topics and ask questions to get our doubts clarified in an open class.” The freedom to ask questions made all the difference.
Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist famously used the term, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). It refers to the difference between what students can do without help and what they can’t do. I have always wondered how we can find out what students already know. As an education system, are we ready to listen to students? Are we ready to truly make our educational spaces student-centric? Sadly, a response to this last question is not always positive.
Asha is a retired biology teacher from a private school in Adilabad district. Her memory of her social science teacher resonates with so many of our own experiences and is only too familiar.
“I hated social studies because while teaching the lesson, the teacher used to give all the answers. It was such a boring class! Teaching was not good but we got severe punishments like beating or kneeling down in the school ground. Imagine a student kneeling down in front of the whole school without knowing the reason for it. My close friend got that punishment. From that day onwards I hated a teacher’s job.”
In the formative years, experiences like the one described above can leave a lasting impression. Even today, corporal punishment continues to be an issue in our schools, the long-term mental health effects of which are well documented in research (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016).
In these circumstances, a teacher’s care and word of consideration can work wonders to heal a wounded soul. As in the case of Asha,
“Sridhar sir was my English lecturer in my college. He was the one who praised me by saying my voice is suitable for teaching. Those were the first words of praise that made me enter into the teaching field, which I had hated because of my previous experiences.”
Sense of growth and achievement
Teaching, educationists have often mentioned, is a reflective process. The teacher is as much a student in the classroom, as the student herself. A teacher’s learning often begins outside the class, in the quiet hours at her desk preparing for her next lesson. Nothing is constant, except change. Giving oneself time to reflect on one’s actions or that of others, learning sometimes happens in the most unexpected ways. Sabyasachi is now a teacher at a private school in Delhi. As he mentioned, “People even look at examples and learn what not to do.”
For Asha teacher, the reflection of her own teaching process along with her willingness to move away from the norm brought about growth in the most significant way.
“Teaching primary school kids with my M.Sc. qualification made me frustrated. With that frustration I behaved like my own teachers…. As I was teaching those lessons I started questioning myself about my behaviour with my future citizens. I recollected my previous experiences when I was in school. Then I decided to be the friendly teacher. Keep the same focus on all students. I encouraged backward children to get rid of their weaknesses. I interacted more with children to help them in solving their problems. I tried to improve their application of their knowledge in their daily activities.”
Community of practice
As human beings, we are all fallible. As much as we are capable of change and imbibing new thoughts and ideas, there is no guarantee we will not fall back into the footsteps of teachers we least wanted to be like. What can we do to avoid this? Laxman teacher shows the way,
“I have good friends in my English Language Teachers’ Association. They always encourage me to get success not only as a teacher educator but also as an individual.”
To avoid making the same mistakes twice and set a higher standard of excellence, it is then crucial to surround ourselves with individuals who share a similar sense of purpose, i.e., a community of practice where we feel safe to discuss our actions and scrutinize them, only to find constructive feedback to improve ourselves and find motivation.
As a child perhaps, our experiences are restricted to the institutions and communities we find ourselves within, most of which are designed and managed by adults. However, as adults, we have more freedom in this regard and must make the most of it, not just for an interesting but for an impactful life.
Note: Opinions expressed by teachers in this article are their own and do not purport to reflect the views of the institutions they are associated with.
Acknowledgements: A sincere gratitude to all the teachers who agreed to be interviewed for this article. In addition, I appreciate the assistance of Somdatta Karak, Vijay Ganesh and Harmeet Kaur.
Reference: Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016, April 7). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000191
The author is an associate with Firki.co, a Teach For India initiative and a Ph.D student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.