“Tell us about a teacher who has had a lasting effect on you,” I was asked. I answered the question well enough to impress the questioner. The teacher of biology I spoke of was quasi-real. A figment of my imagination. I used my friend’s narrative of her spirited teacher as a foundation for my imaginary one.
Just like an imaginary friend, she was my creative fabrication and succour during my school days. She let me be the class hero and appreciated my chaste Hindi pronunciation as I read in front of the mirror. The best thing about my imaginary teacher was that she was ever evolving.
These were the times when kids got out of their homes to play and chat in playgrounds and parks every evening. My friend would speak animatedly and mimic her schoolteacher as we sat on the park bench. Once she described how this teacher had brought a clay ball to the class and cut it to explain the process of cleavage of an embryo. I heard her with a twinge of envy and awe.
Imagining a classroom where the teacher used origami, clay modelling, ribbons, and elaborate gestures to explain concepts was such an engrossing mental activity. It also helped me update my imaginary teacher’s persona.
These were the eighties, with no YouTube videos or smart classes. The science laboratory had yellowed charts and anatomical models, which were not to scale. I relied on my mind’s eye to imagine what we read in the textbooks or just crammed it up.
To this day, I use my twisted dupatta to explain the action of the enzyme which cleverly nicks and seals the DNA during its replication. It’s a tribute to this chimeric teacher, half real and half in my head.
Truth be told, I never had a teacher who inspired or was even passionate about their subjects. I clearly recall being ridiculed and hence being scared of them and praying fervently for them to be absent on a day I had forgotten to carry my homework. There was a tall one who graded tests quite leniently. She loved narrating her rescue fantasies and did it in technicolour without allowing any interruption. The stories got banal and totally predictable; the preachy twist, in the end, had a soporific effect. On teachers’ day, the school captain mimicked her and had to later tender a written apology.
Then there was a Hindi teacher in middle school who threw a wooden duster at you if you flinched in his class. A mathematics teacher whose lessons were inscrutable, and I could walk out of the class, drink water, and be back without him noticing it. For this reason alone, the math class was a refuge. I now think that he just pretended not to notice a student leave class without permission. He for sure couldn’t care less. His scrawl on the blackboard was illegible. Everyone took private tuition and pretended to understand his lessons. It was enough that he was not intimidating.
I now realise that bad and mediocre teachers are everywhere and often hard to detect unless you are their student. They may be impeccable at their paperwork and cover (not uncover) the syllabus on time, a good week before the examination. The classes they teach are orderly and quiet as they are the only ones who talk. They don’t think much of their students and know nothing more about them other than their academic performance, and that too, in a cynical sort of way. They do not care about what kids read except what school requires of them.
Questions that a child musters the courage to ask are either “out of scope of the syllabus” or something that they will be taught later. Most importantly, a bad teacher does not pause to understand how children think and why they make mistakes. Mistakes are wasted away when they can be utilised to bridge learning gaps.
What lies at the heart of this predicament is not malice but a lack of creativity and motivation. This, of course, is palpable in the classroom. Uninspiring teachers are robotic readers of textbooks or PowerPoint presentations from their chairs. They enforce rote learning and implicit obedience. This has the most dangerous repercussions which sometimes can be transgenerational. Students feel pushed to the wall and know that toeing the line is incentivised in the class. They internalise this to avoid any backlash in the asymmetric power structure.
Of course, there are good teachers, like the one my friend had. Low salaries, lack of training, job insecurity, or mindless paperwork puts immense pressure on teachers. Overburdened by non-teaching duties can also take its toll. But is there an excuse for scathing remarks, bullying, and unkindness towards impressionable children who look up to them?
Teaching is a kind of performance art with impressionable young humans as its interactive audience. If done right (diverse ways of doing it), they teach you a lot more than you teach them. A good teacher looks like an approachable human being and not an infallible superhero. Quick to apologise, and almost never excessively confident, they make failure a circuitous learning experience as they work to achieve the intangibles of education.
The students in their care are much more than the marks they score. They inspire and light the proverbial spark than just fill the pail. Above all, they are readers and curious cats themselves. Even after years of teaching, they realise that there is room for improvement in the next academic year.
Richa Joshi Pant has been a teacher for 20+ years. She is presently in Welham Girls’ School in Dehradun. She loves the involvement and interaction with young adults that come with her job. She gets to see how cultural changes happen in each generation. She uses theatre as a modality to teach adolescents Biology.