On Teachers’ Day, Facebook suddenly overflows with tributes to teachers. There’s something in my mind that switches off the moment something becomes the ‘flavour of the day’. But today is different, and I have been reminiscing about the teachers who influenced me.
I remember the first decisive moment about what kind of student I was going to be. My 3rd standard teacher Mrs.Sabiha Hussain, called out to me one day, and sent me along with another teacher who needed some help. “You can explain to Shefali what needs to be done. She is very responsible,” she said. I was so surprised, that I kept staring at her. ‘Responsible.. I am responsible..’ That was the first hint of a self-identity forming. She must be right, I happily thought.
I remember my primary school Hindi teacher, Mrs.Sudha Sharma. She brought something that’s not common in classrooms- passion. She saw her job as a cause- to protect and propagate our national language and culture. I thank her for much of my pride in my nationality. And she showed me how people could care about something bigger than themselves.
All the English and Hindi teachers, throughout school, were so indulgent! They would answer all kinds of questions I asked about the stories and poems- even though some, I suspect, mainly to appear smart. I raised my hand eagerly to every question they asked (Yeah, I was that kid). If someone else got to answer, I would insist, “Ma’am, can I please say something more?” (Facepalm. I was that kid as well).
They let me. I don’t remember being told, “We are running out of time” or “You speak too much”. They engaged with what I said. The conversations became deeper, the ideas broader.
From college, I remember my micro-economics teacher Mr.Rajiv Jha. He was something of a phenomenon- often tough and sarcastic, and I prided myself on cracking his exams. More enjoyable, though, were his red-inked comments on the answer sheet, such as, “That’s almost brilliant. If only you would bother to study sometimes.” And guess what, sometimes, I did study. Only his subject.
There were also many others who reminded me that teachers are regular human beings like the rest of us. During 8th standard, a teacher asked us to speak about ‘values’. Something I said upset her and she took off on me in front of the entire class. By then my earlier experiences had given me a steady sense of myself as a student. Later that day I delivered a note to her, “Dear Ma’am, You seemed very upset. I could not understand why because I only said what I felt. And of all values, honesty is most important to me. Perhaps you had a bad day and were already upset, or perhaps you think, like many elders, that our generation is good for nothing. I hope you feel better soon.”
She looked up at me, as if for the first time. “You are a sensitive person,” she said, “I am not upset. Go to class and study.” I smiled and turned to go. “And,” she called out, “I don’t think your generation is good-for-nothing.”
So what makes an effective teacher?
We recently watched a documentary wherein Chinese teachers were brought to a British school for four weeks, to test the effectiveness of the Chinese way of teaching. Much of that time was lost in rebellion against the vastly different style. The ‘remedy class’ students especially found the standards much higher.
One such student, who had begun to play truant from school altogether, was called in by the ‘tough’ Chinese Maths teacher, and told softly, “You have so much potential. I believe you can do so much more.” This failing student went on to score 50%+ in the exam at the end of the 4-week experiment. He explained this vast improvement saying, “Mr.(XYZ) saw something in me. So I had to at least try.”
I am trying to put a finger on what the effective teachers do, that makes an impact. I am realizing that it has very little to do with how well someone imparts the knowledge of facts, but everything to do with instilling a belief in things that cannot be seen- one’s own potential, the importance of one’s opinion and ideas, the respect and passion for a field or idea bigger than oneself. And it’s instilled through everyday actions, not through any book.