Why Teach?

This was not a question much asked in the hundred and more years between the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, being seen as perfectly irrelevant. There was so much to learn in order to “get ahead”. In virtually every country worth its name, “learning” came to be recognised as widely necessary in order to be able to get on top of the respective industrial revolutions, and escape the tyranny of land holdings and feudalism.

Many, many people of great intellect, of varied talents and capabilities, from learned and even aristocratic families , who were already educated – in India but also definitely overseas – took to teaching. They saw readily, how much at an advantage they were, in response to the demands of a new world order – stark, colourless, driven; immediate and complicated on the one hand. Yet fruitfully successful on the other, with promise of various levels of prosperity and usefulness as opposed to a life of intellectual void and endless peasantry. These people taught for the calling, not for money. You often heard how such and such person had asked to be paid a rupee a year. Many considered it demeaning to ask for or even accept a salary, genuinely believing that they had something to give, of themselves and freely. And so they did. The mathematician was as familiar with Yeats as he was with cricket, “thumris” and Impressionism. This eclectic catholicism, generated talent or appreciation or both. And translated into a passion for independence, for the freedom to apply all we knew in our way for ourselves.        

As education spread, the concept of earning a monthly income and the accompanying financial independence grew. Governance, legalities and administration had also to come into existence. And then adapt and change. But as the demand for learning, for knowledge and information grew, “education” as we think of it now, went into overdrive, together with the idea of a literate nation. Literacy was associated with everything from national pride to patriotism, to preseumptions and the “intimations of immortality.” Science and medicine began to make big break-throughs, streaking ahead into a universe of pure imagination and startling discoveries. And so too did earthly infrastructure and “goods & services”. These brought about spaces that needed to be occupied – by front-line creativity, by support and supply lines, rules and regulations and arbitration and laws and permissions and bureaucracy. Today, it would appear, everything is available to everyone everywhere. If you know how to access the net you can do anything. Best of all, you can teach yourself anything. And be a provider instead of taker, self-esteem at your fingertips. That we are limited by nothing except the lack of imagination and will.

In truth, what has strangled our Nation, is the practically insurmountable problem of discrepancies. Created by us and of us; and, in specific cases, even for us.

Despite the proliferation of information and its construct, almost impossible to contain within specifics, a pall of distances shrouds us. We are at a time of great discomfort and suffering. Our school & college education is mostly awful. The number of young people who are “class XII/ inter pass”, with nothing else going for them, is enormous. It limits our horizons, constantly threatening self esteem and inclusive growth. The generous education referred to above has all but disappeared. In its place is something gooey; like some unmentionable gruel; amorphous and difficult to outrun. Teaching is suspect. Tuitions fill voids, threatening institutions. It’s more about patterns and breaking codes and “cracking” a test with high scores. It’s a way out for many. For first generation educated wanting to uplift the quality of one’s own home and family, from out of wretchedness and into contentment. To combat illness and disease, suddenly all around us all the time, like stalking. “Success” is possible. “Success” can mean jobs and pay and marriage and upward mobility.

Some “success” may be happening, whether in suicidal frenzy or quiet isolation. But in the process there is no time for consideration of what is good or bad, but rather what can or cannot be got away with. It has spawned the venal and the feral and thus let loose the beasts of endless strife. Conscience has little or no say when it comes to the logic of income and expenditure. If there is money there can be respect. Anyone not born with the mysteries of money making in their blood is of little or no significance. As a result, employees are obligated, beholden and servile. And the employers implacable in demand. Dignity is not their purview, though pass percentages are. Sometimes.

The redress lies in education. But we are far yet from such an evolution. Literacy has turned to much upon itself. Govt. institutions are too frequently a mess despite handsome salaries, perquisites and the eternal issue of security, marriage prospects and other useful advantages. Private institutions are monotonously exploitative under the garb of cost effectivity.

The government makes all sorts of well-intentioned rules and regulations in favour of the underdog but our follow through and monitoring are generally insufficient and we continue to get away with murder. It is a huge irony that the government’s definition of corruption is financial, what they refer to as “ill gotten gains”. But the real corruption that is choking us is the corruption of attitude and of exploitation – not in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh and Orrisa but in every city and town and district. If money comes it disappears. But persecution, lack of attendance, lack of application, shortcuts, under-motivation, non-adherence, non-compliance, deliberate diversion of opportunities, blackmail, laziness, lack of initiative, intolerance, impatience to get one’s way, compound the disrespect of one another. It, in fact,  fills our lives. We end the day and go to sleep with it and we wake with it. Filth is everywhere, on streets, around homes and places of work and worship and worse, in our minds and actions. Make-do and “jugaad” are everywhere too. Little or nothing is sacrosanct. Not the Constitution; not governance and politics, not the given word, not provisioning and neither treatment nor health.

So why teach? Because. Because it’s the only way to bring out the better creature. The only way, comprised of a million things, that can shape an individual. And so restore the integrity she once had and which startled almost all who came to know her.

Children are killing one another in classrooms and at homes. Such is their intolerance and rage at being belittled or insulted; buffeted by deprivation or want or ridicule. There is an immediacy of care and need that we are simply not seeing, too busy filling seats and growing numbers. Whether it is because we can’t see it, blinded by our own needs, or because we choose to ignore it in favour of other priorities, is anybody’s guess in given situations. What is critical to acknowledge is that there is virtually no Civil Society left among us. We have neither faith nor strength enough to protect the country from ourselves.

And yet the assertion is that education can make us change. Not literacy but a totality of education that permeates our very beings. For those who may disagree, they need only to look to themselves. To their own education and wisdom. To the civility of their own homes; the ethical goodness of their own blood.

Good schools in India are countable – schools that build and care and give. Those who benefit from these  institutions are also countable among our vast billions. Leadership is therefore thrust upon us by circumstance. Nurturing, respectful family (irrespective of money – people maybe in positions of great hardship and yet are generous and kind and an example for the children to follow); nurturing respectful school; the best of tertiary options; exclusive graduate programmes, selections and promotions and then employment – almost whatever you want to do – Civil Services, Defence, Corporate & Tech; any profession anywhere, business, trade & commerce, science and medicine and design and film and entertainment…….

But from the moment you occupy a chair you may be looked to. Looked up to also perhaps, but certainly expected to be trustworthy and to set an example and thus to lead. It may only be a small team to begin with but you will have to lead it nevertheless. How will you lead? What will your team be? What impact upon others will your team make; how will they be perceived?  What is your the reliability, that others can turn to you? If you are well brought up, your work will be ethical and perceptive. Top quality will be a primary objective. Others will be proud to be associated with you; good people will come to you and want to be part of your small still anonymous team. And that is how goodess grows.  None of this is wishful thinking. There are homes and schools and teachers which send out batch after batch of good people, year after year, around the country and the world. 

But, they can be counted.

So then?  So then teach! Teach your Math and English and languages and science and every other subject in the world if you can. But teach it so that the learning will never be forgotten. Teach it with depth. With the very potency with which it has come to be, from its origins in thought and experience and pursuance. Who thought it? How was it come upon? What really is it? What does it change? Why should there be change? Will it exclude or encompass? Will it deprive or enrich?

Know yourself before you teach: everyday, all the time. Between class and library and office and conference and meetings and the setting of a routine – by balance, by time duly managed and not made treacherous. By examples that give hope; by hope that is achievable. Create the curriculum and endorse it.  Teach thinking and cogitation and introspection and pursuance. Teach from wit and imagination. Hunt for stuff from the past; show up greatness; anticipate the inheritance. Not one school or one teacher or some but every school and every child and every teacher and parent always. 

Stop complaining about “good teachers” being unavailable. Find good people instead, and help them to become great. Tap them from the inside, where they keep dreams and capabilities and talents and skills, so far back some of them, they forget what they have. The born teacher is as much a surprise as is the teacher who started with little. Make them, like soldiers are made.

Evict the tyranny of the syllabus by a simple expedient – decide on content by means of understanding what learning outcomes are and need to be. Plan the year. Teach and question. Ask so the question is not a threat and answering it is not fraught with the danger of ridicule. Teach little text and more experience. And assign. And correct. And give back and ask for more. Stick at it. Suddenly you will see how much you’ve done.

Decompress the exams. Work through multi-test processes. Some of which is happening but far too little. Reduce numbers in classes and increase the number of teachers so that the optimum can be maintained and so that the balance of reverence and respect cannot be easily assailed ever again. Divest from ownership and administration. Empower and monitor instead. Reward and appreciate instead of castigation, humiliation and distance. Bug, irritate, quarrel, fight, demand and give. And then look at what is coming out of your hands after 12 or 15 or 16 years. Does it fill you with pride? You may forget how it was right back then but the children will never forget you. And you may be pretty safe in the knowledge that they won’t let their world down.   

And thus may you go peacefully to the great sleep, where, as a little girl in class VI said, there are no pockets.

Kabir Kumar Mukherjee-Mustafi has been a passionate school teacher since 1974. He was the Head Master of Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, till 2004, and continues his work in the education sector (along with his wife Kamini, also a dedicated school teacher) as an institutional Director.

1 Comment

  • Nodnat says:

    Agree that finding the ‘good’ person (or the right person?) is key to making a good teacher and ultimately good educational institutions. And that process needs to keep repeating. Apparently, this does not happen for very long. Look at Convent schools in Shimla or elsewhere. Those who were fortunate to study in these schools say 40 or 50 years ago, will tell you how these have fallen from ‘grace’. In order to meet escalating expenses, these schools had to admit more and more students (never ending demand), manage increasingly disgruntled teachers and workers, could not go on infinitely raising tuition fees unlike Public schools which are still not over-crowded. Despite seeming upper “classness”, these Convent schools still cannot match salaries paid by Government to its teachers, apart from pension, medical reimbursement, all sorts of leave / furlough and so forth. The sort of Gandhian ideal Mr Mustafi seeks in a teacher looks a very far cry.

    Private teaching shops, especially the English medium types, are usually exploitative. These have mushroomed because of the dismal performance of government schools’ aka their teachers (who never send their own kids to government schools), policy and politicians. And educational policy has totally excluded ‘good’ private schools like many Convents from multiplying despite their being in constant public demand; good teachers or no good teachers. Good teachers also need good schools to teach in, something we have not been able to manage. Or is it vice versa?

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