What is in a Day?

Come August everyone – in India and across the globe – suddenly start their wisecracks about the ‘noblest’ of all professions – Teaching. Reason? Come September 5th, we have our National Teachers’ Day. And on October 5th, that is today, World Teachers’ Day.

Happy Teachers' Day!

Happy Teachers’ Day!

Yet, things are not as it should be in a teacher’s world, at least for an Indian teacher, for this is all I know about. I am one. Once upon a time when we had the Gurukula system and teachers were the most venerated lot in the society. Gone are those days. Now things and times have changed. The less said about the poor status of the teacher in our society, the better.

The best students go for the choicest of professions, which is medicine, engineering, information technology, accounting and the like. It is only the also-rans and cast-outs that enter this profession of last resort – teaching. Margaret Elizabeth Sangster’s exhortation of ‘no one should teach who is not in love with teaching’ has fallen on deaf ears. Poor wages, but compensated by less working days, you see. Which other job will give you more than 140 days holidays and pay you for that? The result?? A teaching fraternity, with less passion and even lesser dedication.

Unrealistic expectations from parents to mould their child into Christiaan Barnards, Nikola Teslas and their like irrespective of the like and dislikes of their children has made things worse for the practicing teacher. It is almost impossible trying to tell the parent that their child has other interests. The oft-heard last word in the matter is, “I wanted to be a X. I could not. I want my son / daughter to be one.’ Many also are in denial mode – I can understand that. Which parent would want to hear about his/her apple of the eye’s issues?

An overburdened curriculum which leaves the poor child to do nothing other than studying so much so that he/she unless exceptional never gets the time or energy to indulge in any kind of talent tapping or talent building. No wonder PE classes are the most favourite ones of most students. Teachers hardly make learning as fun as playing. The heavy curriculum forces the teacher to ensure that he/she has done the job, without looking into what students have got out of it. Besides the teacher learned about the nuances of teaching in a different way. And that way is not the acceptable one with changing times. No wonder John W Gardner said, “Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.” Ouch. A firm nail on the coffin!

Educationists, policy makers who come up with radical changes, without equipping and educating the stakeholders – teacher, student and parent. Many a time the programmes are chalked out without foresight and hardly looking into the ground reality. Look, for example, the No Child Left Behind initiative, which went on to leave every child behind and the teaching fraternity far behind because it was extremely prescriptive, used shoddy measures and one-size-fits-all methods, besides forcing teachers to do the worst possible thing to prove their caliber – to teach to test.

Large sized classrooms is another bane. A teacher after all is only human and cannot be expected to work magic many a time in classrooms of not less than 40 students. The 40 minute classes don’t even give the teacher time to invest a minute in each child! Today in many forward looking schools, pair/group activity in classes in the norm. How can teachers have group activity in crowded classrooms? With all these challenges – poor teacher status, heavy curriculum, standardised testing, large ill equipped classrooms and a teacher fraternity that just about warming up to the needs of the 21st century skills like being a life long learner and engaging in continuous professional development – it is difficult to brag about the nobility of the profession.

Education is the panacea that can cure all that ails today’s world. Therefore unless there is more respect and status in society, high quality induction programmes and continued professional education sessions, societies cannot raise the standards of education. And unless governments invest more money into education, all articulations about what ails education and finding solutions for them, will remain hollow and meaningless.

So what is in a day for us, Teachers? Nothing really. It is just another day. Nevertheless, here’s wishing you a Happy Teachers’ Day!

Reflections: Teachers Day

Every year Teachers Day in India is celebrated on September 5th. (and everything that I write here is based on the Indian perspective) The special day for teachers in India is dedicated to a quintessential teacher’s birthday: Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a teacher, statesman, philosopher and former President.

Teachers Day

What is the scenario at schools today? Low pay packets; humongous expectations from both parents and management; overburdened with work; crowded classrooms clamouring for individual personalised attention and instruction; callous, unconcerned pupils; technological challenges that make one a refugee first, immigrant next and a native per force in the digital world; the obsession with standardised tests and thoughtless one size fits all propositions of boards and education bodies…
Teaching has never been tougher as it is today.
Being an educator by profession, I can’t but help taking a critical look at the education system prevalent in our country. 

I am just back from home after summer holidays and saw the reality of it playing out everyday at home. I have a nephew who is studying in Class IX (CBSE). Everyday he comes home with projects galore. There is time only to do homework and projects.
So, when is the time to read and understand lessons done at school? I have no clue.
Without systematic study, how is he going to cope with his studies? I have no clue.
(Mind you his school is just a 10-minute walk away. His tuition teacher is a stone’s throw away.) 
After seeing it all, I only felt sorry for the young boy. True, he too has some time management issues but he is a child after all. 

Studies are no longer interesting. They have become mundane chores. The spark of curiosity is totally, totally missing. It is just regurgitation of lessons learned in answer papers and notebooks. There is nothing beyond books and lessons. Sorry, textbooks. Is there nothing beyond grades and scores? What about igniting the passion for knowing the unknown? Missing, totally. What about discovering and honing other skills like music, drawing, painting, sports etc? Nope. Where is the time? Now you might ask aren’t there children who are doing all that and coping with studies? All I am saying is that they are exceptions than rules. My nephew, a smart and clever chap, is bored beyond anything else. I know, if you need to keep him hooked, you need to really be thinking on your feet and package it in a ‘smart alec’ way. At this rate I am afraid he will burn out too soon and lose all his yen for studies. He is already on the verge of it. In fact, the scenario was so disappointing and depressing that I have started reading articles on “Unschooling”. 

If this is the plight of students, what about teachers? Not too different. While it is true that every profession has good and bad professionals, methinks the the scale is too tilted in favour of the inefficient in the case of education. The best ones are not attracted to the profession. There is no money or respect for the profession is the common rejoinder I hear. Besides many parents still are obsessed about a couple of professions: medicine; engineering; computers & software (though there are a handful of students who take up offbeat courses). The leftovers are often insipid and tasteless. They are teachers not because they are passionate about teaching – but because their job gives them holidays in line with their children’s and some pocket money. And from such kind of teachers, stakeholders harbour inordinately high expectations. Parents expect them to wave a magic wand and make their child a whizkid. The professional course (B.Ed) is an antiquated course. Teachers are forced to teach what they learned yesterday to students today so that they can handle their tomorrows well! Can that ever happen?

Students. Sadly, they have very few role models before them. Many parents have no time for them. It’s work, office, and material considerations. They cannot even give quality time – even if it means just an hour – to their child / children. To compensate this they offer them material rewards or even a huge sum as pocket money. Instant gratification is what is sought and easily provided. Value systems don’t matter and many don’t inculcate any in their children.

The management. Results. That is the yardstick of whether a school is good or great. Crass commercialization has corroded the innards of educational systems and systemic decay is visible even to the naked eye. Administrative bodies. Standardised tests rules the roost. it is a one-size-fits-all proposition. A student is judged by the grades and marks he gets. Though collaborative project based study is required, paucity of time in schools make teachers give it to students as individual projects. (As many as 10+ days were declared as holidays in Kerala due to the fury of the monsoons this time; over and above this is our fanatical obsessions with bandhs. The Supreme Court banned it but we reincarnated them in another name: Hartal! It is freedom to protest, folks!!) Many a time parents end up doing these projects for the child. Now how will that be a learning exercise is a good question to ponder over.

So, do you get it – we are in a totally messy situation. Celebrations apart and notwithstanding the challenges, it is time to introspect: Are we as teachers –

  • Passion-driven? Without this our classrooms will be dull and drab.
  • Action-driven? Without this we will never be able to infuse energy & bring the fun element to our class. Isn’t it because of the fun aspect that PE periods are students’ all time favourites? 
  • Empathetic? Without this we will never be able to strike an emotional chord with the child. This in turn will make our students compassionate individuals too.
  • Lifelong learners? Learning just does not end with the classroom; a key point that must be driven home over and over again!
  • Being Mindful and Reflective? We need to help pupils stay on course and be aware – not only about things around but also things within themselves. Self awareness is key to effective relationships and achieving success in adult life. It is always easier if we ‘catch ’em young’!
  • Encouraging collaborations and curiosity in classrooms? It is these skills that our pupils require in the 21st century to function as effective citizens and humans. 
  • Patient and Persevering? Without this none of the above is possible!

Let us think of every day as a Teachers Day, by enjoying what we do in our classrooms. Let us transform our classrooms into hubs of activity where pupils take responsibility for their own learning. Let us make our classrooms engaged, connected spaces so that our pupils will learn the art and science of collaboration. And may we succeed in making each student a passionate lifelong learner, the most critical objective of education. And thus let us contribute immensely to nation building.

The Sky is the Limit

Learning has undergone a sea change in the last decade or two. From the clutches of the expectedly all-knowing fountainhead of wisdom, the Teacher in the classroom, it has been liberated! Two decades ago when I needed to gather information about Hiroshima or the Sinking of the Titanic to equip myself to handle the Class XII lessons in English of the same names, I relied heavily on encyclopaedias and reference books which were aplenty in the school library. For English comprehension passages, I took refuge in magazines Down to Earth, Readers Digest, National Geographic and the ever reliable Hindu newspaper. With the advent of the information age came Google. Everything is now available at the click of a mouse. Ouch, the mouse seems antique now with touch screens and styluses available in smartphones, tablets and net books. According to Richard Alleyne, “Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.”

Learning

In the current scenario the Teacher is now meant to be just a learning facilitator, a guide, a resource provider, a curriculum and instruction specialist, a mentor, and a classroom supporter as well as manager. Everything else, but the store house of knowledge. Rightfully so. Today’s students are digital natives and even have much more knowledge than the teacher in an area of his/her interest. It is best that our young students are never underestimated. Even though I have hardly taught in the digital era (I moved up to be an administrator), and taught only in traditional classrooms, I have been enriched by the perspectives offered by my young adolescent students. They have indeed enriched me with wonderful insights into the dynamics inside and outside of the classroom.  So, it goes without saying, the teacher needs to be a life long learner. Move from a digital refugee to a digital immigrant and then transit into being a digital native. It is possible with some perseverance.

So how does one be a lifelong learner?

  1. Nurture a good element of curiosity. It is this CQ – Curiosity Quotient – that enables one’s quest for continuous learning.
  2. Be passionate about teaching (read: about what you do). Well, Thomas L Freidman in his paean to globalization, The World is Flat, calls this PQ – Passion Quotient – and even argues that it is more important than IQ.
  3. Explore. The World Wide Web is full of opportunities to learn and hone our skills and practices. At the same time be perceptive about what is authentic and what is not.
  4. Enrol. Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs and enrich your awareness about anything that interests you from History of Rock music to Volcanic eruptions. Many of these courses are offered by universities like Stanford and MIT and are mostly free of cost. You can look for courses in www.coursera.org and www.udacity.com. Edmodo also features interesting courses for professional development.
  5. Find time. Time is always at a premium. You must find time for your up skilling – you owe this to yourself as a professional.
  6. Persevere. Don’t give up. It might be challenging at times. It is these challenges that make or break people.

I did some courses online. I will share my experiences of them in my next post.

Conscience – A rarity!

I belong to the southern most state of Kerala. I am proud of the enchanting landscape of my state – the silver beaches, the lush fields and greenery, the swaying palms, the meandering backwaters – all of which gave it the much touted tag line, God’s Own Country. However, looking at the going on since the dawn of the new year, I am not sure if I should take pride in belonging to Kerala.

Strikes and hartals have long since become the pastime of Kerala. Political parties declare strikes / hartals. Most people sit at home. The previous day there are serpentine queues before beverages corporation outlets. Armed with bottles, it is a fun time boozing. Besides, TV channels air movies. An unexpected holiday to watch them, booze again and have pure fun!

The latest in the news is the Government Teachers’ (Schools & College) strike. Being a practicing educator, I can’t help looking at the choice of time for this strike. January and February are the most crucial times in the calendars of teachers in India. Annual examinations happen in March. In colleges, though most of the semester exams happen in April and May, the teaching time ends in March. How can teachers afford to lose out on valuable teaching time now? Lessons have to be completed, concepts have to be taught and students need to be given revision as well as practice tests. It is sad that those who have to mould future generations have thought least about this. They have also not thought of how lucky they are when compared with their peers in the unaided sector. Many of them get a paltry salary and hardly any perks. I even know of managements who terminate teachers on March 31st and appoint them again on 1st June, so as to save on money given to them as vacation salary.

The most horrific aspect of these strikes is the kind of tactics the so called teachers and adults have indulged in. The media has reported incidents wherein velvet bean or cowitch powder was sprinkled on students in Trichur and Palakkad. Cowitch or Mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume. “The hairs lining the seed pods and the small spicules on the leaves contain 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin) which cause severe itching (pruritus) when touched. The calyx below the flowers is also a source of itchy spicules and the stinging hairs on the outside of the seed pods are used in itching powder. Water should not be used if contact occurs, as it only dilutes the chemical. Also, one should avoid scratching the exposed area since this causes the hands to transfer the chemical to all other areas touched. Once this happens, one tends to scratch vigorously and uncontrollably.” (Source: Wikipedia) It is this kind of a virulent powder which was sprinkled on young children. It is sad that those who have the power in them to mould minds have stooped to this low a level. What models are being portrayed by these acts? Isn’t there any conscience in these adults?

It is time we woke up to the looming reality. If we put the young minds through these kinds of atrocities, they will grow up mindless and heartless. Then we will moan in our old age that our children are not taking care of us. Why should they when we have not taken care of them when we should have. Conscience – it has become a rarity!

The Power a Teacher Wields

“If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some who didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor or lawyer or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.” 

~~~ Donald D. Quinn ~~~

Teachers are the change agents of the future. They train young minds and lay foundation for the future. It is a challenging task with diverse kinds of learners with even more diverse backgrounds and cultures in the melting pot of a classroom. Yet, the power of a classroom teacher is enormous. This is why Henry Brooks Adams said that the teacher affects eternityhe can never tell, where his influence stops.

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend who also happens to be the mother of a teenager. After discussions about all and sundry, the conversation veered to school, learning and of course teaching. She shared some insights into the nature of teachers at large in a classroom. And that brought me to write this post on teachers’ conduct inside classrooms.

Imagine these scenes…

Location – many Indian Schools especially in board exam classes.

Time: November-February (revision time) as many Indian Boards have final exams in March/April.(This can happen in any class at any time, but when the fear of exams looms large, it impacts young minds more.)

Case 1: Teacher walks into a classroom. A revision lesson is in progress. The teacher has set a target for revision and starts the QA session. Children answer questions. Then a Q is asked to one student who has not been doing well academically. The child is not able to answer. The teacher launches a tirade. She* starts from how hard parents work and struggle to send the child to school and ends with accusing the child of not being responsible enough.

Case 2: Teacher walks in and asks questions. This time the first student to whom the question is asked is unable to answer it. The result – the teacher literally flies off the handle and screams at students. She says she is already stressed out and swears that she does not need more. (A smarty mumbles in an undertone – “Is your board exam writing child also giving you trouble like us???”)

Case 3: This teacher is also revising lessons. Whenever students don’t answer questions she goes into hype about how well her own children did when it came to studies. They never gave her trouble like these students. Why can’t you be like that? She rants.

Mind you these are no hyperboles. Let’s accept that these do happen in Indian schools and classrooms. Now let us look at the possible effect these reactions make in children.

Case 1: The entire class empathizes with their peer and shuts out the tirade. They switch off. The class gives the teacher a blank ‘there-she-starts-again’ look. The teacher has lost and antagonized the whole class. It takes real effort now to get the transaction back to “I-am-ok and you-are-ok” stage again.

Case 2: The teacher conveys her own stress levels and reveals the picture of a totally not-in-control kind of person. Instead of having her students look at her in respect and with dignity, her body language conveys the message that when one is angry one raves and rants and that it is okay. Children covertly and overtly make fun of her.

Case 3: The teacher here demonstrates a grave mistake that many including parents make – that of comparing children. When even siblings show enormous differences betwixt each other, the teacher expects her diverse class to be like her child!

It goes without saying that these are totally negative strategies for the classroom. Raving and ranting in the classroom has never ever succeeded in its mission – be it making students learn or behave better. The earlier we stop this better for us. Or else just like how corporal punishment is a crime now, teachers will soon be made accountable for mental harassment in classrooms.

As a teacher I always believed that we need to leave our baggage outside the classroom – be it mental or emotional. Approach the class without preconditions and judgements. Each class is a clean slate. And when we leave the classroom, erase everything from the slate. Don’t carry it to the staff room and make a mockery of children. More than anything else, it shows us in poor light and in poor taste, as undignified human beings. Let us not be the kind wherein we have to say, “I taught them, but they did not learn!”

Research** proves that effective teachers have high energy and the ability to help all students learn — the low, the average, and the high achievers. So let us demonstrate this in our classrooms. The teacher has to be a fine human being in the classroom. Understanding, care, concern and empathy along with firmness of purpose are hallmarks of a fine teacher. Our small actions can have lasting impacts. Get our students to love us first. Then the love for the teacher will translate into the love for the subject. Without much effort, we can get our students to pay attention, listen, work hard and do well.

During exam times students are highly stressed. Many parents convey their worries and stresses consciously or unconsciously to their children. Many a time they have over expectations about their own children. Poor children reel and double under this burden. And if at this time the teacher also unleashes verbal whiplashes, it is grave injustice to children. We teach them violence in one form or the other through these seemingly simple actions.

Each child is an uncut diamond. Let us love them, understand them, care for them, empathize with them and through these polish the rough edges in them. Then they will shine, love us, love our subjects and bring for them, their parents, us and our schools glory. Such children will make a great society and a fine nation. Isn’t this then the aim of education?

Source:

**Wright, Horn, & Sanders, ’97 in “Teacher and Classroom Context Effects on Student Achievement: Implications for Teacher Evaluation” in the Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education

Prepare Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs

Why should we drastically change the way we provide our students learning experiences? According to former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. By the time today’s high school students take up jobs a decade later, many of those jobs would have died a natural death. Therefore our current methods may be irrelevant and inappropriate in preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs which may be radically different from what they are today.

In today’s knowledge driven world, students have plenty of sources to bank on. Well, the primary source is no longer the educator, but Google or Wikipedia. Even reference books like Encyclopedia Britannica are outdated because it gets printed only once a year. Wikipedia on the other hand gets updated round the clock. It is this aspect of Wikipedia that forced Encyclopedia Britannica to propose accepting additions, deletions and corrections from the general public in their online version – which by the way is not free like Wikipedia.

Today’s teacher can make the difference only when s/he teaches pupils the way how to sift the chaff from the grain from this plethora of information and use the relevant information in the best possible way. Learning by inquiry is what is needed. Pupils must get to answer open ended questions that will make them analyze, synthesize and create. Instead of teaching subjects we must teach children. For this to happen, we must not really depend on the text book but use it only as a prop to source information.

The focus of our teaching should be to engage students so that they build their PLTS (Personal Learning Thinking Skills). Pupils should be taught content to develop their skills, attitudes and competencies. What are the 21st century skills that students need in a knowledge based economy? Learning to collaborate with others and connecting through technology are top in the list. Assessment & Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) led by the University of Melbourne, a worldwide collaboration sponsored by CISCO, INTEL and Microsoft, divides these skills under four broad heads:

  1. Ways of Thinking: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Problem solving, decision making and learning
  2. Ways of Working: Communication and Collaboration
  3. Tools for Working: ICT and Information Literacy
  4. Skills for Living in the World: Citizenship, life and career, personal and social responsibility

If we as teachers need to equip the pupils entrusted to our care with all the above skills, we must stop cramming information in pupils’ heads and ask then to regurgitate in an answer sheet in the examination hall. Understanding concepts, applying them in practical or even real life situations as well as weaving in opportunities for analysis, synthesis and creation is what must happen in classrooms.

Over and above all these, today’s pupils must be imparted the skill to indulge in lifelong learning – be it at 17, 37 or 67 years, they must be able to keep on learning. For this our classrooms must become hubs where thinking is churned; inquiry is facilitated. There is a complete shift in the role of the teacher – from the seeming ‘fountain head of wisdom’ to the facilitator to the mentor and finally the coach.

Though it might seem a difficult option for the teacher, it is not as difficult as it is made to be. Acceptance of the need for change is the first and foremost step. Once that barrier is broken, things will fall beautifully into shape. I am sure we owe this to our students.

Reference:

  1. http://atc21s.org/index.php/about/what-are-21st-century-skills/
  2. Gilbert, Ian; (2010) Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve Got Google? The essential guide to the big issues for every twenty first century teacher: Routledge

Teachers VS Students in the 21st Century

I am an educator. And I know education is going through challenging times.

Though living in the same milieu, today’s educator and today’s learner are like the two faced Roman God of transition, Janus. The student looks outward, beckoning to the future whereas most teachers look backwards, reminiscing the past. The text savvy digital citizen is given learning experiences by the bookish adult who uses the textbook as the prop and actually gets spaces out when it comes to tech tools and digital devices. So, the earlier our educator colleagues adapt to the changing scenario the better for us, lest we get fossilized.

During our student days you and I depended entirely on our teachers for information – they were in fact our primary and many a time our only source of knowledge. Today’s children on the other hand have technology devices, the World Wide Web and a host of other digital sources for their primary information. To them, we, educators are only the secondary source.

We were taught to focus on subjects when we were children and even in our very much outdated B.Ed. training courses. So we continue to lecture and use the hanging-all-children-on-one-academic-clothesline method of chalk and talk. We seem to be “stuck in a fixed body of knowledge and pass it on via drip feed” 1 – ouch!!! We do integrate ICT into our lesson (a PPT or You tube video at the most); yet, we are much more comfortable doing what we are past masters at – teaching lessons or more fondly “portions”. The word, “portion”, itself conjures in my mind the picture of morsels of food being thrust forcefully down throats of students! Besides, our Indian educational system is so very skeptical and conservative about using digital devices smart phones, I-pads and tablets in our classrooms.

I look at my 12 year old nephew. He is truly a 21st century learner. Give him a new digital device and he is all engrossed in learning how to use it. You and I need a manual. But not him! He explores and through cycles of trial and error learns. Soon he is thorough with all the functions of the device. Take him through a traditional lesson, he is stiff bored. His mind would have wandered in 5 minutes to a hundred different things – imagine how much of this would happen in a 40 minute session! It is these kinds of children whom we subject to the torture of depending on text books and hardly ever provide any hands on experience.  We subject them to our boring drones and expect them to listen.

We need to seriously relook at our classroom transactions and see if we are actually helping our pupils to prepare for tomorrow.

Reference:

1 Gilbert, Ian; (2010) Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve Got Google? The essential guide to the big issues for every twenty first century teacher: Routledge