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Updated: September 4, 2010 16:58 IST

A neglected lot?

ARUNA SANKARANARAYANAN
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Whither teacher training? Illustration: Keshav
The Hindu
Whither teacher training? Illustration: Keshav

A teacher, working as she is against pressures from multiple fronts, can make or break a child. Yet, why is teacher training such a low priority?

As Veena waits outside her son's school gate, she witnesses widespread disenchantment with teachers. “My son does not know his tables and he's in the fourth. Why can't his teacher insist that he learns them?” “Mala's teacher corrects very unfairly. She cuts marks for small mistakes.” “Dev was scolded by his teacher, who everyone says is mean. The poor kid is feeling so bad.”

Being a high-school teacher of 15 years, Veena maintains a stoic silence. She knows the stresses and struggles her job entails. Bombarded by pressure on all fronts — from unreasonably high parental expectations to student misbehaviour, from the management exhorting teachers to achieve 100 per cent results in board exams to students griping about marks — the travails of a teacher's job makes her sigh. And, the most hurtful part is that her efforts are not recognised, let alone lauded, by anyone.

Status in society

Krishna Kumar, the former director of NCERT, aptly writes, “In our society, education is not regarded as a serious profession. Teaching, which comprises the heart of education, has a poor status, especially if you teach children as opposed to youth… But it is not just the teacher of young children who has low professional status; those who train teachers fare no better. Indeed, teacher training can be accurately described as the centre of India's educational depression.”

Right after completing her B.Ed., Veena remembers her trepidation as she faced her first batch of 60 adolescents. Unlike a medical degree, which requires students to intern under an experienced doctor for a year, Veena was simply thrust into a classroom and expected to perform right from day one. Without any mentoring or guidance from more experienced colleagues, Veena learnt the ropes on the job. The short-term workshops offered by various consultants and experts at the end of every academic year at her school provided only stray tidbits of advice; even today, after 15 years of teaching, when Veena feels unsure of a student, she has to steer her own boat. Her B.Ed. did not prepare her sufficiently on how to motivate failing students, deal with inattention and open defiance, cater to children with learning difficulties, address parental anxieties or create a classroom of lifelong readers. Given the inadequacy of her training, Veena does her best to deliver effective lessons.

As children traverse the academic ladder from kindergarten to college, all parents hope that their wards are blessed with good teachers. While we look back on our own student days, most of us have memories of good and poor teachers. But the outstanding teacher who inspired passion and creativity and instilled trust and confidence was usually the exception. While we intuitively accept that a teacher can indeed “make or break” a child, why then do we invest so little in creating excellent teachers? Why are teachers in India not accorded the status that the profession rightly deserves? Instead of engaging in unproductive teacher bashing, which does not serve anyone's interests, least of all our children, we need to upgrade teacher education programmes and elevate the status of teachers so that more children fall under the magnetic spell of master teachers. On par with IITs and IIMs, teacher training in India needs to be rejuvenated by oases of excellence that attract bright and talented youth to be champion teachers.

But what constitutes outstanding teaching? To most of us, excellent teaching is an elusive quality that a teacher does or doesn't possess. Like great works of art, its characteristics cannot be pinned down. However, a recent study by educationist Doug Lemov suggests that inspiring teaching is a craft that can be mastered by acquiring and honing skills. While Lemov accedes that great teaching is an art, he emphasises that every artist has to first learn and master the tools of the craft before producing masterpieces. Can ordinary teachers then be trained to perform better and achieve extraordinary results? Lemov suggests they can. He tracked teachers who had succeeded in producing high-achieving students despite having the odds of poverty, truancy and broken homes stacked against their students. These teachers were the outliers who defied predictions and produced high-performers. Right from the moment they entered class to their leave-taking, Lemov noted what these teachers did differently. Rather than spinning lofty educational theories, Lemov offers “concrete, specific, actionable” techniques that any teacher can adopt to refine her teaching style.

In a technique called No Opt Out, a teacher returns to a student who fails to answer a question the first time. For example, Ms. Jamal asks, “What is a prime number, Jaya?” The child falters, “Miss, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9…” “Those are odd numbers Jaya. Samir, tell Jaya why 9 is not a prime number?” “Because it has 3 as a factor.” The teacher then persists, “Now, Jaya, can you tell me what a prime number is?” By not accepting that a child cannot answer a question, the teacher subtly conveys that everyone can succeed. While Jaya gets it right on the third try, Ms. Jamal has communicated that all children in her class are capable of learning. This also gives Jaya the confidence to persist despite getting an answer wrong. No child in Ms. Jamal's class can get away with a “Don't know.”

Outstanding teachers also set high expectations for students by not accepting anything but an answer that is 100 per cent accurate. They insist that children respond in complete sentences and stretch them by asking questions even after an answer is given. So when Mr. Jacob asks the class, “What is a peninsula?” and Arati responds by saying ‘India', he says, “That's an example. Give me a definition.” When Arati ventures, “A piece of land that projects into water,” he persists, “Can you expand on that definition? How is it different from an island?” The child says, “Connected to the mainland,” and the teacher continues, “Good. Now tell me what a peninsula is in a complete sentence.” After Arati gives the correct answer, he further challenges the class, “What is the difference between a peninsula and a gulf?”

Crucial component

Planning is an integral component of remarkable teaching. Visionary teachers spell out measurable teaching goals before drawing up lesson plans. Great teachers also pay attention to details. Activities like distributing papers, collecting homework etc. are practised and perfected to a high degree of efficiency so that only around 10 seconds of precious class time are wasted. Likewise, they use positive framing to instill discipline, usually preempting misbehaviour.

Lemov's claim that the craft of teaching can be mastered echoes the findings of a report published by McKinsey and Company in 2007. While India was not a part of the study, the findings suggest how we might overhaul teacher education. McKinsey analysed school systems in 25 countries including top performers on international assessments like Belgium, Finland, Netherlands and Singapore. While countries differed greatly on dimensions of culture, politics and school systems, high-performing nations have three common features.

Talented graduates with strong communication and interpersonal skills and a deep-seated desire to teach are selected for competitive teacher education programmes. Furthermore, even on the job, teachers are provided with intensive training and support. During the formative years of their careers, young teachers are mentored by more experienced colleagues. Finally, children with difficulties receive intervention so that they can catch up on lagging skills.

As we pay tribute to educators across the country on Teacher's Day, we may consider investing more heavily in teacher training and mentoring programmes. Historian and educator Henry Adams succinctly captures the enormous scope and potential of this age-old profession: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

The director is Director, PRAYATNA, Centre for Educational Assessment and Intervention. E-mail: arunasankara@gmail.com


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