Teacher Teacher   

My father-in-law will be 96 years old this month. He trained as an artist, but spent his career teaching machine drawing in a government polytechnic. He has now been retired for more years than he taught a subject that he was not passionate about. But what he was passionate about was reaching out to his students, not driven by any great philosophy or mission, but his innately sociable and open personality.  Even today, he gets phone calls from his old (literally—some are 75 years and over!) students, just for them to say that they remember him fondly. Till a couple of years ago he clearly remembered names and attributes of so many of his students. It is that life force which continues to energize him even today.

The word Teacher itself is loaded with so much meaning. After all teachers were the key players in the long drama of one’s school (and college) life, with distinct characters, roles and parts. As a part of the student audience, and at times, minor characters in the crowd scenes, we spent a great deal of time and emotion on ‘adoring’, ‘hating’, ‘fearing’, ‘hero worshipping’,  ‘imitating’, or ‘buttering up’ our teachers.

Teachers were a necessary evil that dominated every ‘period’ of our school days.­­­­­­­­­­­ It is when we were older (and perhaps a wee bit wiser) that we could look back with nostalgia and remember those teachers. This was also when we realized the lasting impressions and influences that different teachers had left on us. Not all of these were related to the subject they taught. More often, it was how they taught, or what they said and did, or even what they wore, and how they behaved. We could now see these as individuals with distinct personalities and persuasions. For some of us, the older we get, the more sentimental we get. And Teachers Day, celebrated in India on 5 September, revives many such memories.

In the good old school days, the run up to T-Day was exciting. This was the day that the tables were turned, as it were. It was the one day when students turned into teachers! This was how Teachers Day was celebrated in many schools.

This year for the first time perhaps in memory, the Covid wave has meant that educational institutions across the world are closed. In just a few months, our age-old understanding of educational spaces, classroom transactions, and players has been turned on its head. The e-learning revolution is sweeping across the globe.

Children of all ages (starting from nursery and kindergarten) passively face a small screen which reflects other small faces and a bigger face. It is in this virtual classroom that lessons are communicated (rather than taught). The day is divided into sterile time slots, rather than a time table in which the best parts were the time-outs for rowdy recesses and roistering assemblies. The Teacher is just a talking head who pops up at a designated time. As the young eyes and ears strain to keep alert and awake, the other senses lie dormant. Missing are the smells from the tiffin boxes, the touch of the dog-eared books and scarred desks, the jostling camaraderie of classmates, the fights and the making-up, the shared secrets, and playful antics…and with it the range of emotions that mark the gamut of relationships among the students, and between the teacher and the taught.itscalledreading (1).gif

I must confess that I have no current and direct experience of e-learning, as a teacher, learner, or parent. But as Teacher’s Day approaches, I cannot help wondering and worrying about this new model of teachers and teaching. Yes, we have no alternative at this moment when safety and health is the priority. True that technology has enabled a safer and more widespread route to reaching out. Agreed that there are examples of inspiring innovations and models. But what will a child of the Age of Corona and Era of E-learning remember of her classroom, her classmates and above all, her teacher? What stories will he share with his children? Who will she remember with a smile or a grimace on another Teacher’s Day?

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.   Carl Jung

–Mamata

 

Celebrating the Teacher

September 5–Teacher’s Day in India is marked by awards, articles, and essays  remembering and honouring those who instruct and inspire.  Across the world, and across generations, there have been many who have left behind their legacy on the young minds and lives. Films and books have tried to capture some of this in their own small way.

A film that I saw recently was a new addition to this list of ‘must watch and must read’. Freedom Writers  tells the story of an idealistic young teacher confronted with the challenge of teaching ‘unteachable, at-risk’ students, and her non-conformist attempts at making meaningful connections.

The movie is based on the real experiences of Erin Gruwell that she documented in a book titled The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. The book was published in 1999.

Erin was a 23-year-old white American when she stepped into her classroom of a motley group of African American and Latino teenagers coming from a world of broken homes, violence, and every form of social, cultural and economic discrimination. Instead of giving up, and simply labelling her charges as ‘unteachable’, Erin realised that these young people were deprived of exposure, attention and respect. One way to open up their vision and world was to introduce them to writings that shared similar histories of discrimination, beginning with The Diary of Anne Frank, and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, and including a visit to the Holocaust Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Despite initial resistance, the students began to see the parallels between these books and events in history, and their own lives; they realised that they were not alone in their struggles. Erin then moved on to encouraging every student to keep a journal in which they recorded their thoughts and feelings about their past, present and future.

The students were so inspired by Anne Frank’s story that they organised a “Read-a-thon for Tolerance” and collected funds to invite Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who sheltered Anne Frank’s family, to visit them in California during the 1994/1995 school year. Miep declared that Erin Gruwell’s students were “the real heroes”. As a testament to Erin’s dauntless efforts, all 150 Freedom Writers graduated from high school and many went on to attend college—a hitherto unachieved triumph.

The book The Freedom Writers Diary is a compilation of the journals kept by these students. Its title The Freedom Writers is a tribute to the name of the 1960s US civil rights group called Freedom Riders. Erin’s book was a huge success. She went on to set up The Freedom Writers Foundation, which functions to promote Erin’s successful teaching methods.

The film brought to mind another path-breaking movie To Sir, With Love. Released in 1967, this is also based on an autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite which recounts his experiences as a teacher in London. In this case, it was the challenge of a teacher of colour teaching a class of white, economically and socially-deprived teenagers in a working-class area of London. Facing similar challenges of teaching a set curriculum to semi-literate and disinterested, hostile students, Braithwaite took on the challenge by switching to unconventional teaching methods including visits to museums, and allowing students to discuss what was meaningful to them, in the class. Like Erin, he broke through the barriers, and succeeded where others had thrown up their hands in despair.

Inspiring films both. Also a reminder that, in any time and place, a single individual can make a big difference. A tribute to every teacher, who in his or her own way, touches countless minds and hearts, and changes lives.

–Mamata