Monday, August 23, 2010

Teachers are born, not made?

I wrote this essay as part of a competition by the same title. Nothing came out it...
An old Bhutanese adage says that if it is a champion racehorse, it will show early just as a great person will manifest stellar endowments very early in his life. It follows that greatness is born, not made. Human history is replete with cases of people who stood out from the crowd because of qualities unique to them. In the survival of the fittest, what is passed on to you naturally surpass what you have acquired through years’ of pure hard work. There is often no time.
The world falls on the feet of those, to whom grandeur come naturally. The history of great teachers is no different. The greatest teacher we have ever known in Bhutan was born out of a lotus from the middle of a lake. Lopon Pema Jungye could call on the mass of humanity by his teaching because he was not like any of them. He was a natural.
Since the times of this great teacher, scientific advancement has allowed us to study greatness in the laboratory of truth to which any (level headed) person in his right frame of mind will attest. Science has corroborated through centuries of research on acclaimed teachers that their “individual characteristic patterns’ of thinking, acting and relating, also called personality, are conducive to effective teaching.” These traits make them better at plying their trade than others who try to master it through practice alone.
In all my years of learning at various levels, I have come across many teachers to whom I owe the knowledge and wisdom I have been able to land. But there are only a handful who have been able to leave an indelible mark on me by their sheer brilliance, besides of course, their passion for teaching and concern for their pupils.
My memories of the pre-primary days are sketchy at best, unreliable at worst. However, I can still vaguely remember the figure of a lady, without being able to recollect her name, who initiated me into a learning that I have fondly grabbed with all the power of my being. Those are impressionable years. Any body who showers us with love, care and wisdom, or who by their sheer mistreatment, can get etched in our mind. They can stay in our subconscious and over time, mould our image of a great teacher as surely as it will repel us against the image of an thug.
It might just be a play of that uncanny coincidence, but almost all my favourite teachers since then have been women. I remember feeling comfortable and ready to learn in the classes of my lady teachers. That came to a wonderful climax when Madam Anita came to teach us in class IX ‘F’ in Bajothang High School. I had a previous stint under her in my junior classes and so being taught by her again was a sort of home coming in a brand new school. As an English teacher, it was mostly all language and literature for her. And I came to develop a liking for the subject though in my previous years, I was rather enjoying science as taught by my bitter-sweet Indian teacher, who incidentally is among my all time favourite. I worked hard on my language skills and appreciation for the otherwise abstract literature. Inspiration was never wanting with 'Madam' teaching and she had the most wonderful gift of being able to communicate with pupil, with me at any rate. Language has been an enduring passion since then and I have developed a certain taste for literature too.
Time passed by and I got enrolled in YHSS. Without Mrs. Anita, I had to find other idols. I just about managed and found my refuge in the lonely figure of Mr. Uday Mitra. Reserved and almost shy in the company of his younger readers of literature, he was not like any other teacher. It was almost as if there was an impenetrable darkness in his heart just like the novel he taught by the same name of Joseph Conrad. But I liked him for his grasp of the subject. And when he published his own book called Whispering Wind, my respect for him grew a notch higher. Perhaps I was beginning to mature and think more in terms of substance then just show of it.
It was not until I reached Sherubtse, the peak of learning that I found my enduring inspiration.Madam Sonam Deki was a balance that every teacher would do well to have. Well versed in literature, which she taught with the zeal and concern of a missionary. It was hard not to be impressed by her. She was simply brilliant and thankfully, it rubbed off on me as I had the most successful years of my student life. I did quite well and it never felt like a labour. Like they say, when you are in for excellence, success follows. All you need is somebody who just let you go for it, without any pretensions. I have now come to believe that this is what education ought to be. Any one who can let this happen is a great teacher, born or made.
For me, teaching is about letting students recognize their callings, heed their inner prompts, and let them go along their chosen path gracefully. These would require knowledge, belief, passion, concern for the pupil above everything else and the ability to personalize the vehicle of transmission of all these qualities to the requirement of the students. These qualities come to some more easily than to others, and in so far as that, teachers are born, not made. There are not many teachers around who have these requisite qualities. What is worse, many even do not care if they have these as long as they are paid for being on the job, physically.
Getting back to my educational experience again, the number of teachers who touched my life in a manner I deem befits a great teacher is rather minimal. It is only the six or seven great teachers out of the around 100 that have been there through the various stages of my educational journey. In percentile terms, that would, at best, translate to 7%. Taking that as true for the whole country, we have only 533 teachers out of the 7625 who would measure up to the standards of a great teacher.
That would mean the vast majority of our teachers in schools, vocational institutes and universities are substandard, on whom the mantle of the noble profession, teaching, fit uneasily.However, things necessary need not be that way. Studies of good teachers’ influence on students show that the teachers who most touch the lives of their students are the ones who are largely ordinary. In their epic work on education, John Brown and Cerylle Moffet cite the words of a “Best Teacher Award” recipient which has been reproduced here.
The heroic educator is not isolated, charismatic, or superhuman individual who hands down miraculous answers from high. Instead, this is a person like us, who might say: "Come with me. We can do this together." She could be a colleague who, by virtue of being a little further down the road, can look back and say: "I have been there. And it is not so bad around the bend. Do not worry."
The authors argue that "regardless of external obstacles and internal tests of fortitude, each teacher has to sustain the commitment for confronting and resolving the complex problems that face the education system today." They say that it is fine to have little less of natural endowments as long as one works on transformation and care of children's education in good faith. It is so because the same problem of imperfection is faced by system and the students as much as the imperfect teacher. It would take a heroic effort, but all these elements in making learning work must move collectively towards their goal to perfection and excellence.
The aim of this odyssey is the heroic transformation of our educational institutions which must become

"responsive communities of caring and of academic rigour" with highly motivated teachers at their core. And it all must begin with the acknowledgement on the part of the teachers and the system of their own imperfections and limitations. The character of Aamir Khan in Taare Zamen Par is a portrayal of one such case. The character recognizes, accepts and overcomes a particular learning dysfunction called dyslexia and in the process, becomes a passionate giver of care and wisdom to his student who is in the predicament.

Max Malikov, an Assistant Professor of Education in a lesson on nature versus nurture says that "exceptionally talented teachers are both born and made, by being trained in pedagogy." He says that while individual personalities cannot be appreciably altered, "specific characteristics and behaviours can be isolated and developed by an effective education curriculum."
Prospective teachers can profit from speech therapy which will better equip them with vocal variation to counteract monotony, the undoing of many lesser mortals. Richard Eakin who won a US Distinguish Teaching Award says that often teachers speak too softly, enunciate poorly, emit 'ahs' and 'uhs' and sprinkle their speech with that senseless and tiring phrase 'you know.' This was often what separated the great teachers from the not-so-greats. Fortunately with advancement in pedagogy, these things are much better taken care of, and with a little bit of care, many can master the art of effective communication to a great extent.
A healthy access to appropriate resources can also have the effect of making a Socrate out of an otherwise mediocre teacher. A whole gamut of teaching aids, traditional and advance alike, can act as stimulus for effective learning by acting as both complement and supplement to the teacher's ability. Education ergonomists typically converge on the bible of work place productivity, the Hawthorne study. It purports that it pays to be mindful of the physical setting, in this case, of lecture theatres, classrooms, laboratories, et al which can appreciably raise the performance of the teachers and the students' grasp of their lessons. Appropriately illuminated and conditioned rooms help learners' attention span by keeping them sharp for longer and help in the making of an effective teacher. Thus, cultivated and extrinsic mutations can make a teacher just as effective as a genetically gifted preacher whose success is often subject to the same nourishment and opportunities.
It thus calls for investment in nourishing the staple of our education system, the teachers. However, as things are, our teachers today find themselves faced with an existential crisis. An independent study carried out by the graduate students of RIM found that 48% of their sampled teachers would quit teaching if presented with an alternative as against a mere 14% who would hold onto teaching for the love of it. Others are in an abeyance, holding on for dear livelihood. This findings gain credence in the statistics made available by the education ministry showing teachers leaving the system in droves. This is a disconcerting trend when we consider the acute teacher shortage our schools are faced with. The government schools alone need 800 of them to be in any position to deliver on quality. Worse still, thousands of graduates would rather go jobless than take on the curse of teaching, a fact reflected in the all the seats that go unfilled in our teaching colleges every year.
If textbooks are a teacher's constant guide, nothing fail our teachers more miserably than them. Apart from delay in delivering the already scant supply of books, another fact well documented by the voyeuristic media, these books are strewn with an abundance of mistakes. An exercise done by Dasho Karma Ura and his CBS staffs spotted 568 errors, including typos, in 3,743 pages of school textbooks from all grades.
The most common reason cited for this dire scenario is an utter lack of motivation brought about by decades of neglect that our teachers have been subjected to. From doing the donkey's work to a perceived and actual disregard of the profession, our teachers have seen them all. Little wonder, 58% of the same sample would never recommend their dear ones to teach come what may.
In this milieu, only a natural born, possessed by a self-destructive zeal, is likely to make any headway becoming a teacher. Lesser mortals will realize their teaching fallacy soon enough. To make a teacher, a good one at that, requires tremendous investment from every body concerned. Unfortunately, the little we have been disposed to give just do not measure up. I feared I was being too presumptuous, but I have no inhibition now in labeling the teachers I have come across mostly mediocre whose hearts were elsewhere altogether.
The times call for a messiah. So, it turned out to be quite a downer, if not an outright betrayal when arguably the best teacher of our time, the talismanic Thakur S. Powdyel shed his teacher's garb for a seemingly lucrative post of an executive first and a politician afterwards. It fueled all manners of talk, the premium among which were how long can a teacher continue to teach before earthly temptations get the better of his nobility, and once he stand undone thus, can he continue playing his teaching role in a setting outside the schools and colleges?
Today the nation of doubting Thomases stand corrected, including me.In his new avatar as the Minister of Education, Lyonpo T.S. Powdyel wields the machinery of our education system and now have the unenviable chance to correct all the wrongs wrought upon our much maligned teachers and the system. He has taken on a role greater than mere lecturing, a role that befits a great teacher, a role that can transform lives for greater good. In his success or failure thereof, we will know if teachers can be made great with timely and appropriate support of the state machinery manifest in a dynamic and caring education system or are great teachers simply born great like the Lotus-Born or the Education Premier himself.
Brown, John L. & Moffet, Cerylle A. 1999. The Hero's Journey: How Educators Can Transform Schools and Improve Learning.. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Washington.
Dasho Karma Ura, 2009. A Proposal for GNH value Education. Gross National Happiness Commission. Thimphu, Bhutan.
Dukpa, et al, 2009. Why are graduates not opting to teach? Royal Institute of Management.
Malikov, M. 2009. Are teachers born or made? National Forum of Teacher Education Journal-Electronic, Vol. 16
Ministry of Education, 2009. Annual Education Statistics. Kuensel Corp. Thimphu, Bhutan.

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