An ode to teachers

The teacher is expected to hurry and ready his/her students for the job market. S/he is to stuff enough such material into the heads of the pupils to clear an exam. Many of us may be content with this, but the teacher may only be readying his/her students for life, if at all!

Writing on the eve of September 5, the day that India celebrates its teachers, it is only appropriate that we script an ode to our teachers. India, like many ancient civilisations, has had a continuing tradition of honouring teachers whom we call gurus. In fact, in our understanding, the word “teacher” is very limiting. “Guru” is wider, deeper and carries with it a symbolic importance and respect we give our mentors. A “guru” is the remover of darkness and it is for this precise reason that we, on a full moon day, the purnima in the month of Ashad (July-August), celebrate guru-shishya tradition because very much like the moon, a guru brings gentle light into our lives.
Since 1962, in honour of the second President of India, Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, himself a respected teacher of great scholarship, we celebrate Teachers’ Day. Since 1994, October 5 is celebrated around the world as Teachers’ Day, on a call given by Unesco with the slogan, “Take a stand for Teachers!”
In 2007, addressing a gathering marking the 150th anniversary of the University of Mumbai, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had observed, “Our university system is, in many parts, in a state of disrepair... In almost half the districts in the country, higher education enrollments are abysmally low, almost two-third of our universities and 90 per cent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters... I am concerned that in many states university appointments, including that of vice-chancellors, have been politicised and have become subject to caste and communal considerations, there are complaints of favouritism and corruption.”
In free India to provide better access to all for education, legislations and resources are made available. Children and their enrolment, adults and their skills-development are focussed on both by the Central and state governments. Schools and colleges are built, bodies to regulate and fund them are established. And the focus is rightly on the receiver of knowledge. Make it better for her/him, so that rich or poor, students get to educate himself. This is important and so should it be. But at least on Teachers’ Day, it is well worth an audit on where we have placed the teacher in the large canvas of education today.
The teacher is expected to hurry and ready his/her students for the job market. S/he is to stuff enough such material into the heads of the pupils to clear an exam or a set of exams. Many of us may be content with this, but the teacher may only be inadvertently readying his/her students for life, if at all! Teachers today probably do not have time to ready their pupils to live, cooperate and sail in life, taking others along. Music, fine arts and culture are only nominally on the cards; such teachers who with great sadhana have acquired these arts are expected to provide quick-fixes. Even students who have a natural flair for such finer things in life are discouraged by the system to “do it afterwards” in their lives. So, masters of great talents never reach pupils as they are left in the periphery of our exam-based system.
Teachers face real-time issues in balancing their teaching jobs and leading their own lives. Several teaching staff posted in small towns or villages, even in states that are better-off, do not live in the place where they are posted. One such teacher who took the first bus in the morning every day for an hour’s journey to reach the village where he was posted was asked to explain his reasons for undertaking this trouble. His simple answer was that there were no good schools in the village for his children! There were lesser problems as well, such as housing.
Only a few days ago, we watched the success of a poor girl student, Sushma Verma, all of 13 years entering the Lucknow University for her masters course. And earlier, the media rightly showcased a sister and brother pair from Dharavi in Mumbai who topped the the all-India chartered accountancy exams.
Teachers or gurus leave a life-long impact. Years after ma’am Ananthalakshmi taught me Shakespeare in my early college years, some scenes came before me when I visited the then excavated remains of Globe Theatre in London. Every bit of the BBC’s Julius Caesar was already in my mind picture thanks to the way she had taught us. Sanskrit teacher Kalyani’s narration of King Raghu’s fame — unblemished — from the Raghuvamsa holds a strong message for people in public life. In my middle school, a class teacher-cum-geography teacher Lalita’s practise of using a scrap book of facts taught me the merits of documentation. She had described Venice even better than the Lonely Planet. I could recollect her words when I actually went there as a tourist. A suggestion that I should become a lawyer by my secondary school headteacher, Sister Immaculate, I failed to pursue. She beautifully taught us the importance and power of each word. Today, and I repeat, today I do not resent Principal Kamakshi’s tireless attempts to push up our performance in each competition — quiz, debate, essay. Hindi teacher Sushma’s ways with students in making the language easy to learn was a skill that should be patented. How I wish I was her student! The impactful presence of Ms Appaswamy, the prayer in the auditorium and the wonderful library above it, still makes book reading a magical experience.
Even till a few years ago, it was a part of our culture that we visited people who were masters in their field. Neighbourhoods took credit and pride, and youngsters were taken informally to meet the achievers who could teach them a few virtues, such as perseverance. Great writers, music maestros and scientists have provided me what schools did not. This, therefore, is an ode to all those named and unnamed great gurus who nurtured us, one thought, one push, one achievement at a time.

The writer is spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The views expressed in this column are her own.

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