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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Pandemic has confronted us with the challenge of redefining our role — as friends, communicators and healers

Even in the virtual classroom, teachers are doing something more than just dictating the notes of biology and geography; they are touching and healing the tormented souls of their students. Let us salute them on Teacher's Day.

Written by Avijit Pathak | Updated: September 5, 2020 9:46:42 am
teachers, online classes, Coronavirus, teachers role during pandemic, neet exam, jee exam, jnu, delhi university, Avijit Pathak writes, Express opinionDespite all these structural constraints and the dictates of techno-managers or academic bureaucrats, it is not altogether impossible to find teachers amongst us who still believe in the art of possibilities. (Illlustration: C R Sasikumar)

As the pandemic has unsettled our collective psyche, and the taken-for-granted world has crumbled, I ask myself a pertinent question: How do we redefine ourselves as teachers? Well, as “employees” or “professionals”, we have been doing what the academic bureaucracy has instructed us to do — reducing education into a virtual transaction, completing the official syllabus, and conducting all sorts of examinations. And we are learning to become techno-savvy: Zoom or Google Meet is emerging as a new saviour; and despite the occasional anguish over the “digital divide” in a terribly stratified society like ours, we have almost normalised “online” teaching/learning. Seldom do we see something beyond this routinised or soulless techno-managerial approach to education.

As teachers, do we have a voice? Is it possible for us to rise up, and say that we are not just the mechanical mediators between the official curriculum and students because we are also friends, communicators and healers? And, particularly when the negative vibrations caused by psychic bewilderment, economic powerlessness, fear of death and existential uncertainty have affected everybody including our students, should we only prepare them for BA/MA examinations? Or is it equally important for us to see beyond a technical lecture on Levi-Strauss or a chapter on magnetic theory, and engage with these tormented souls, and collectively prepare ourselves for the most important existential examination the pandemic has made us confront — learning to unlearn the narcissism of modernity, seeing ourselves as humble wanderers rather than proud conquerors, accepting the inherent uncertainty of our embodied existence, and evolving a mode of living that helps us to connect with the larger ecosystem?

Editorial: Teacher’s day & night

Well, I am aware that the reality is harsh. It is almost impossible to find a teacher like John Keating as depicted in a remarkably sensitive film Dead Poets Society. I also know that the sort of teacher Tagore would have loved to invite in “the poet’s school” is difficult to find; and I am aware that “experts” and “researchers” in our universities would tell me that teaching is a value-neutral act of disseminating specialised academic knowledge, and it has nothing to do with the cultivation of the self. Hence, I see what prevails — a tired/exhausted teacher in an over-crowded government school trying to restore some sort of artificial order in the noisy classroom; a disenchanted teacher preoccupied with the census/election duty or the management of the mid-day meal scheme; a teacher in a fancy school making it a point that children become “toppers” with a distinctive cultural capital; a college teacher with the heavy baggage of UGC-directed “publications” waiting for the next promotion; and a teacher as the trader of “technical skills” in the rapidly growing shops that value nothing more than the market-driven logic of profit.

Hence, as I would be reminded by the cynics, it is naïve to imagine something qualitatively different from the teaching community. Even amid the pandemic, they would pretend that things are normal, and mathematics or history can be taught in the same way. Hence, a three-year-old child of a play school would be forced to sit in front of the laptop, and learn the perfect “technique” of drawing the sun rising behind the hills; or an undergraduate sociology student of Delhi University has to be sufficiently Zoom friendly to digest the professor’s monologue on Pierre Bourdieu’s heavily mystified theory of “capital” and “habitus”. It doesn’t matter even if her father has lost his job, or her aunt has been diagnosed as COVID positive, or a close friend has died. The business must go on as usual; and the teacher must supply this data related to the attendance of students and their performance in online exams to the concerned authority.

Why is it that even at this puzzling moment we refuse to reimagine our roles as teachers? A possible reason is that we are caught in a vicious circle. Here is a society that devalues its teachers — it does not trust them. As it worships power and money, it is assumed that a schoolteacher is somewhat inferior to the sub inspector of the local police station; or, for that matter, an IAS officer has every right to teach a couple of lessons to a university professor.

In other words, here is a society that demoralises vibrant young minds to accept teaching as a vocation wholeheartedly. Furthermore, in a corrupt society like ours, all sorts of “networking”, political connections and nepotism further affect the recruitment of teachers — including vice-chancellors. No wonder, quite often, as teachers, we are wounded, broken and unsure of ourselves; it becomes exceedingly difficult for us to innovate and experiment, carry the lamp of truth, and inspire the young generation. Furthermore, all efforts have been made to deprive us of our creative agency. As non-reflexive cogs in the learning machine, we only “cover” the given syllabus and supply all sorts of data to the higher authorities. And in the age of the National Testing Agency and associated MCQ pattern of exams, we need not become thinkers; it is enough to fill the student’s mind with all sorts of instant knowledge capsules. In other words, we do not expect anything higher from us. No wonder, even at the time of the pandemic, we are doing nothing more than reducing education into a software endeavour.

Yet, I do not wish to end with pessimism. Despite all these structural constraints and the dictates of techno-managers or academic bureaucrats, it is not altogether impossible to find teachers amongst us who still believe in the art of possibilities. Teaching, for them, is not just a “technique”; it is essentially an art, a quest, a meditative contemplation. And possibly, even in the virtual classroom, they are doing something more than just dictating the notes of biology and geography; they are touching and healing the tormented souls of their students. Let us salute them on Teacher’s Day.

This article first appeared in the print edition under the title “A salute to the teachers.” The writer is Professor of Sociology at JNU.

Read | Unsung Covid warriors: A teacher’s diary

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