Reflections Education

To sir, with love

With a little effort, teachers can do a lot to keep themselves updated with the constantly changing needs of students, gaining their respect in the process

When Professor James Isaac, my colleague at IIT Bombay, passed away at 93, his students from across the world sent condolences to his family. He had retired 33 years ago and had taught the students much before then. Yet, they had not forgotten him. This ability, to leave an indelible imprint on impressionable minds, is what binds students to their favourite teachers.

What ability did Jimmy, as he was known popularly, possess? First, he was a conscientious teacher. Initially, not terribly good at teaching, he painstakingly mastered the technique of teaching and became immensely popular. Seeing 300 pairs of eyes glued to him and the blackboard was a fascinating experience.

Jimmy also placed love and care for his students high on his agenda. One day, he requested me to drive him to one of the boy’s hostels, on the campus to lend a visually-challenged student his personal computer to help him study comfortably. Having handed over the computer, Jimmy looked happy. Compassion — that is what he had. No wonder his former students, now middle-aged men and women, had remembered him warmly.

Another colleague, Professor K.C. Mukherjee of Electrical Engineering, a day after his retirement, suffered from gastrointestinal haemorrhage and was admitted to the IIT hospital. Two hundred students queued outside the hospital to give him blood.

The same trait of having inspired love and respect in his students was visible. He was a superb teacher and the students ‘paid’ back. Although he didn’t smile much and students called him ‘Iceberg’ affectionately, their regard for him went beyond that.


By contrast, student writeups on Quora, a social media site where people share their feelings and experiences uninhibitedly, shock as one reads of college students who have been abused, insulted, mocked and shamed publicly for small reasons such as reaching the class late.

In a democratic country when openness is, thankfully, trying to get a foothold in society, how a teacher can treat students with disrespect, is beyond my comprehension. Are we there to help them grow into confident human beings or to break their spirits and kill their self-esteem?

Having trained over 6,000 college teachers, I have observed that while effective teachers are tolerant and patient with students, and demonstrate a sense of humour, it is the less effective ones, who easily grow angry and try controlling techniques with students. There is a correlation between student ill-treatment and bad teaching.

Teaching is an art which can be learnt on-the-job or in teacher workshops. Universities, in developed countries, train PhD fellows and their own teachers to improve their classroom skills. Teacher-learning centres regularly organise conferences to keep professors updated in ways of meeting changing student needs.

Unfortunately, we have nothing like this in India. So, what can we do?

College teachers can study YouTube videos, and free handouts from these centres and practise the techniques to excel. MIT’s free courseware has recordings of teachers teaching live; they are so interesting. Lest we get carried away that we alone have large, heterogeneous classes, they sometimes lecture to over 2,000 students, from multiple countries, under one roof.

A study with first-year students in a chemistry class revealed that for teachers, the prime priority is knowledge.

Students, on the other hand, prioritise using examples over knowledge because they help them understand concepts. It is worth remembering this point while structuring our lectures. The anxiety of completing the syllabus must not replace interesting instruction.

To know where we periodically stand, we can ask for anonymous feedback from students and be open-minded about unpalatable comments, if we wish to gain.

The writer is a former professor of English, IIT Bombay.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 9:28:53 AM |

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