Learning to Be a Teacher


“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveller of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.”

~ George Bernard Shaw

One of the reasons I love this quote is because it encompasses most of my learnings about what it means to be a “teacher”. Not that I am one in any conventional sense of the word; I have not done a B.Ed degree, or had any prior experience in teaching for that matter (apart from a few hours of voluntary stints at a couple of NGOs during college days). So I would like to shelve the term “teacher” because above all else I see myself as a learner – learning is a lifelong process and I am very much “on the path” (as we say in typical Teach For India lingo). What also resonates strongly with me is the fact that my role is that of a guide, and I have begun to understand that growth and development of self goes hand in hand with the development of my students like intertwined strands weaving together to create a vibrant tapestry which is the class.

At institute, during our training period, it was easy enough to sit with our city cohorts in air-conditioned conference rooms and tut tut over the data gathered from ASER reports about the terrible state of India’s educational landscape. To immerse oneself at a grassroot level into the very environment which contributes to such data is something else entirely. The reality of literacy in government and low-income private schools almost caused me to despair. Upon first entering my grade 4 classroom, I realized that all my lower order kids could read English perfectly fluently yet when I asked them a question, I would be met with perfectly blank stares. Comprehension of what they had just read out so fluently was close to zero. This is true of schools all across the board and it boggled my mind – how did teachers teach these students to read so articulately without the slightest idea of what they were reading? Almost an entire year has elapsed since then and I still ask myself this question. The ray of hope as I see it are the students themselves. Their undimmed enthusiasm, their curiosity, their brimming potential. I have taken these words of Elbert Hubbard to heart,The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.”  this is how I and anyone else in the role of educator should measure success,  always asking the question – “are my students on an enduring path of learning?”

How can I even begin to ennumerate my own learnings over the past year of my Fellowship, for fear of the list going on and on. If I had to summarize, it would be with this acronym, PPET – Passion, Purpose, Excellence and Transformation. Once I identified the things I was passionate about and brought them into my classroom, the change was palpable. I am a language, culture and arts person, particularly obsessed with Asia, hence I created a classroom culture centred around these passions. Enter my classroom today and my kids will greet you in Japanese and Chinese, because you cannot expect others to be enthusiastic about something you yourself don’t care about in particular. Children are intuitive and they pick up on things like lightning. I cannot think of any other job (apart from working at Google perhaps) that allows for so much creative control – sky is truly the limit when it comes to the ways in which you can get a kid to learn something, and that has been one of my biggest challenges as well as one of the best things about teaching. The world is an integrated whole, so why shouldn’t studies be looked at the same way? I’ve used Kandinsky and Picasso to teach my children geometry, dance to teach them about the solar system, and the only limitations are my own.

I’ve discovered that at the heart of things, my deepest “why” is joy. People need joy and I need to do all I can to kindle that joy which is within the reach of every single person; this is my purpose. Excellence for me is knowing I have done the very best I can and given something my all. Transformation is state of mind in many ways, it forces my mind to think about the bigger picture always and backwards plan my goals from there. An excellent education is so much more than the goings-on within the cloister of a classroom. It is about building relationships. It is about having a crystal clear vision of the type of individuals you want your kids to become in the future and working towards that at all times. Above all, it is about leading by example, one of the hardest things to do; since children “don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”(Jim Henson).

What keeps me going despite all the challenges and frustrations that are an inevitable job hazard, are the moments. The myriad of tiny moments that make each day so different from the next and so worth it. That moment when your lowest order kids begin to speak in complete English phrases, when a note gets pressed into your palm telling you that you are the best teacher. Or when your most disinvested child actually opens his notebook and begins to write something down. When at recess time you find yourself facing 10 tiffin boxes with kids jostling each other for you to sample their lunch first. Or even just that moment when the last child has left the classroom with a beaming smile and high-five regardless of having been reprimanded and detained after school. The hope-filled eyes of a parent fixed on you as you track their child’s progress to them in broken Hindi. These are the instances which enable me to crawl out of bed at an ungodly hour each morning, ready to find more moments to add to my treasury.

Those slightly jaded by time and experience might be shaking their heads, bemused by my youthful inexperience and idealism at having jumped the fence straight from student to teacher. It’s very easy to latch onto non-examples from our own past and swear we will be different and harder to remember those who made learning an experience. So I would tell anyone who feels that teaching is a grind with no palpable returns, to close their eyes and remember the inimitable wisdom of Dr. Seuss –  “to the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world”. How’s that for motivation!

Rachel Gokavi (first published in Recess Magazine)




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