Hope all is not lost in this country of the gurukul legacy. There are teachers who have carved a niche for themselves and continue to inspire young minds.

Not so very long ago, in small towns or big villages, teachers were looked upon with deep reverence, and their homes were landmarks: “The post office? Well, it is just behind Radha teacher's house.” “The little grocery shop? Walk along this road till you reach Prof. Rajasekaran's house; take the second left turn.” “The tailor's shop? It is just one stop away from Miss Maya's house.”

I am reminded of a personal narrative a friend told me a few years ago. She comes from a semi-urban village in Kerala where, being a teacher, her home was a social landmark. One day, her dog took ill and was taken to a vet; a genetic problem in the bottom was corrected through surgery and the dog was promptly discharged. But it began to chew on the stitches, and the anxious family wondered how this could be prevented.

Following what appeared to be a brilliant suggestion, they got the dog to wear an underwear. The dog in underwear (jetty itta patti, in Malayalam) became a familiar funny sight and spread laughter as it ran around the neighbourhood. Since then what had for long been identified as Meena teacher's house came to be renowned as the house with the dog in underwear or, to put it in Malayalam, jetty itta pattide veedu.

Jokes apart, a metaphorical extension of the narrative to the current situation would reveal that more and more such jetty itta pattis are confiscating the social recognition enjoyed by teachers of the past. There is hardly any nobility associated with teaching anymore. Precisely, it has ceased to be a vocation and has become just another occupation. Teachers surrounded by students was a common sight on college campuses; birthday cards and festival greetings used to pile up in teachers' mail box. Teachers and students shared a unique friendship that was not threatened by the familiarity-breeds-contempt adage. Things have begun to change.

When doing my research in Chennai, I was asked to supervise an examination. The students were instructed to mention the name of their course instructor in a column provided at the top end of the answer paper. I was aghast at discovering that few students knew the name of the teacher who taught them that course. Such indifference is appalling. It set me thinking.

Pointing fingers

What could be the reason for the fall of this great teaching empire? To the question who should be blamed for this, there will be numerous hands pointed at the teachers themselves: Common accusations include severe irregularity of attendance in class, dictation of notes prepared ages ago, side business like operation of tuition centres, indifference to students and their issues, etc. Although the truth in these statements cannot be altogether disregarded, we need to seriously address the question whether teachers are to be solely blamed? I would add that there has been a general change in the attitude to various professions. Teaching is considered a profession that one compromised on. The clamour for professional courses and jobs dealt another blow to this noble profession.

I would also seriously object to the encroachment of politics on education, by which I do not simply refer to campus politics; indeed, several attempts, however feeble, have been made by succeeding governments to purge campuses, education departments and universities of politics. So much for the collective community. The individual teacher is also under tremendous pressure. It is round-the-clock work for a sincere teacher: prepare for the next day's classes, evaluate answer sheets and assignments, organise conferences, present papers at seminars, prepare research articles to be published in refereed journals, organise extension activities, respond to invitations as resource persons, take up research projects, attend in-service courses, monitor student activities...the list is endless.

And all this, besides the regular classes to cover (uncover?) the portions prescribed in an ambitious syllabus. All these take their toll of quality time spent with students. I repeat, a sincere teacher has no time and space that she can claim as her own. Although all the above mentioned are obligatory for a good teacher, teaching has sadly become just another item on this long list of teacher activities, so where is the time for investing in teacher-student relationship?

All this time I was referring to lecturers, who were also addressed as teachers by society. Today, along with the great shift from an agricultural to corporate culture, this word has accumulated the synonyms of facilitator, course instructor, resource person, course consultant, course adviser, subject expert, tutor and so forth. Indeed, there are different shades of meaning associated with each of these terms. But they are all split particles of the teacher component.

Hope all is not lost in this country of the gurukul legacy. There are teachers who have carved a niche for themselves and who continue to inspire young minds. I salute them who do not simply deliver lectures on lessons but are lessons themselves, and who have not been confined to the realm of just one teacher synonym.

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