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Being a teacher today

Eminent educationists reflect on what the vocation means to them, the challenges and the concerns that can’t be ignored

Being a teacher today

Regaining vision, and healing touch

Avijit Pathak

I Taught for more than three decades in a leading university. And I continue to believe that there is something higher and nobler in this vocation beyond the routinised act of disseminating facts and theories, completing the official syllabus, conducting exams and hierarchising/grading students.

A teacher ought to redefine himself/herself as a co-traveller who walks with students, understands and explores the world with eternal curiosity, and strives for a world that celebrates the liberating potential of science, arts and diverse traditions of knowledge. In other words, a good teacher is one who encourages the spirit of humanistic temper — the spirit of dialogic conversations and compassionate listening.

Well, I am aware of the harsh reality. In this market-driven/intolerant/ toxic age, we see the death of ideals — the murder of the pedagogy of hope and liberation. When coaching centre strategists replace great teachers; when nothing matters more than the instrumental logic of ‘success’; or when our minds conditioned by all sorts of totalitarian discourses of nationalism and religious identities refuse to celebrate the spirit of critical enquiry — the vocation of teaching tends to lose its vision, its ideal and its emancipatory potential. What worries me is that if the vocation of teaching continues to be trivialised through all sorts of scams, and naked politicisation of schools, colleges and universities, none can resist our collective degeneration. In the absence of teachers as philosophers, healers and communicators, the new generation might become terribly wounded — ethically and politically.

— Avijit Pathak taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University

Autonomy, not over-regulation

Faizan Mustafa

Our ancient education system gave full autonomy to teachers. Today, the sector is over-regulated and grossly under-funded. Restore autonomy. Teaching law nowadays is quite challenging. With the establishment of National Law Universities, the quality of students has improved drastically. Due to corporate placements, good students generally do not join LLM. There’s an acute shortage of good law teachers. We must provoke students to think. A law class is not good if it is only about some sections of law. It must present the broader societal need for a law and why it succeeds or fails. Since students can get all the information from the Net, they would be attentive only when they get analysis that is not available. We do learn from our students and that’s why I address them as my co-learners. A good teacher must be ideologically neutral and objective.

— Faizan Mustafa is Vice-Chancellor, Chanakya NLU, Patna

Nurseries of memories

Shyam Menon

“I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

— Maya Angelou

A few days back, a Class II child was made to go through the humiliation and trauma of being slapped by each of his classmates, on the orders of their teacher. Imagine, for a moment, that you were that little child, or were one among those who were made to slap their classmate. How would you process this memory and carry it with you? 

Schools are nurseries of memories — good and bad, happy and sad, comforting and scary. We are selective in retaining our memory. We carry with us some as a source of inspiration, some as a painful reminder of loss, grievance or humiliation. Some memories that we are unable to process get submerged into the deeper recesses of our consciousness. 

Classrooms can easily become the breeding ground of cultures of fear, leading to an accumulation of painful and stressful memories. As teachers, we wield enormous power over young lives. Power is the ability to influence, an instrument to empower and bring about change — not through coercion but persuasion, empathetic imagination, logic, and by personal example. Power is also often understood by many as the ability to issue physical sanctions against the hapless and weak. However, coercion and violence do not result in lasting resolutions. They merely leave behind deep wounds. 

Powerful as we are as teachers, we are ourselves deeply vulnerable to the pathologies of our times. This makes our job a dangerous one. The core strand of preparing to be a teacher should be an intense process of interrogating one’s own social position, upbringing, worldview and fundamental assumptions of one’s thoughts. One must begin to question one’s own ‘commonsense’ before taking on the vocation. One way this can be pursued effectively is through reflections and deliberations among professional collectives of teachers.

— Shyam Menon taught at  the University of Delhi

Training to read between lines

Neera Chandhoke

One of my favourite fictional detectives is a professor of English literature, Kate Fanslett. She solves murders in novels authored by Amanda Cross. When asked how she managed to identify the murderer, Kate replied, “I am a professor of English literature; I know how to read between the lines.” This is precisely what a good university teacher does, teach her students how to read between the lines.

That is, she teaches them what the difference between information and knowledge is. They can get information from any source. Will they know how to interpret that information? Consider that a schoolteacher instructed students to slap a child merely because he belonged to a particular religion. This is information. The realisation that violence against people because they belong to a ‘demonised’ religion is wrong, is knowledge. Knowledge comes when young people learn to distinguish between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. Our fellow citizens must not be harmed on grounds of gender, caste, religion or sexual preferences. These are morally irrelevant. We ought to resist injustice. This is the least we owe our fellow citizens.

A university teacher has to train her students to critically engage with ‘what is’ — discrimination, inequality, unfreedom, and injustice. She has to motivate them to reflect on what a good society should be — open, tolerant, and compassionate. This is what great literature, philosophy, sociology, and political theory tell us. Teaching is not a profession; it is a vocation the way priesthood is a vocation, to inculcate critical sensibilities in young minds.

— Neera Chandhoke taught at the University of Delhi

Agent of positive social change


One of my teachers was fond of saying that the vocation gives the opportunity of remaining a student. I’ve taught physics to a diverse set of students, be it at GNDU, Carnegie Mellon, IIT-Madras, IISER-Mohali or Punjabi University. For me, the most exciting part of the day is the time spent in the classroom. This is partly because half of my lecture is not planned, it unfolds during the interaction.

A teacher is a role model and should strive to live in a way that motivates students to pursue a life with strong human values. Personally, teaching physics in Punjabi to undergraduates from traditionally marginalised communities has been a very satisfying experience. Teaching should be an agent for positive social change, a tool to unlock your hidden potential.

— Arvind is Vice-Chancellor, Punjabi University, Patiala

The Fairytale of teaching

Shiv Visvanathan

The Teacher is a survivor; he is a broken myth. Once a teacher was a utopian idea of a commons of knowledge. Today, he’s a clerk. The university as a myth is completely broken. Knowledge is a commodity. And The Teacher merely a bonded clerical labour or a secretariat. The dissenters and the eccentrics thus become crucial.

The model of the university today is the tutorial college. It is the Macaulay-ite paradigm. It emphasises entry over quality and turns teaching into a nightmare. The Teacher has no access to the possibilities of the plurality of research. The sadness of the university is one of the unstated truth of India’s modernity. The Teacher is no longer a legitimate figure. The ones who survive are exemplars. Exemplars sustained in an ecology of mediocrity. A Frank Thakurdas or a JPS Uberoi are legends anywhere. They are doubly precious as storytellers and as theoreticians. The university survives on them. They keep myth alive. They keep knowledge alive. Teacher’s Day needs a new manifesto of knowledge, not a thank you note to a secretariat.

The wonder is that the fairytale of teaching still exists. There is a romanticism that we must acknowledge. India is an epidemic of tutorial colleges. What should be banned is the New Education Policy; it turns education into a dismal science. The Teacher as a storyteller desperately needs to come back.

— Shiv Visvanathan has taught at leading institutions

As much a seeker as a student

Mahesh Rangarajan

Teacher’s Day (September 5) is a day to celebrate much, but more so a day to think about what lies ahead. To me, as a student of history, it is humbling as well as inspiring that it is the birthday of a philosopher-statesman, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who took Indian philosophy to the world stage. He was a teacher first and last, as much as a research scholar.

Today, teaching is not about conveying what to think. On the contrary, it is teaching how to think in a logical and holistic way.

The challenge is to make students think about why, how and when things happen. The pleasure is the unexpected question that stumps you and then prompts a fresh search. Why are there penguins in the South Pole and polar bears in the North Pole is a prize winner. Another is why the doomed Adolf Hitler poisoned his German Shepherd Blondi before dying by suicide. The answer to one takes us to the intricacies of ecology, the other to the depths of fanaticism.

The purpose of the teacher is to help the student develop the powers of reasoning, but with empathy and compassion. It’s a quest where the teacher is as much a seeker. Dr Radhakrishnan would have approved.

— Mahesh Rangarajan teaches at Ashoka University, Sonepat

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