The privilege of teaching

Sunanda Ali

Sunanda-Ali What makes a teacher?’ A deceptively simple question, which as one explores further, appears more and more complex. For a start, we do know that teachers reflect the cultural context they are in and consequently a teacher today is very different from a teacher 50 years ago. For instance, teachers today say that there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. Apart from ensuring academic excellence, teachers today are expected to ‘prepare students for the future’, to counsel students with behavioural issues, and function as emotional support for children who come from dysfunctional or single-parent families. They are also expected to ‘teach’ children ‘discipline’ and ‘moral values.’

However, starting with the obvious, let us look at the teachers around us. At first glance, we can clearly see two kinds of teachers. There is the ‘old school’ teacher who stands at the head of the class, delivers the content efficiently and well, inspires confidence in the students (and parents!) and tries her best to get her students to perform as well as they can. Then, there is the ‘facilitator’ who has carefully designed her lesson so that the students are directed to work on their own at the tasks which have been set for them. (In every school, we see both these types, and this is the desirable scenario; it is important to have a mix.)

Of course, this is over simplifying the present scenario. There are teachers and teachers. On closer observation, we see that each teacher works according to the role she sees herself in. If a teacher sees her prime responsibility as being that of delivering content, she will ensure to do that. If a teacher sees herself as ‘more than that’, as a friend, philosopher, guide to the students, she will provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on in times of trouble. If a teacher sees her main function as opening ‘doors’ for the students, introducing them to new ideas and getting them to ‘think’, she will spend her time with the students in line with this objective. It is important to understand that the teacher will not only fulfil what she sees as her most important role, she will also do other things she needs to; however, she may see these other tasks as deviations from her main function.

Another way to look at the question ‘What makes a teacher?’ is to look at the qualities we think a teacher should have. Ask around and people say ‘patience’, ‘love for children’, ‘subject knowledge’, ‘energy, both physical and mental’, ‘ability to manage tricky situations’, ‘a certain idealism by which a teacher is aware that she is doing an important job’, ‘imagination’, etc.

As can be seen from the above, it is not a simple question and like an onion, there are layers and layers to it, before one can get to the core truth if there is one. Probably, the only way to answer the question is to say not what a teacher must be, but what a teacher must not be. A teacher must not be arrogant, believe that she knows all the answers. A teacher must not be superior, didactic, preachy, moralistic or sarcastic for the same reason. A teacher must not talk too much, especially at the students. A teacher must not enjoy the sensation of wielding power over the students (even if she feels that what she is doing for them is for ‘their good’). A teacher must not see herself as the only (or main) agent through whom a student can learn, whether academics or good behaviour. A teacher must not see herself or the school as the only agent through which students can be ‘prepared for the future.’

What then can a teacher do?

A teacher can create an ambience around her where children can learn to appreciate the importance of universal values (peace, non-violence, tolerance), which ideally should not change with time or place. A teacher can create an ambience where students feel appreciated and respected. By choosing teachers who are genuinely fond of children and trust them, by not making academic instruction only marks-oriented, by not loading students with tests and exams, by not judging students by their academic performance alone, by providing outdoor experiences and exposure to natural surroundings, by not comparing students with each other: these are some ways by which a school can be made a place for children to grow. (A teacher must understand, however, that school provides only partial understanding, that much of life is learnt outside school and that in the ‘school of life’ teachers and students are both learners, and on an equal level). That these things must be ensured in every school, regardless of its social context, the expectations of parents or the educational philosophy of the school.

Above all, a teacher can communicate faith in life and hope for the future.

We need to understand that children do not need to ‘be prepared for the future.’ They are the future. In Khalil Gibran’s words, from his poem, ‘On the Children.’

‘Your children are not your children,
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
… For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow.’

Or in L.R.Knost’s words:
‘It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.’

And if we deal with our students with care, making schools safe, non-threatening spaces where they can discover the world and express themselves, we can dare to hope that the future will not be as cruel or heartless as the present. For the pleasure our students give us, and for the privilege of teaching them this is the least we can do.

Sunanda Ali has been teaching English Language and Literature for many years. She now heads a residential school in Chittoor district called The Peepal Grove School. She can be reached at

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