The scale on which a teacher’s work is weighed

G Gautama

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
Of cabbages and kings

The value of things,
And things that cannot be valued
Of fees and workload, and the scale
on which a teacher’s work is weighed?

It is often mentioned that we need to pay our teachers well. In Finland a teacher is very well paid and is selected based on the high qualifications. Today it seems necessary to discuss with relevance to the larger world, not just India, when one opens a question. All conversations have gone global, and many commonalities and cross-linkages can be seen. It may be that India has some unique points to be considered.

Trends, numbers, GDP, cost of living index are all on the table, as also salaries of workers in various sectors and IT professionals. A whole new category has opened up now called the online teacher, or distant education facilitator, or the teacher who telecommutes. The Covid-19 situation opened up this segment and now we have a rush.

It will not be very long before we recognize that delivery of content can be done with technology, possibly more effectively from a distance, than when people are in the same environment. If the role of a teacher is content delivery, or enabling platforms, or helping children qualify in exams, it can easily be automated. The salary will then be as per the sectoral compulsions and legal requirements, competing with other sectors. Like the vagaries in each sector, the education sector too has its own vagaries. This time around Covid fast tracked a high speed orientation to online education.

And an age-old notion will come to roost, that educational experience is more than content delivery, more than just tasks and feedback. Education is concerned with the whole being, and any segmentation however efficient and attractive or with computer interfaces, will never address the whole human being. With large investments crowding the education arena, there will be definitions and services that will ‘cater’ to specific ‘needs’. But somewhere in an easily accessible marketplace, with all its innovation, investment and promises, the question will remain, “Is education more than content delivery?” The nature of trends is such that they grab our attention and hold us captive and our time with an earlier reality is forgotten. Even if we remember it, we think it ancient, impractical and inefficient even if it looks attractive sometimes. There seems to be no way to breathe new wisdom into the present.

One assumes that one who teaches in a school is a teacher. Yes, modern society’s school and children are sent there for their socialization and education. Children spend their pre-adult years in school and it is assumed that they learn many things that will serve them well. Society, parents, administrators of nations wish for people who will find their feet, who will continue the handed down work of the previous generations and will be economic contributors, not only for themselves and for their dependents but today, also be global citizens.

While this trajectory looks straightforward and simple, it is fraught with danger and risk. The young learn all too quickly that the views of peers matter more than those of parents or other adults. They find the social media and advertisements driving them to the marketplace where desire often masquerades as need, and breaks down the possible restraints placed by home and community with a sense of exhilaration, belonging, and modernity, and a logic of not caring about the environment, people, or other living forms, and justification for being concerned with just oneself.

School, small or large, has always had the guidance of adults for a group of young. Is this availability of the adult to the community, to the children, a service, or a job? In the past 60 to 70 years, we have seen teaching in schools move from being a service to a job. Along with low pay and lower visibility,people proudly used to work in schools and felt they were of value and service to society. Today, a teacher works as a worker in the education sector and is part of the national workforce. The teacher of yesteryear was someone who may have pursued a calling. Today it is a career opportunity – not as yet very high on the wishlist of most adolescents despite the fact that in India, a government school teacher is financially secure for life. This is not to say it is right or wrong, but to point to a change in our thinking and how this is bound to affect what we think a teacher is to be paid, what schools should charge as fees?

In ancient India, and not so ancient times, the student went to the teacher and lived either with or near the teacher. It was understood implicitly that the student would be part of the teacher’s environment and the student would contribute to the upkeep of the environment and do small, and not so small, jobs. This was not different from traditions of Zen or Tao culture where study with a teacher meant being in the environment, being grounded in the lifestyle and culture of the teacher. Thus education in art, science, mathematics, language, grammar and administration was achieved through an embedding in the culture defined by the teacher’s lifestyle. The student paid what he had to or offered what he could. Dakshina, donation, contribution it was called, and the learning was not measured. You paid for the opportunity, you contributed what you had to, or what you could. This has many obvious advantages and disadvantages for the world we live in today.

Vidyadaanam is a Sanskrit phrase that essentially means ‘The Gift of Education’. One may be tempted to easily dismiss the statement. On closer examination one may discern a deeper truth. The teacher can offer or create an atmosphere, but cannot ensure that another learns. The teacher’s offering may be equitable, but individual learning can be at different levels and different depths. Every teacher knows this. The integrity of the learner is preserved by the teacher saying, “I have offered you what I can, what you have learnt and understood is your own.” This helps the teacher stay in the location of humility and not become a trader in knowledge, nor one who has the power to give or refuse approval based on the performance of the learner.

With the advent of modern school education the teacher instantly became answerable in the rubric of the time – portions, number passed, failed, number who go to institutions like IITs, number who work in multinationals, etc. The coach derives glory from the number of matches the student wins.

So now, what should schools pay teachers and what should parents pay schools for creating the legally sound, safe context for learning for their child or children? There is not much to say in this area as private schools are bound by a code where they agree to pay teachers according to the prevalent scales. Schools, based on the facilities and the programme, can charge fees. An equation, an algorithm, can determine what teachers’ salaries should be, if an institution pays attention to expenses. This is simple.

In some of the less developed nations, the teacher earns a significant percentage over the per capita GDP. In some of the advanced countries, the teacher earns about 10% to 20% less than the per capita GDP. Is there a fair universal formula? Is the role of the teacher to fill a slot in the socio-economic landscape and thus be fitted in like a piece of the puzzle? Is the teacher to be a handmaiden of the system, fulfilling its needs? This is much like the purpose of education down the ages, which was to teach people what the nation, the rulers and society needed.

If we accept that school education is part of the education sector, much like textiles or power tools, then we will have to apply the same logic to schools and also look for parity in the sector in terms of salaries and expectations. Can the teacher deliver predictable quality? Is all that a teacher does measurable in its outcome? How does society value that which does not have a commercial value, but is of immense value to the individual, the community and the nation? Will value have to be expressed only in terms of the money earned, allocated in the budget by people who pay the teachers, who employ the teachers? With the content, the outcome, dictated and standardized by them as well? Is this what equity in education really means?

So – who is a teacher and what is the role of the teacher? It is said that teachers are nation builders. While this can be broadly considered as true, does it mean the teacher is in full agreement with the politics of the land, its governance and administrative principles and practices? Should a teacher be fully in agreement with the existing dispensation? Or is that teacher one who retains a fundamental, ancient mandate, to help the student become ‘a light unto oneself’, to observe and question the direction of society, to doubt the assumptions? Is the teacher’s vocation an attempt to create a little bubble of sanity in a world that is confusing and often appearing insane? Is a teacher one who makes this attempt, in the cauldron of pressures and expectations, and even against impossible odds?

Those who work in the education sector accept a job to meet their daily needs and family requirements. Teachers in schools work for organizations, government or other religious institutions. They have tasks and roles they perform. If the work of a teacher is a job, there is likely to be a conflict, earlier or later between the human fundamental and the requirements of work, with compromised solutions in compromised contexts of learning. One may ask if there is an approach to life that is completely different? Is one’s fundamental vision for one’s life so clear that school, and the role of a teacher, are only a way of working towards it?

If one is a teacher to be a light to oneself, and helping the young discover it for themselves, then the equations are different.

J.Krishnamurti says that “It is immoral to make money out of education!” Will the needs of an organization, survival, hierarchy and ideologies, allow teachers to function with a deeper mandate? If school is a money spinner it exploits the environment and is located where businesses are, profiting from its work. If, however, a school holds to a deeper mandate, stays small, does not make much money, may still be attempting something of ‘fundamental value’.

Nothing of fundamental value can be accomplished through mass instruction, but only through the careful study and understanding of the difficulties, tendencies and capacities of each child; and those who are aware of this, and who earnestly desire to understand themselves and help the young, should come together and start a school that will have vital significance in the child’s life by helping him to be integrated and intelligent.

To start such a school, they need not wait until they have the necessary means. One can be a true teacher at home and opportunities will come to the earnest. Those who love their own children and the children about them, and who are therefore in earnest, will see to it that a right school is started somewhere around the corner, or in their own home. Then the money will come – it is the least important consideration. To maintain a small school of the right kind is of course financially difficult; it can flourish only on self-sacrifice, not on a fat bank account. Money invariably corrupts unless there is love and understanding. But if it is really a worthwhile school, the necessary help will be found. When there is love of the child, all things are possible.
Education and Significance of Life – J Krishnamurti

The author, an Educator-Learner at Pathashaala, a young residential school under Krishnamurti Foundation India, has worked in KFI schools for about 30 years, of which 18 were as Principal The School, KFI in Chennai. He can be reached at

[email protected].

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