What’s it all about?

Brendan MacCarthaigh

One of my jobs at the moment is helping teachers respond constructively to the grim realities of COVID19 and her Delta, Omicron and other wretched offspring. Specifically, I work with the teachers in a prestigious boys’ north-Indian Christian-run predominantly Hindu English-medium dayschool. Although I recognize that we brought this on ourselves by our treatment of our planet over a long period so that now the planet is fighting back, the end result is, as mentioned above, a crop of grim realities.


I am not going to list them, because excellent pieces in various publications have done and are doing that and several other pieces have made suggestions to parents and teachers on coping with those realities. My contribution is in the nature of discoveries I have made in the process of adding to those helpful suggestions and throwing what light I can on the significance of those unexpected discoveries.

Illustration: Sunil Chawdiker


The fallout of schools coping with the unavoidable closure of the institutions has been a shift in the authority structure of the home. Formerly, dad and mum coped with the child as school-student. That no longer obtains. The ubiquity of the mobile phone and the technological savvy of our youngsters has given the children power to run their own lives. While they haven’t the maturity to recognize the role of discipline in the process of development, they have the excitement of seeing their parents helpless in implementing what the local and national authorities command by way of responding to the pandemic. This fact has, as literally as language allows, turned upside down the meaning of parenting. An even bigger tailpiece to that fact is that there is no expectation that parent-child relationship will return to a desirable format when – if – the pandemic is finally banished.


Then teachers discovered that they had to master Zoom or some such tool and use it as a teaching process. In practice, this doubled the work of teachers, because they had both to master new methods and still follow syllabi dictated by schoolbooks. Overwork expressed itself in tense staffrooms and various levels of in/competence by school principals to respond to this overloading. While, like many others, I wrote suggestions to the education authorities, I also saw that those same authorities were in many cases reaping the result of earlier indifference to the signs that on-the-spot teachers and parents recognized in some panic. We had made a totem of exams and everything relating to them – only to find that now they had fallen to a new low level of absurdity. (I had myself written to authorities in the departments more than once in this context, but got nothing more than polite acknowledgement of my efforts.)


I changed tack. Teachers were overworked, unrewarded, panicking or retreating to box-ticking (– there, I’ve done my task, to heck with whether it produces any worthwhile results). I created a storytime, in which I would tell an interesting story to teachers with no ‘moral’, just a life experience that would be interesting and get their minds completely off the pressure that was now crushing their interest in their job, and indeed in life, generally. I was not happy that the school authorities made attendance at these story-sessions (by zoom) compulsory, but I saw this as the lesser of two evils and I ran with it. It helped the teachers.


Then other local readjustments resulted in responding directly to the stress factors straining the teachers’ lives. I invited them to choose topics that I would help them explore in the context of lightening the heavier-than-formerly stress their lives involved. I was emphasizing with them the importance of calling on their adult resources in this context. (Teachers notoriously revert to childishness if they are working too much with children and getting no adult thinking around them.)


So I proposed interactive explorations of the meaning of our lives, under the broad heading What’s it all about? Other titles on the proposed topics included * Global Warming: How to respond, * Forgiveness * How to begin a friendship * Prayer, Religion, Scripture * Fears of places and people. Almost all the teachers are women. They sat in masked groups of four in the auditorium for this discussion.


They opted to draw up a completely different list of things they wanted discussed, which included none of those I had suggested, but ran thus: * Mental illness, exhaustion * Overthinking * Procrastination * Spiritual awakening * How to respond instead of react * Peace of mind: how to relax. Each of these came from a group.


Their lists touched on 20, the above are a selection to serve my purpose – they drew my attention very firmly to the distance that exists between what our teachers are preoccupied with and what we, in a largely different world, presume. They also highlighted favouritism as a staff reality, stress and work pressure were predictable inclusions, and – disturbingly – the gap between teachers and boys.


I have learned that it is important to organize such interactions among students, but on the understanding that the conclusions discovered are themselves matter for further exploration and implementation by teachers. I have learned that while topics that seem important to us may have no place in the youngsters’ minds, we have to insist that some topics are explored seriously by them along with us. Global warming, for example, which is an even bigger threat to the very existence of the planet, absolutely must get intelligent attention and action from all education institutions, a reality sensed and highlighted by the teenager Greta Thunberg, but ignored by my teachers. I have learned that we are not short of data, we are short of real love for one another as a motivation for improving social and global realities. The hijab, for example, seems to me to be of importance to this country as an issue to be frankly appraised and then wisely acted upon.


And perhaps there might be some enlightened discussion of the whole issue of political elections, now clearly dependent almost solely on financial rewards and not at all on the welfare of our people, least of all our poor folk. The problem here will of course be kettles calling pots black and none sufficiently untainted to lead such a discussion. I weep, but that’s no use to anyone – unless the written word in responsible publications reaches important eyes and ears in influential places. Perhaps Teacher Plus might be the best for this role.


The author is a professional educationist working for more than 60 years in India, largely among very poor youngsters but also in the major upper strata of Indian education. He can be reached at [email protected].

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