In the heart of teaching

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In India, 5 September is celebrated as teachers’ day. And here’s why

“A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instil a love of learning”
— Brad Henry

Every year on 5 September, the students in India celebrate the teachers in their lives. The day is special for both the teachers and the students. On this day, students across India don the role of their teachers and take classes that are assigned to the teachers they represent. At times teachers like to sit in these classes as students, reviving old memories. Students organise various programs for the entertainment of their teachers and the day is designed to create a healthy, congenial and fun atmosphere for the teachers and students without the pressures of curriculum and syllabus.

India has a long tradition of the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ where the teachers and their students share a very special bond that extends beyond the classroom. The Gurukul system of education that existed in ancient India was residential in nature with the students and the teacher living in the same household and all students residing together irrespective of their social standing. The relationship of the guru and the shishya was considered to be of a spiritual nature and is believed to have been based on the genuineness of the guru, and the respect, commitment, devotion and obedience of the student. And through this genuine interaction of valuable teaching and learning, the student ultimately masters the knowledge the guru symbolises. Even today in India teachers are considered to be the students’ guiding light, creating conditions and opportunities conducive for their overall development. This Sanskrit shloka definitively describes what the standing of a teacher is in the Indian culture.

“Guru Brahma Gurur Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwaraha
Guru Saakshat Para Brahma
Tasmai Sree Gurave Namaha”

It translates thus—the guru is the representative of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (the Hindu Trinity). He creates and sustains knowledge, thus destroying the weeds of ignorance. I salute such a Guru.

Teacher’s Day in India began as a dedication to Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second president of Independent India, who was not only a zealous advocate of education but one of the greatest scholars and teachers. Born on 5 September, 1888 in a middle class South Indian family, Dr S Radhakrishnan introduced the thinking of western idealist philosophers into Indian thought. When his students approached him and requested him to allow them to celebrate his birthday, he said “instead of celebrating my birthday separately, it would be my proud privilege if it is observed as Teacher’s Day”. And since 1962, the Indian students have been celebrating 5 September as Teacher’s Day, not just in the memory of this great scholar and educationist but also honouring all the teachers, an expression of gratitude for their constructive support. Dr Radhakhrishnan believed that “teachers should be the best minds in the country”.

“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

 

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Photo caption: Mallika Das

Most teachers who have chosen this career pathway owe it to their own inspirational teachers. The great teachers I have had throughout my schooling years are my heroes and my role models. I have learnt and imbibed a lot of skills that I have modified to suit my skills, thus making them my own. I have seen my teachers being patient, yet firm, always setting high yet realistic expectations, knowing how to motivate us and had the exceptional talent of using humour appropriately. The passion for teaching knows no geographical boundaries and hence there are a number of teachers in the NSW education system who have completed their preliminary teaching degree from India and have pursued their passion for teaching overseas. I spoke to two such teachers who teach students on either end of the learning spectrum—Preeti Gupta teaches in the private system in the Northern suburbs and Mallika Das is a teacher in South Western Sydney.

Preeti started teaching in Australia in 2003. “It was a cultural shock on a few levels. There was too much student movement between lessons it was like being in a Zoo!”, she reminisces. Preeti’s teaching journey in the NSW education system has been both challenging and rewarding. “The opportunity of writing units of work for the 2009-2014 HSC courses, being a presenter at the Early Career Teachers and ETA conferences, being a member of the erstwhile Institute of Teachers consultative committee, being part of many BOSTES projects and marking operations has helped me improve my skills as a teacher in the Australian context. It has been an exciting journey of teaching in four schools in two different states of Australia,” she says.

Mallika started teaching in Australia in 1996 and has worked in all three sectors of education in NSW. And though she began as a classroom teacher, she soon became a Science and Maths coordinator and currently is a teacher mentor. As an ESL specialist primary school teacher, she has taught children who have come from war torn countries. “The fact that I can positively impact on a child’s growing years by influencing their minds and actually make a difference in their adult lives too is a humbling experience and a great responsibility. When a child’s eyes light up the moment they have understood a concept or have mastered a skill, and to realise that it was you who made that possible is a great reward beyond compare!” says Mallika.

When asked if the teachers were viewed any differently in India and Australia, both Preeti and Mallika believe that it does not matter in which part of the world you are teaching as students everywhere respect a teacher’s commitment to teaching and her thorough knowledge of the subject matter. It is all about tailoring the information to suit the student’s needs. While Preeti says “Your teaching has to be underpinned by humanistic and holistic values”, Mallika states “Children are same in all countries and one has to build that relationship of trust and respect. Everything else follows”. One of the great positives of teaching according to both of them is that teachers are always surrounded by young thinking minds and this keeps them young and inquisitive too.

“The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth’”
— Dan Rather

 

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Photo caption: Preeti Gupta (L) with a student

Students are a teacher’s greatest challenge and her greatest reward too. Preeti and Mallika have many fond memories of their chance meeting with ex-students and the warmth they have received from them. “There is a student of mine who is a film maker and writer of children’s books and she claims I’m the single most influence in her life and changed her direction in life from the ‘drab and dull’ medico she would have been to the creative person she is today! I’m humbled by such statements by my students,” remarks Preeti. Being followed by two bearded and tattooed muscular men was not a pleasant experience for Mallika until one of them who approached her happened to be an ex-student. “Miss, I was always in trouble at school but you gave me a merit card for giving a correct answer, I still have it Miss,” he said. This only goes to say that even the smallest gestures by teachers have a lasting impression on the students.

Teachers and students share a very exclusive and symbiotic bond. Preeti and Mallika agree that as teachers we learn a lot from our students and we evolve together. Mallika recalls some proud moments. “In my experience as an ESL teacher, I have had the privilege of teaching newly arrived including refugee students. While I taught them literacy and numeracy, they have in turn taught me resilience. I have participated and led in many projects with these students and they have always amazed me with their achievements”. Preeti also says that she has learnt a lot from her students.

To get the perspective of a school executive about the teachers of Indian origin she has worked with, I spoke with Deanna Knapman who has been an educator in the NSW public school system for nearly 25 years and a Deputy Principal for 15 of those years. Deanna was one of the volunteer teacher mentors in Overseas Trained Teacher mentoring program that NSW Department of Education had introduced many years ago. She said she enjoyed this program and thought it was one of the most explicit mentoring and development opportunities newly arrived teachers had ever had access to (unfortunately the program only lasted for two years). According to her the overseas trained teachers most of who are from India and Fiji face challenges in some very specific areas. Their lack of knowledge of Australian idiom being one of them.

Deanna says, “This is particularly problematic when working with Australian students who do not tend to respond to staff who are seemingly aloof, use formal language at all times and who do not “speak or understand teen-talk.” Much research supports the anecdotal experiences of teachers that says students learn best when they have positive relationships with their teachers”. Classroom management is another grey area.

According to Deanna, “Australian classrooms do not have a culture of students just sitting and doing the right thing as a default position and I have witnessed many teachers trained in India struggle to create a positive, engaged classroom environment as the overseas classrooms they were familiar with tended to have a culture of students more likely to be sitting in rows in a more compliant and orderly manner.”

These challenges often become road blocks in a teacher’s transition to being effective teachers in an Australian school setting. While some survive and emerge as brilliant members of the teaching fraternity, others, unfortunately, become marginalised and continue to struggle. Some even quit teaching and move on to other professions. Deanna further remarks, “The overseas trained teachers I have worked with who flourish tend to have excellent English language skills, in both spoken and written form. They have a strong work ethic and they care deeply about the quality of their work. I have worked with some Indian teachers who outperform their Australian colleagues in many areas of teaching, but very few undertake leadership opportunities.”

My observation as a teacher has been that individuals who are passionate about teaching and consider it more than just a profession, will work through all challenges and find satisfaction in this career that they have deliberately chosen. So as long as we teachers have in us those ever important traits of empathy, a positive attitude and respect for our students for who they are without being judgemental or condescending, our students will respect and accept us. I think that the moment we as teachers realise that we have been endowed with the power to change lives, we will rise to inspire. Mallika considers being a teacher “one of the highest privileges and the highest blessing”. I know that my beliefs as a teacher not only shape and create my world, they shape and create their worlds too. Preeti summarised this very well when she remarked, “if you as a teacher know your content well, have the panache to deliver it in a manner that is accessible to your students, treat them with respect and kindness you’ll always command respect”.

A very Happy Teacher’s Day to all the teachers who have pursued their passion with fervour and have not let the norms, the systems and the change in culture dampen their love for teaching!

“The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatises, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself”
— Edward Bulwer-Lytton

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Poornima Koonath for covering Indian teachers in Australia to celebrate Teacher’s Day. Pardon me… the quotes from the interviewee appeared to be well rehearsed and
    articulated. The best speakers are the one’s who speak from their heart..and off the cuff..! Be it a leader, teacher, preacher…! My best wishes to Preeti and Mallika.

  2. In all professions comes a time when one is expected to mentor and guide the people around them. Any person holding a position of authority has the additional responsibility of grooming people. But to do that as a way of life is huge. Hats off to all teachers. And especially to ones who had to adapt to all the changes associated with being raised in one culture and teaching a completely different one!

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