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I Can! I Do! I Inspire! - Teachers for Today

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  • Saturday, March 27, 2010
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    A very long time ago, a young graduate on her first day at teacher training college in Delhi University, was told by the Dean - “Those who can do, those who can't Teach!” The Dean was of course in jest quoting the playwright Bernard Shaw at an orientation for the newly enrolled B.Ed Students.

    That young graduate was me and the quote has stayed with me as a warning of what, as a teacher I must resolve not become – someone who can't !

    And several years later I encountered a more uplifting version of the infamous quote “ those who can teach, those who can't do something less significant!” And that resonated so much better with my long satisfying years in education.

    But most people who enter the teaching profession unfortunately do consider their work more convenient than significant. And this has been the bane of the school education system in our country. The teaching profession does not seem to attract people who have enthusiasm and energy.

    Young people on the threshold of their careers, often omit considering teaching as a career. They often come up with dismissive comments… ' Oh it's a convenient job for married women with children', 'It's not really a profession – but it's a useful past time', 'It gives you a lot of holidays and free time but it pays a pittance'…..or the usual rhetoric “ It's a noble profession” . Now these aren’t views that are likely to inspire bright young people particularly men to join the profession.

    So those who do become teachers, do so out of compulsion, convenience and receive a training that's quite inadequate for handling the various classroom situations and exigencies that arise.They aren't equipped with the wide range of skills required of teachers in today's classrooms, nor is there a support system to develop these skills while on the job.

    To most people, teaching involves keeping order in the class, filling students with facts using methods and materials limited to lectures, textbooks, the black board and chalk, giving examinations and assigning marks. This stereotype of teaching is badly in need of an overhaul.

    But first, it’s important to attempt to understand what teaching is !

    Teaching is a complex activity involving the craft of imparting knowledge and skills in a given subject area. It is a moral one. This is true for two reasons. First, teachers are amongst the most important influences on the life and development of young children and adolescents. They play a key role in creating the generations of the future. There is a second reason, why teaching is deeply moral…. Teachers as professionals are daily required to make judgements and take decisions in situations of ‘unavoidable uncertainty’, which could have everlasting impact. The product of teaching, of education, is a process in the human being, a process of growth within a person – of the whole person.

    The German philosopher Martin Heidegger provides a thought-provoking sensitive definition of teaching : “Teaching is even more difficult than learning … and why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.” The primary task of the teacher is to permit the student to learn, to feed his or her own curiosity. Merely to absorb facts is of only slight value in the present, and usually of even less value in the future. Learning how to learn is the element that is always of value, now and in the future.

    Yet another requirement of a teacher in my view, is that he not be boring. But while one is under an obligation not to be boring, neither will it do to be too entertaining , nor merely interesting. Which lessons remain with one through the years is something a student can know only much later – and a teacher perhaps never. As noted psychotherapist Carl Rogers put it: “Long-term feedback is very rare in education. An educator almost never learns of the curiosity she has killed or the persons she has damaged….” A teacher who seemed strident, even a bit dull, when one was taking his courses can years later seem decisive to one’s development. Another teacher, who kept one laughing and led one to believe one was mastering large realms of knowledge, can years later seem negligible. It is not always easy to know. The influence that passes from a teacher to a student is probably best recollected and understood only in tranquility – in years to come.

    Having said that, good teaching, like lasting learning, has several dimensions – the cognitive, emotional, intuitive and physical. The cognitive side of good teaching takes into consideration the subject expertise of the teacher – whether she/he has a sound understanding of the subject/s that she/he will be expected to teach. If one’s own basics in the subject are shaky, it is highly unlikely if one’s teaching of the subject will be very accurate. The emotional dimension of good teaching performs the caring, nurturing function. Unless a teacher genuinely cares for all her students regardless of their differing abilities and lets them learn and grow, she cannot be considered a good teacher. The emotional dimension can manifest itself in various ways – a warm hug for a younger student, an understanding smile and eye contact with the older student, a personal experience shared etc. The intuitive facet of teaching helps the teacher experience the ‘aha’ feelings of ‘rightness’ about her work. It is intuition that helps a teacher instinctively take the right decisions in difficult or uncertain situations. Intuition is a still little understood but increasingly respected function of the brain – it often puts the ‘soul’ into our lives. The physical facet of good teaching brings in the visible energy, enthusiasm and drama that often raises a routine classroom interaction to a memorable learning experience.

    So as is evident, a good teacher actually marshals a wide range of skills and talents in the classroom, which makes it all the more imperative to grab articulate, innovative, committed young persons into the profession.

    And meanwhile one needs to work with the teachers already in schools and train and support them to become more energetic, enthusiatic and effective classroom practioners and lifelong learners. My own experience with teachers informs me that teachers teach the way they themselves have been taught – so if they teach in boring, pedantic ways – it's because they have been taught in such ways. So any re-skilling or in-service training of teachers must necessarily get them to experience a more meaningful, person-centred learning. It is this first hand experience of authentic learning that teachers will be able to take back into their own classroom.

    So if we want to develop in teachers the cognitive dimension – we as teacher trainers, need to provide them opportunities within training sessions to question, think, discuss, reflect and experiment with the theme, topic,lesson at hand. If we want teachers to enhance their affective domain, we ourselves need to be gentle and nurturing. And if we want educators to be cheerful, energetic and vibrant – then we too must bring into our training sessions vigour and a sense of excitement, enjoyment and camaraderie. Most importantly teachers learn best when they are learning in school as well as out of school. This means that school managements have to budget for a planned professional development programme for all teachers in the school. More often than not schools adopt an ad hoc, cursory approach to training their teachers. There isn't a concerted attempt at training teachers with a clear outcome /benefit for the school. Schools need to thoughtfully plan for the changes and improvements they wish to make in the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms and then ensure that all teachers are supported and trained with the knowledge, skills and attitudes required for the process. This coherence will make every rupee spent on professional development worthwhile !

    And then our teachers can truly say “I can, I do and I inspire !”

    Reposted from ISTD Souvenir | Written by Maya Menon, Director, The Teacher Foundation
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