Making of a teacher

LATIKA GUPTA

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WHEN I saw my name in the list of candidates selected for admission in the B.El.Ed. programme, I did not feel any sense of achievement, in part because I had no desire to become a school teacher. I detested the idea because I felt I was destined for something better. I had seen my school teachers rather closely because my mother taught in the same school. They looked too insignificant for me to aspire to become like them, incapable of offering the challenging vistas of life which I desired at that time. I thought of them as very lowly kind of professionals as compared to doctors, lawyers and especially the army officers I interacted with.

The staff room was for me an easily accessible place. Almost every visit to that room left behind an unpleasant memory; my teachers’ discussions appeared rather common place. Socially and economically, most of them came across as narrow minded and insecure people who practised caste-based untouchability at home and gave tuitions to students to earn extra money. That a teacher’s salary is not enough to sustain a family was one of the most discussed topics at my home. With such a sordid impression of school teaching, I felt cheated that my parents ignored my real potential and forced me to accept a teaching career as my fate.

By the end of twelve years of schooling in a few Kendriya Vidyalayas spread across the country, I had become a directionless adolescent whose performance had gone down to the minimum marks. The load of non-comprehension in all the science subjects of Classes XI and XII along with mathematics, and the failure to satisfy the parental expectation of a seat in a medical college had completely crushed my confidence. My school teachers only taught question-answers in the class to prepare me for the board exams. They made absolutely no attempt to engage me or other students in developing concepts or understanding processes in science subjects.

 

The school setting offered no answers to my curiosity about different areas of knowledge and as a result I gradually lost all interest and ability to choose any career option. I spent hours in the class wondering why we needed to learn about the periodic-table in chemistry. Though a very confident student till Class X, by the beginning of Class XII I had begun to feel nervous even while talking to my classmates who could score high marks by rote memorizing the answers in all the subjects, including physics and mathematics. I tried mugging up answers several times but never succeeded and thus felt even more frustrated.

This deterioration in my school performance and declining confidence led my parents to conclude that I was suitable only for a teacher’s job. In addition, teaching was seen as a ‘safe’ job for women as it involved only half a day’s work. When I showed reluctance to join B.El.Ed., my parents made my life miserable, repeatedly telling me that I wouldn’t get admission to any other course and that I was very late in life as all my classmates had already secured admission to various programmes. My parents stopped talking to me till I agreed. I was so unhappy about joining a teacher-training programme that even the achievement of clearing an entrance exam and personal interview was no compensation for the loss I felt of better opportunities.

I was in the first batch of Delhi University’s B.El.Ed. programme which started in 1994. People were extremely reluctant to join the programme, apprehensive as the idea of an undergraduate degree programme in elementary education itself was new. It was for the first time that a university had offered a degree programme in elementary education. The only consolation was that the programme had started in a prestigious college of Delhi University.

Most of my other classmates had joined the programme because of similar parental pressure, their families never having allowed them to aspire for any career other than teaching. Even after I joined the programme and started attending class, my anxieties about school teaching as an unexciting work remained intact and in certain ways increased when I noticed a contradiction between the rigour of the B.El.Ed. programme and the money it would fetch in the job market later.

 

We had to review the entire syllabus of elementary school in the first year of the programme itself, in addition to understanding the psychological, political and sociological constructs of childhood. B.El.Ed. students were the first to enter the college at 8 am and the last to leave at 4 pm in the afternoon. We had to do daily assignments, weekly projects and regular readings. There were no straight question-answers and definitions to memorize; therefore, we had to study and develop our opinion and thoughts on every topic. The teachers’ demand to articulate every idea or response in our own words was unusually demanding.

Then there were the ongoing projects which we were expected to research and work on independently. For one such project, I studied silk as a consumer product. No book had any ready answers about silk production and its various uses, social status of producers or the scale of the silk economy. This one project alone took me to three science libraries, the Silk Export Promotion Council, various state emporia and an agriculture institute.

A basic component of the B.El.Ed. programme was to push us to pursue enquiries as our enquiries. Throughout the four years of B.El.Ed., not just me but all my classmates wondered why we were made to work so hard to qualify for the meagre salary of a teacher which the students of other teacher training programmes, such as JBT and D.Ed. too would get by investing much less time and work compared to us.

Nevertheless, B.El.Ed. turned out to be the biggest catalyst in my search for an aim and direction in life. Much before the programme taught me about theories of learning and human development, it helped me acquire a sense of self and inner peace, rarely experienced by most students. I recognized my potential strengths and aspirations and got ample opportunities of unlimited growth. This programme changed everything in my life. It provided opportunities for rigorous learning to satisfy my intellectual thirst and to experience what it really means to learn. More than just teacher training, it offered a training of the mind to strengthen my emotional being and to develop interpersonal skills.

 

The first year of the programme laid the foundation of knowledge any thoughtful teacher might require. There were core courses in which I engaged with the epistemology of every school subject. In the core natural science course, I finally understood that the periodic table helps us to understand the basic nature and rationale of chemical bonding. There were other foundation courses in the four years which helped me to develop an understanding of children and education in the context of socio-political and economic conditions prevailing in different parts of India.

The course on ‘Contemporary India’ encouraged me to review my childhood in the context of my family’s socio-political ethos. It was the first landmark in my identity formation as I realized the links between the Constitution of India and the educational services which I had availed of given my family’s location in the class hierarchy, and my socialization as a citizen of a democratic nation. I started appreciating that there was a variety of childhoods, each one shaped by factors like region, religion, occupation, caste and schooling. This kind of learning enabled me to cultivate a more informed understanding of the process of teaching my future students and my own location in society. I could finally see myself as a change-maker.

 

With a better grip on the epistemology of different subjects and developmental psychology, I learnt the pedagogic approaches appropriate for these subjects. I also started appreciating that my role as a teacher would be of a person who works like an agent of growth and development, someone who can critically link children’s growing up in different kinds of socio-political ethos with big terms like ‘national development’. That every school subject approaches the aim of developing a sensitive citizen in its unique manner was a crucial realization.

The more I developed as a teacher, the more I became aware of the uniqueness of my training as compared to the trainees enrolled in other courses. Interactions with B.Ed., D.Ed. and JBT students revealed that their training did not offer any opportunities for a critical understanding of their occupation and socialization. My grasp of education as a process which takes place within a socio-political context made me feel that I had a better grasp of teaching. Students doing other programmes did not adequately understand why they teach social sciences or natural sciences to children at any given age.

 

We were taught to ask critical questions in order to learn whereas in other courses trainees learnt to teach question-answers from guidebooks. They were so absorbed in making thermocol models of the solar system or birds’ beaks that they rarely got the space to develop the necessary skills to reflect on serious academic issues such as children’s cognitive development and its interface with pedagogic principles in different subjects. The topic of solar system offered the biggest contrast as we had spent two months to learn how primary school children cannot comprehend the complexity of various constructs embedded in this topic and that at best we can encourage little children to wonder about the sky, stars and the moon. On the other hand, while JBT/D.Ed. students made expensive models of the planets and their axis, they never engaged with the topic itself.

Overcoming the notion that textbooks are the only source of knowledge was a big development. I saw it as a major break from my past because my school teachers had only taught the textbook content to enable me to answer the given questions. My contemporaries in other teacher-training programmes were also trained to teach the prescribed textbook. There were practicum courses in all the four years of B.El.Ed. in which we interacted with school children on a variety of themes. We observed children while playing or learning in the class; we did psychological tasks with them and organized other activities like storytelling and theatrical games, before finally teaching them in the fourth year.

Whenever I went to a school, I interacted with the students of other teacher training programmes. At an initial stage of the training itself, I found it difficult to converse with them as I felt their discourse was much too narrow and trivial, limited essentially to the teacher’s presentability, issues of reward and punishment, and motivation as the locus of a teacher’s role in students’ learning. For me, the real lesson was how to become a resourceful teacher who sees every activity or assignment as a meaningful experience which has links with the child’s life outside the school and relevance for it. It meant accepting oneself as a thoughtful person who is capable of making choices and knows what it means to nurture young people’s educational experiences.

 

This confidence building took a decisively explicit form in the course on ‘Human Relations and Communication’ and in self-development workshops in the second year of the programme. These courses demanded that I reflect on myself and my experiences with the help of theoretical constructs on identity. They first made me aware of various stereotypes and then conscious about how I had internalized them. These workshops made a deep impact on my personality, helping me to evolve as a more secular and tolerant person. Above all, I learnt to aspire as a teacher, to take pride in myself after overcoming the grip of my own socialization which had made me accept the given and obey familial and societal rules.

These developments helped me overcome the inhibitions and fears which I had internalized during childhood and adolescence. I started to see myself in a leadership role as a teacher. The struggle was two fold. It meant challenging the settled perceptions and attitudes about the kind of woman that my family wanted me to become – one who would do a half-day job to earn a supplementary salary for the household and bring up children in a smarter way as compared to a non-working woman – all this without challenging any established norms of labour division in the family. The second was to accept myself as a teacher who could access resources other than the textbook and blackboard, as being free to look for new pedagogic resources for children.

 

The practicum courses which gave adequate space to creatively try out new teaching-learning material, further consolidated my confidence as a teacher. I matured from being a college student into becoming a teacher who was concerned about issues like the wide range in children’s learning levels in class, their response to activities, stories, poems and other material, the depth of content knowledge required for planning daily lessons and, above all, linking this with larger curricular aims.

My B.El.Ed. training ingrained in me the need to plan before teaching, while leaving sufficient space for flexibility, as also to reflect on students’ responses and one’s own observations while teaching. All this formed a complex web of subject content, learning theories, children’s development and the teacher’s role, which together provided a sense of direction to every activity that I did with children during school internship and later.

Even the routine task of returning notebooks to children after examining their work provided opportunities for creative interaction, since for this task I chose those children who hadn’t learnt to read well even after reaching Class IV. When such students asked others to help them recognize whose notebook it was and then focused on the name-chit to see how a particular name was written, one could sense a perceptible improvement in their reading ability.

 

In addition to the rigour of academic training, the programme provided an opportunity to organize outstation trips, visit museums, organize seminars and exhibitions which trained us in decision-making, risk calculation, which helped sharpen our organizational skills. For instance, in the third year of the programme, we went on outstation trips to study innovative educational programmes run by non-government organizations in different parts of India. For the first time I booked a train ticket on my own for the journey. It involved locating the reservation counter at the railway station, learning how to fill a form to reserve a sleeper berth in a train, and then to find the counter where concessional tickets are issued, all of which provided a great thrill. It took six trips between my college and the railway station over three days. It gave me the confidence to travel on my own.

I went to Pune to study the pedagogic interaction between teachers and students at a progressive school called Aksharnandan. Class VI students of the school had taken a loan from a nearby bank to organize a bal mela. They made handicraft items which were sold at the mela. After the mela, the students sat down with their mathematics teacher to calculate if they had made any money from the sale. The students had been told that they would have to return more money to the bank than they had borrowed, which would be the bank’s profit. In precisely an hour all of them had learnt the toughest concepts of primary level mathematics – profit, loss and interest.

The students learnt all these calculations in a real life context and along with them I learnt the meaning of making every educational experience a real experience for both the teacher and learner. I saw several such activities in Aksharnandan during my week-long stay, excellent examples of Gandhi’s idea of education as work experience and Dewey’s ideas on education as an experience which had an immediate purpose and meaning.

It is with informed viewpoints and such field-based experiences that I entered the four-month school internship in the final year of B.El.Ed. I taught Class IV children in a municipal corporation school, a group of 72 girls in the age range of eight to fourteen years whose learning levels were equally diverse in different subjects. It is in those four months that my identity as a resourceful teacher fully crystallized as I planned and collected resources for each and every topic which I taught.

 

In teaching my students about the different states of India, I presented a large collection of tourist brochures developed by travel agencies and state governments. I divided the students in groups based on where their parents or grandparents came from. Every student had to read the brochures of both their own state and another one given to their group. As they read the text and observed the pictures, it helped them relate the material to their own experiences. Even children who had not yet learnt to read and write felt compelled to look at it with some help, because the brochures were colourful and interesting and the matter was about their hometown.

When teaching them how to write letters, I gave them an actual purpose. They had to write to a classmate or to one of my teachers who lived in Bangalore. I gave them real inland letter cards to write on. We discussed the format and content of both the letters which they copied from the blackboard and added more ideas and drew pictures. Next day, we all went to a nearby post office to post the letters.

There was great excitement the following fortnight as one or the other girl reported receiving her classmate’s letter through the post. Their excitement reached a peak when my teacher came from Bangalore with their letters. They were amazed that their letters had travelled to a far off place and that my teacher was genuinely happy to read them. After this experience they wanted to write letters to everybody they knew, and especially me. In the remaining two months of my internship and later I received over a hundred letters from the students.

 

Let me share another activity. The school toilet was located next to our classroom. Repeated requests to the principal to have it cleaned had not yielded any results. I, therefore, took it up as an appropriate activity in which I played a theatrical game. I drew a toilet on the classroom floor and asked the children to act out what one does inside a toilet. It was indeed funny and amusing. Every child enacted how she used the toilet, and the used space was marked with a chalk. As the floor of the ‘imagined’ toilet filled up with chalk marks, the remaining girls asked where they could sit as there was no space left for them to use. I forced them to try, to which they responded by stating that their shoes would get dirty, as would the corridor and the classroom.

There was no need to stress the point because the girls had realized the need to use the toilet properly and keep it clean. We made a list of do’s and don’ts for the toilet, using red and blue colour for the areas to be used and not used inside the toilet. The need to use water without wastage sunk in on its own, making it one of the best lessons in toilet training that I have ever given to small children. I must add that the foul smell in our classroom was greatly reduced after this activity.

 

In 1998 I completed my training in the B.El.Ed. programme. In the decade that has passed since then I have taught in a school, engaged with NGOs in different capacities, taught B.El.Ed. students for three years and worked as a Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) consultant in the NCERT. I have experienced the system of education at various levels both directly and indirectly through my B.El.Ed. students who are now teaching in private as well as government schools. I have travelled to almost all the states of the country for SSA related work, interacting with school teachers, teacher educators, middle-level functionaries and administrators. My interactions with teachers during these state visits and with my students have reinforced an assessment I had made during my adolescence that the job of teaching small children is indeed belittled in our country. The most critical link in the chain of educational services, the teacher, remains the weakest link.

The Government of India has spent billions to achieve the goal of universalization of elementary education since the early 1990s. The earlier District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and now Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) reflect the nationwide political and administrative consensus to provide quality education to all children. And we do see changes such as new buildings and toilets, an annual grant of five hundred rupees to teachers to buy teaching-learning material, in-service training organized every year on different subjects, pedagogy, assessment, gender concerns, disability, learning disorders, and so on. Yet, the Indian school remains a depressing place, probably because the most critical player, namely the teacher, is still to find a place in the planners’ mind.

The dark and dingy rooms in which the nation trains its teachers in District Institutes for Education and Training (DIETs) are dark, not just in the sense of poor infrastructure but also academically. To begin with, there are no journals of education in any of the Indian languages and the few we have rarely address the concerns of teachers and their trainers. It is like an academic famine of ideas in which DIETs operate; little surprise that the training they provide fails to stimulate any intellectual enquiry.

They continue to be run like a factory which produces hundreds of teachers every year without shaping attitudes and developing their skills. The condition of the DIET staff is no better. The choice of the word ‘staff’ itself reveals the saddest story of teacher training. My reluctance to call DIET staff as ‘faculty’ is based on an awareness of the historical deprivation of resources and insight which is reflective of the reluctance of policy-makers to view teacher educators as faculty members of institutes of higher education.

 

The development and modernization of DIETs has yet to become a concern as evident in SSA planning. Although it uses the DIET as a key location for quality improvement, the SSA does not invest in developing its academic and human resources. Equally sordid or worse is the story of parallel private institutions because they do not have to organize in-service training as a mandatory task. The State Councils of Educational Research and Training (SCERTs) too face a similar predicament. These institutions are several light years behind the pedagogic and theoretical movements taking place in institutions of education in other parts of the world.

The staff of DIETs is the primary workforce which trains teachers in pre- and in-service training programmes. With such a weak foundation, it is hardly surprising that teachers fail to teach basic reading and writing skills to a large number of children over five years of primary education. The rot which goes on in in-service teacher training is like an abscess feeding on neglect of teacher training programmes. I have witnessed hundreds of training in which teachers are not given even one research-based study or article on education to read. In fact, their need to read is not even a part of our discourse.

 

The system has not allowed the development of teachers as professionals; what makes it worse is using them as freely available and reliable workers for election duties, preparation of muster rolls and distribution of polio drops. Evidently, our democracy is maintained at the cost of children’s learning. I have attended several meetings in which high-ranking officials use abusive language for teachers for not ensuring learner achievements which the political fraternity demands. Teacher bashing is a common ploy to get respite from the pressure to improve learner achievement. But nobody admits that the teacher is simply a product of our misdirected educational planning in which planners have forgotten the basic nature of educational enterprise as an enduring activity, deserving a better long-term investment.

Finally, the B.El.Ed. programme has trained me to analyze through the lens of gender-based knowledge. Despite economic development and India’s participation in global efforts to educate more children, the teachers’ status has been further undermined in terms of social position and professional worth. Yesterdays caring housewife or paid maids have found a new incarnation today as school teachers with a half day engagement in the school. The job of teaching small children – which is otherwise glorified as the job of building the future of the nation – has been further devalued because it has become increasingly women dominated. With meagre salaries and abysmal service conditions, teachers survive the daily routine by basking in the winter sun and missing school in the summer.

 

It is in this reality of school education that B.El.Ed. graduates are functioning today. They find themselves as misfits both in the system as well as in society. Their families express constant frustration because they teach passionately, which means they work hard. Their salary is the same as any other teacher’s, with no reward for their special B.El.Ed. training and hard work. Though it is the mandate of our Constitution to develop an integrated elementary school set-up, the country has yet to appreciate the merit of an inclusive schooling experience for the first eight years of education.

B.El.Ed. graduates, who have generally been recognized as exceptionally good teachers in private as well as government schools, are still treated only as ‘primary’ school (not elementary, i.e. covering Classes I to VIII) teachers entitled to the lowest possible salary. And though they have made their mark in several spheres of curricular reform, including the National Curriculum Framework (2005), Delhi’s own state government has not shown any inclination to recognize them as teachers who deserve better treatment and space to march on.

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