Teachers: The Guiding Light

Albert Thyrniang
07 Sep 2020

A friend once told me, “Whenever I make my annual home visit to Kerala I make it a point to visit my two surviving primary teachers.” Regretting that ‘today teachers are not respected like the ones of old’ he did specify the reasons for the lack of respect for teachers today.

In the good old days there were much fewer teachers. Today teachers are aplenty. When this writer was a Primary school kid there were just the three teachers in the village. They were adored not just by the students but by the whole village community. They were also the leaders in the village. Naturally they were accorded the highest esteem. A head count today of teachers today in the village might take the number close to 50 (excluding those who have relocated outside the village). So obviously, these teachers can’t command the same veneration as those three teachers in the late 1970s.

The limited number of teachers of yesterday years did not take away their commitment and dedication. In 1986 class VI students had to write public examination. It was considered a prestigious examination. This writer vividly remembers the teachers who coached and trained him and his classmates through remedial classes in Maths, English and other subjects in the morning and evening, before and after school for more than three months. This was totally free. We were also told every day by every teacher, “If you need you can come to my house at any time.” Students would do so without any hesitation. No wonder the batch did exceedingly well. Bragging might be but this individual scored 80% plus. His companions did even better. Unfortunately not long after Class VI was no longer a public test. 

Today do we have such teachers?  Are teachers willing to take remedial classes for free? It is feared ‘No’! My limited experience in schools tells that remedial classes are quite an unwelcomed suggestion. Sadly, most teachers always link additional classes to additional remuneration. If extra bucks are unavailable the proposal would be rejected, including by those in the government roll pay. The Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Conrad Sangma has also proposed remedial classes in ‘needing’ schools to improve the SSLC results.  The proposal could be implemented in the form of a government scheme. On their own it is highly doubtful that these schools would volunteer to conduct free remedial classes for their own students. In such a scenario certainly the admiration for teachers is bound to slide down. Self-sacrificing and selfless teacher are probably a rare breed today. The sheer multiplication of teachers in the present age does not mean we lose the much appreciated values.

This takes us to the menace of tuition. Today right from nursery students go for tuition. It was almost non-existent in our time. Tuition was meant for the weaker students. It was quite rare to have a tutor. Today it has become a fashion. It is a necessity. Tutors, particularly in Mathematics and Science, make good money. They earn multiple times more than their salary. Full times tuition is very also lucrative. Tuition is one of the reasons for securing ranks. In cities students who excel in public examinations, their photographs with percentages are displayed in billboards at entrances of tuition centres. So the credit should go to whom, the classroom teachers or the tuition centre teachers? If teachers are losing respect, blame it on themselves or on commercialisation of education, if we want to find an excuse route.

In an orientation session a resource person asked these questions: (i) Who is the current Miss Universe? (ii) Which country won the last FIFA World Cup? (iii) Name one ancient civilization (iv) Which planet is no more a planet? (v) Where is the statue of Liberty located? None of the attending teachers got all the answers right. The conclusion is clear. A teacher can be a mere ‘textbook’ teacher. Everyone is not expected to be a wizard but in this information age, a ‘textbook teacher – nothing more nothing less’ will find it hard to make his/her class creative, thus interesting.

Creativity is perhaps not a strong point in teachers. This is because our education system does not encourage originality. There is little room for innovation,   novelty, and imagination. Our examination system is basically memory testing. Notes are given in class. Answers are identical. One is surprised that notes are given even at the B. Ed level. Trainees are busy making photo copies instead of spending time to create ‘unique’ notes through consultation in the library. Future teachers are expected to mug up these ‘repeated’ circulated notes and reproduce them in examinations. So how do you expect them to be creative when they join a school? Dr. APJ Kalam is supposed to have said, “Creativity is the key to success in the future and primary education is where teachers can bring creativity in children at that level.”

In states like Meghalaya, teachers’ absenteeism is believed to be very high. In the website of the Education Department, Government of Meghalaya there is a report of a study by t he Directorate of Educational Research and Training (DERT) on Teachers’ Absenteeism but there is no data on the malpractice. However, the dereliction of duties is widespread and it shows up in the end product in the form of abysmal Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) results. If a teacher neglects this very basic duty how does he or she earn respect from pupils and the general public?

Absenteeism is a national problem. A Google search shows that many states have taken steps to eradicate the menace.   Telengana , Punjab, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Tripura and Assam have introduced biometric attendance. Why have states like Meghalaya not done the same to get rid of laxity of teachers? The answer could be ready-made – the issue of internet connection in rural areas. States like Uttarakhand gave the same excuse until in 2018 when a Public Interest Litigation in the high court forced the government to introduce biometric attendance system in all government educational institutions within 24 months. Something similar should happen here in all the states.  

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the academician, philosopher-author and India's second president who ‘instituted’ September 5th as Teachers' Day and Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the People’ president and a teacher till the very end can be an inspiration to regain our lost ground. Happened to be from the South both came from humble beginnings. Both were awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in the country and both became the Presidents of India. Born in a poor Brahmin family in Madras Dr. Radhakrishnan is considered one of India's best and most influential scholars in comparative religion and philosophy and climbed to the rank of a Vice-Chancellor of universities . Dr. Kalam’s early life is even more inspirational .  A son of a boat owner, an average student in school, a newspaper distributer, he obtained multiple doctorates and became ‘India’s missile man. For both great men hard work was their trait.

Both led a simple life and remained humble throughout life. Dr. Radhakrishnan accepted only Rs. 2500 out of his Rs. 10,000 salary donating the rest to the PM’s Relief Fund every month. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam stayed in a single-room for 20 years while serving in the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre ( VSSC ), Thiruvananthapuram. Even as President he led a frugal life.

Both were loved teachers. An acclaimed teacher of Philosophy in higher institutions like the Madras Presidency College, the Maharaja's College, Mysore, the University of Calcutta, the University of Oxford and later distinguished himself as the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University and Banaras Hindu University the then already President declined celebration of his birth day in 1962 and instead proposed celebration of teachers’ day instead.  

Dr. Kalam was not a professional teacher per say but he was a treasured guest lecturer in various institutes. He passed away on 27 July 2015 while delivering a lecture on "Creating a Livable Planet Earth" at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. He is remembered as a teacher. During his presidency he often visited schools and colleges. The images of him informally interacting with students and children are vivid in many minds.

Dr. Radhakrishnan and Dr. Kalam were nation builders. Dr. Kalam often spoke of nation building. Teachers are eulogised as nation builders and builders of character. To be builders it requires commitment and passion. While acknowledging teachers’ need for financial security, teaching cannot be seen as a pure profession. Perhaps many teachers have forgotten that teaching is a noble calling different from other jobs.

Due to COVID-19 schools and educational institutions won’t celebrate the much loved day in the academic calendar. Though regular classes are suspended teachers are doing the tedious task of online classes and examinations. Respects and salute to all hard working teachers! Happy Teachers Day 2020!

(Published on 07th September 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 37)

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