There’s no doubt that we expect teachers – and schools, more generally – to shoulder much of the responsibility of society-building and nation-building. From lectures and pledges in the assembly to the performances on days of national importance, schools impart a sense of what it means to be a citizen of the country, along with the values that define this sense of nationhood. In the classroom, these lessons are imparted more implicitly, from the way teachers comport themselves and the ways in which they interact with students, the values that are folded into what they say and how they say it, who they favour or disfavour. From the subtle and not-so-subtle cues of verbal and non-verbal communication, students learn what is considered acceptable and unacceptable. As a result, teachers end up embodying through their everyday presence, the standards of acceptable adult behavior.
It’s highly unrealistic to expect that a teacher is going to model what we might consider perfect behavior every single day, in every situation – she is allowed a certain (albeit narrow) latitude of ordinary lapses. A bit of irritation here, a flash of impatience there – these are within the range of such “ordinary lapses”. But these too are excused only if they are followed by some expression of empathy and contrition, some acknowledgment that the outburst was exceptional, not the norm.
Time and again we see reports in the media about teachers acting out their biases in classrooms, victimizing children from minority communities, and stigmatizing those who are different. The recent case of a teacher in Uttar Pradesh slapping and denigrating a minority student and calling on his classmates to follow her lead sparked nationwide outrage, and rightly so, but it also made something disturbingly clear. That we are far from that “heaven of freedom” that Tagore imagined.
A classroom can – if a teacher allows it – be a space where children, for a brief while, can forget that they come from different backgrounds, have less or more, and follow different faiths. A teacher’s job is to focus on creating that common ground for learning, or at least, to prepare the ground so that children can find their place on it without fear. The teacher, for her part, can demonstrate in word and deed, the possibilities and potentials for the kind of interaction that can build a more integrative, collaborative, and kind world. It may seem like a lot to ask, but nothing less will do, really.