Between us Careers

Teaching: a work in progress

Illustration: Kannan Sundar

Illustration: Kannan Sundar   | Photo Credit: Illustration: Kannan Sundar

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Do teachers need to have all the right answers? Being a learner ‘again’ might be the biggest blessing.

A classroom is a living textbook. A space, where our beliefs are challenged. As teachers, we are privy to everything; from the latest pop star to the ever shifting definitions of what “cool” is. We play agony aunts and dispensers of tough love. We are often the solo voice of authority, in an otherwise chaotic student world. Sometimes, the situations we face are so alien to our own sense of security; we are forced to rely on an inner (or higher!) intelligence.

These moments are challenges to our own growth, allowing us to feel confusion and uncertainty, and shattering the image that as teachers we need to have all the right answers!

History battles

Many years ago, armed with idealism and theories of great thinkers, I worked as a co-teacher in a classroom with students from various nationalities. A new student from Japan walked in, with the customary trepidation, of facing a new class of ten-year-olds. We asked her to introduce herself,and sit next to a group of students in the second row. The student we asked her to sit next to walked up to us and told us in no uncertain terms that she had to be shifted. A domino effect and soon other children in the class registered a similar protest.

The authority figure in me was unable to comprehend this. Moreover, the rest of the class seemed to be testing me to see how I would react. Sensing my predicament, my colleague, who was a teacher with years of experience, intervened. She asked the new girl to sit in the front row and resumed the class. After the class, we had a conversation and the situation became clearer. The students who protested belonged to a country that had been with war with Japan and their sense of anger was so strong that it had been passed down through historical narratives. Even though at present, there was no warring between the countries, the hatred on the battlefield had spilled into a classroom, centuries later!

In an ideal world, we would have given them a long lecture on peace, and the girl would have been accepted into the classroom-fold. However, the experience of my colleague showed me an alternative way of handling this rather peculiar situation.

She identified a set of children, some of them from the “enemy” country who did not hold such beliefs, and asked them to help their new friend. The lessons continued and in the course of the next few weeks, stories extolling values about forgiveness and peace were shared. These were not done as lectures but as part of the set of activities. We kept a close watch against any bullying but did not give much attention to the group that protested. And one day, the most incredible solution came our way — coloured rubberbands! The new girl was an expert at making bracelets with rubber bands and the entire class was huddled around her, asking her to teach them. By the year-end, the drama was part of a distant memory and it was a delight to see the protesting group work with their new friend in an inter-school art competition.

Loyalty lines

A colleague shared her experience of dealing with student loyalty. In her classroom, someone had vandalised her chair and after a particularly stressful week, she felt her authority was severely being undermined. She told the class that unless the culprit owned up, all of them would be restricted from playing their sports and would be subjected to extra math classes. This tussle continued for a week with nobody “sneaking” on their friends. The entire class gave up their time on the football field. In a move that surprised her, they pooled their resources and bought her a new chair.

“It challenged every notion of what I should have felt or done as a teacher,” she said. The underlying sense of loyalty (however misplaced it might have been!) was an eye-opener that human behaviour does not work along expected lines and conditions. In the coming weeks, she found creative ways to applaud their strengths and channelise their scattered energies. Teaching is perhaps the ultimate work in progress!

Inspirations

Looking back on teachers who have moulded one’s life, it was teachers who were passionate about their subject, yet open to new ideas and discussions that come to mind. The arguments over interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet spilled over into our school canteen, where our Literature teacher would treat us to ice-cream, admitting she knew nothing about some new critical theory we tried to impress her with! Some of the best lessons received, in the field of disability, are from people who had years of experience, but still treated every student as another opportunity to add to their contribution to the field.

As one teacher remarked “Being a teacher is like being on a stage. One dishonest note and the students would pick it up.” As teachers who might be struggling with the unfamiliar, perhaps it just needs a shift in perceptions to admit one does not know. Being a “learner” again might be the biggest blessing that the profession gives you. Enjoy your journey of discovery as you begin with, “I do not know”!

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 5:00:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/careers/teaching-a-work-in-progress/article7826733.ece

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