Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What made my favourite teachers 'awesome'?

I was in grade four. I had to read the 'thought for the day' in the school assembly, my first experience in public speaking. It was two simple sentences - “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open.” The host introduced me when my turn came. Needless to say, I was nervous. The teacher who had  nominated me for the task literally pushed me on the dais. I went up to the stage and without adjusting the microphone, read the quote, fumbled with a two- three words (25% of all I had in my kitty) said a thank you and rushed off the dais. After I walked off the stage, the next speaker spoke. Once he finished, my housemaster came up to me and said - "You read well. Did you notice how he spoke (pointing to the next speaker)? You must take a few cues from him to become even better."

That was a big moment - my housemaster had personally acknowledged my presence. The onus was on me to live up to his expectations. From then on, I spoke frequently during the assembly, gaining more confidence. I went on to become one of the best speakers in school and college, winning many competitions in public speaking and debating.

More importantly, that teacher who had first nominated me to read the quote became my mentor. She was in many ways responsible for the confident individual I became. She was one of the few teachers among the many I would meet during secondary and high school, bachelors and masters programmes from who I learnt.

With less than a month to go before I begin my stint as a teacher, I want to summarize what I admired the most in my favourite teachers as their student. I may lose the sense of objectivity if I do this after I start teaching.

Great teachers make you work hard
I have attended many courses whose lecture I have bunked because I had a lousy teacher. At the same time, I have attended some courses where I have attended extra lectures because I enjoyed learning with those teachers. In the latter case, I have also spent more time and effort on my homework and projects.

Even the lousiest of students easily distinguish which teachers genuinely want their good and which teachers are aimlessly spending time in the class. As a result, the effort of students is directly proportional to that of the teacher. It is not surprising that some of our favourite subjects are the ones which we were taught by our most loved teachers early in school.

Great teachers show you the destination, but let you find your own path
I have been watching the documentary "The Story of India" by Michael Wood, which I highly recommend to all Indians. I frankly had no sense of pride in our country (barring some great Indians) until I saw the origins of its culture and ethos in the documentary, beautifully summarizing India's greatness. I will blog about it in another post, but the point I want to make is that I hated Indian history in school. It was a bunch of dates, names, places and events. Instead it should have been an epic story where students were forced to reason, understand stand points of key characters or ideologies and derive lessons for the future.

Effort alone is not even to encourage students. Students want more. They want teachers to drive their curiousity and take them on a journey of discovery. Great teachers present complete facts and enable students to build their own opinions and conclusions, which is critical to develop wisdom and intelligence. Spoon feeding has become a sorry trend in the education industry where focus is on memorizing facts instead of arriving at them through logical and scientific reasoning.

Great teachers are approachable and have no ego
I could always strike up a conversation with my best teachers and ask them anything anytime. Many a time, my questions were not even related to what was being taught in the classroom. Never did they take a question personally. Never did they not respond. Never did they mock the stupidity of the question. That is what made them likable.

Great teachers are like a more experienced friend. They don't give you the perception that they want to control your opinions, activities or life.  You feel like spending more time with them because they are so much fun to be around. You want to do their work well so that you are liked by them.

Great teachers don't give up on you
I had not joined tuitions throughout my school life. In grade X, I came across a math teacher who was disinterested in teaching. I was a bright student but I was struggling to cope with the syllabus in his class. Others were doing much worse. I had got a 75 in math in the first semester, which was probably the worst I had got in my entire school life. Fortunately, he was forced to quit his job due to unforeseen circumstances. A good teacher who had taught us before, replaced him.

He spent tremendous amount of time in extra classes to help us cope with the time lost. In addition, he organized at his home, extra sessions for small group of students of similar calibre to meet our personalized requirements (these were not tuitions).  I did phenomenally well in Math in my boards, topping the school. It was only because of his effort in making ALL of us learn.

This is probably the most important point that makes great teachers stand out. They never give up on any student in class. They set different measures of success for each student and help them meet those standards. It is what makes their job incredibly hard, but it also makes it incredibly rewarding. That is why those teachers are respected the most among the hundreds that students come across in their lives.

It is not by coincidence that a teacher becomes great. It is a result of many hours spent on planning and practicing every lesson and many years of handling the classroom. It is the sum of many answers given many a time, sometimes to the same individual. It is resisting the urge to give a ‘one size fits all’ lecture when it gets unbearable. It must not be easy, but it must be worth it to persist day after day, year after year, because every student is a teacher's legacy.


Utpal said...

Brilliant. I loved the set of traits you list of a teacher. The list is almost exhaustive. I too had some fantastic teachers and I will always be indebted to them. Their personalities, habits, their passion towards their craft and the care for their students has made our lives so much more enriching.

Went through some of your other posts. Liked them too. Keep them coming.

Premnath said...

Nice write up.. And it brought back memories of few awesome teachers who taught me, which unfortunately has become a rare phenomenon these days.