Sunday, September 11, 2011

Earning without deserving

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were a teacher-student trio, called the “gang of three” by Edward De Bono, for their contribution to human knowledge.

But as the world and Pakistan celebrated the Teacher’s Day this Monday, I couldn’t help but remember, the dozens of teachers who have taught me since the age of five.
In the last twenty years, I have been to three private schools, one semi-Government college and countless tuition centres.  But honestly I can remember only a handful of teachers who were kind and out of them only two stood out for their talents. The rest were insipid at best and many of them confused “authority figures” with “authoritarian figures”. A few could even make North Korean generals blush.

I understand that discipline is a problem in a class of thirty plus but our pedagogical systems over-emphasize order, and indeed hierarchy. The teachers seem to have internalized the ancient caste system - Brahmins being the top five rank holders with everyone else following them. The failures occupy the bottom of the food chain, getting minimal attention when perhaps they need it the most - or at least be treated equally.

We don’t just need more formal training and intellectual talent in teachers; instead teachers need to reform the way they conceptualize students and education. Right now it is too meritocratic - merit being defined in a rather quantitative and left-brain-centric manner. Moreover, we have devised the schooling (private and government) in a manner that a significant amount of the de facto education cost is still borne by the parents. The parents have to hire multiple tutors for their children or else the grades come tumbling down - largely because our exams are designed to test rote learning, not analytical or creative abilities. The textbooks, the school curriculum, tests and exams all require supervision. Since the curriculum is so rigid and long, teachers enjoy this diffusion of responsibility and move on from those who cannot cope.

In the west, teaching is considered more prestigious because the pay is respectable if not great and teaching even the youngest students would require serious diplomas and practical training. Teaching is considered a lifelong profession. More importantly, teachers are told to push every student without hurting their self-esteem. In Pakistan, most of my teachers were females, waiting to get married or with children studying in the same schools. For many of them, teaching was the last resort to kill time till before they got back to a “real career” or of course home-making. This adversely affected their dedication and performance, very rarely did a teacher own the failure of its students, like they prided in their success.

Every teacher, no matter how mediocre, considered themselves to be a potentate who deserved unconditional reverence. But they didn’t offer the same respect to their students, especially those whom they perceive as “losers” (I often fell in this category), bullying them, passing under-the-belt comments and retaining a bias when checking a paper. 

This made progress harder. They probably told - and continue to tell - themselves that these kids should study more and its their fault that they don’t. Sometimes we are lazy indeed, but sometimes we are genuinely in trouble. My only issue with the brilliant movie Tare Zameen Per was that it had a dyslexic child with a nerve-transmission problem, whereas perfectly normal kids can become just as lost in class and teachers need to understand them more. In Class 5 geometry, I was a zombie. The teacher noticing this, started asking me questions. Several months of classes, with me being asked five or six questions and standing there clueless for the rest of the class. She probably thought that this negative reinforcement would make me study harder. In any case, she obviously liked that feel of being the master of the class and overlooked my robotic embarrassment. But I genuinely never understood geometry and still don’t. Same was the case in with my A levels’ Chemistry teacher, who not only asked me all the questions but also picked on me regularly and pestered me to leave the subject - which I ultimately did.

Teachers in college were part of a bigger game. They were more qualified, career women, with more funding and power. This just attracted more boot-lickers, blackmailing and nepotism. There were exceptions because you are a certified adult in college and teachers either become friendly or respect your talents. Since there were marks for class participation, the freedom of speech barrier was often lifted.  

But during those years I was forced to question how much respect these teachers deserved, if any. Just because someone is an elder, parent, teacher or more knowledgeable shouldn’t mean we have to respect them. I obviously didn’t howl at anyone on the blackboard but I didn’t respect most of them either. They don’t just need to outsmart but also have an inherent value and understanding of us.

There are teachers I miss. My English teacher in 10th who wore sarees and discussed Virginia Wolf with us, my arts teacher in 3rd, whose zest for colors inspired me forever. My patient Physics teacher in class 9th and finally my English teacher in A levels who has improved me as a person forever.

This article was first published in The News on Sunday


  1. noice!!! :D I truly agree - especially the point that the students ignored by most teachers are actually the ones who need the most attention. Also, teachers should not forget that every human, and that includes them children, has an inherent right to be respected and to question.

  2. Thank you Fizza, I didnt know you have a blog lol...



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