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All in a teacher’s day

Instead of the usual hype over Teachers’ Day, can we have a dispassionate scrutinity of a teacher’s day?

What are the typical elements of a routine day in a (government or private) schoolteacher’s life? While the details may vary, there are large commonalities. And yet, through each day, do teachers experience the need to think critically?

Lesson planning and preparation — largely from the content of prescribed textbooks — is expected of any teacher. As the teacher gets to be increasingly ‘seasoned’, this is (arguably) regarded as less and less necessary. Aligned as these textbooks are with curricula, they also determine the sort of assessments that students have to be prepared for. This, in turn, dictates the tests/examinations designed by teachers, and the influence of the all-powerful Board examinations can sometimes percolate as far down as primary school.

When this chunk of work is done — indeed, even as it is being done — a teacher is expected to prepare students for debates, quizzes, exhibitions, annual day programmes, cultural shows, inter-school competitions, and so on. Attending staff meetings is another requirement: with an agenda (mostly set by the school Principal) consisting of functional matters such as the school calendar, tackling disciplinary issues, under-performing students, timelines for ‘covering the syllabus’, and so on.

One common thread runs through all of the above tasks: compliance.

A teacher is mostly expected to comply with existing curricula, prescribed textbooks, assessment modes, meeting agendas, norms of teaching and competition guidelines. The stark absence of critical thinking as a demand from the teacher is startling.

How often is a teacher’s opinion sought on a textbook or syllabus? Do teachers scan the market and select textbooks they find worthy of prescribing for their students? Are teachers ever asked to critique question papers of Board examinations? While this happens occasionally inside a school, it almost never happens at the national level — for policymaking committees often largely comprise people who never taught schoolchildren themselves.

Small wonder, then, that teachers seldom experience the need to think about what they do. Why do they need to, after all? The most pressing demand upon them is that they comply with all that’s expected of them. And on time.

Paradoxically, teachers are simultaneously expected to nurture critical thinking skills in students — skills they are not given even half a chance to nurture in themselves! This glaring contradiction goes quietly unnoticed by the numerous critics who largely ascribe the ills that plague the education system to poor teaching. Even as rote learning is rightly deplored, the near-total absence of nurturing critical thinking skills in the teacher is missed.

This begs the question: how can one nurture in another, skills that are not valued or nurtured in oneself? How many teachers have themselves been taught to think critically when they were in school? Apart from those paltry annual workshops which are planned and designed, again, with little or no inputs from teachers themselves, wherefrom is a teacher to draw inspiration?

Small steps

Here are a few small beginnings to spark change: teachers can be encouraged to question the curriculum and even formulate curricular objectives. It is poignantly true that rarely is a teacher even aware of existing curricular objectives. No teacher is encouraged to ask: ‘Why is this content important?’ ‘It’s in the textbook, so we need to teach it’, or ‘It’s sure to come in the examination’, are the commonly understood ‘curricular objectives’.

Can teachers be supported to rewrite a chapter of a textbook so as to revitalise it? Can they be led through a process of analysing the intent of Board examination questions? Can they be given opportunities to plan and anchor staff meetings? Can they be empowered to meet parents of their students as partners, rather than as complainers who only point out students’ defects to parents?

Without such efforts, expecting them to keep the critical faculty ticking in their learners is somewhat akin to expecting doctors to ensure the health of their patients when all pharmacies are closed.

Instead of our usual hype around Teachers’ Day — when teachers are suddenly noticed and lauded for nation-building, inspiring and so on — can we lend a dispassionate scrutiny to a teacher’s day? Can we honestly ask: ‘How can one who is constantly in the compliance mode ever turn critical, let alone develop critical thinking skills in another?’

What can Principals, policymakers, parents and school managements do to provide space to teachers to engage with their routine more critically? As thinking partners in this whole business of schooling, rather than as mere implementers of plans whose high-sounding objectives have either been snuffed out or muted as they trickle down to the teacher?

Can we then examine these issues throughout the year? And not restrict ourselves to applauding the teacher’s role only on September 5?

neeraja.raghavan@gmail.com

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2020 7:55:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/all-in-a-teachers-day/article24904657.ece

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