“He takes a simple idea, wraps it around our head nice and slow, and then pulls and blows our minds.” These are the words my son used to describe his teacher once again, and I could not help thinking that teaching is the art of magical enchantment. Great teachers are like witches and wizards of their magic craft: the mighty Dumbledores, Dronacharyas and Gandalfs of our times. They light the spark of curiosity, wonder and thrill at the possibilities of the world around us.
If I was to ask you to look back at the time when you were in school and think of a teacher who changed your life completely, I am sure you will not talk about a teacher who was just highly knowledgeable and well-informed. You will remember that one teacher who made you feel good about yourself, whose eyes would “light up” when you greeted her, who respected and honoured the dignity of each person in the classroom and made learning so much fun. The simple truth is that children do not learn from teachers they do not like. When children experience worthiness, acceptance and are given an emotionally safe space, the magic of learning is inevitable.
When I was in senior school, I thought I had a special connect with my school principal. He gave me a deep sense of worthiness. Even after leaving school, I carried that feeling with me. Twenty-five years on, we had our batch e-reunion (as everybody was spread across the globe) and one question raised was, “Which teacher in school changed your life?” Imagine my astonishment when most people named him! Spurred by this discovery, I checked with my brother, who was my senior in school and some other seniors and juniors, and everybody named him. A part of me was irked, but a large part of me was left in wonder at this incredible power of a teacher to touch so many lives.
As a mother and a therapist, I have seen children go through this magical transformation every time they have an exceptional teacher. I remember working with a child who was struggling with depression and recurrent self-harm. We had tried all kinds of interventions for months, but the darkness was not budging. Then the school decided to change his section and put him with a teacher whose magic skills were known far and wide (no, not Hogwarts). And magic is what she did as in a couple of month’s time this child had not only pushed depression out of his life but was actively involved in the class play, being a buddy for another child with learning disability and making new friends. When I asked him what had changed, he replied with a shrug and, “Dunno!” Not satisfied with this answer and thoroughly intrigued, I contacted the teacher and asked her what “strategies” she had used. Her answer was very simple, “I just make sure the child knows that he is loved, he belongs and that the whole class is with him. He is not alone.”
I remember just sitting still for a long time after talking to her as the power of her words struck me. All that talk and the buzz we hear about classroom management, teaching strategies, inclusion all amount to nothing if the teacher is not able to love each and every child in the class and make sure they know it.
I can say this with full conviction that people I admire most in the world are teachers. However, I can also say this with an equal sense of despair that the people that invoke most anger and pain in me are teachers too. These are the teachers who perpetuate the culture of shame in classrooms. These are the teachers who incite the class to ridicule children who are different in any way due to their disability, race, sexual orientation, religion, looks or family background. These are the teachers who make PTMs about humiliating the children and their parents with the report cards reading, “not up to the mark”, “not able to keep up”, “not at par”, “not using her potential” – every “not” shrinking them further from any possibilities of blossoming. These are the children who are rejected, branded and who come to school for the daily disgrace of never being good enough. I have witnessed children being abused, left unheard and invisible and who have internalised the story of being somewhat damaged. My heart sinks when I meet teachers who dislike their jobs and do it just because it is “convenient”, “time pass”, “nothing else to do”, or “gets me some pocket money.”
The only thing that keeps me from becoming bitter is the knowledge that the problem is not the teachers, but our society that encourages and propagates the rusty and gnarled practices that are eroding our children’s early years. Great teachers are like warriors. Their craft requires a daily practice of immense fortitude, compassion and courage. Courage to walk into a class with a smile even when they are exhausted. Courage to love a child who feels unloved. Courage to persevere and find that light in that child when the whole world is telling him that he is no good. Courage to never give up on a child. Courage to speak up for the child who has no voice.
I do not think people from any other profession have such an impact on us as teachers. We might leave school at the age of 18, but we carry our teachers in our hearts for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, it is full of warm memories and at times, just painful scars.
It is my deep faith that the magical relationship that a teacher builds with each child is the heart, the lifeblood and the barebones of learning. That’s one of the reasons I have spent years reading, researching and observing great teachers in their labs i.e. their classrooms. Like most magic, great teaching is also no rocket science. Teachers are like prisms, waiting to catch the light and make splendid rainbows. Yes, the most important element is catching the light. Every child carries this light but somehow it gets overlooked, pushed aside or dimmed out.
We need a call to action not against teachers or schools but against the culture of shaming that seeps in and damages so many lives. There is nothing like a good teacher or a bad teacher – it all comes down to whether the teacher has the courage to stand up to the culture of shame and give the message of WOW:
W – You are Worthy as you are now! I will not define your worth by your marks, abilities or background.
O – You are Original! I will value your uniqueness, what makes you – ‘you’ and not compare you to others.
W – You are Welcome! I will accept you as you are, I will not shame you and will make sure I give you an emotionally safe space to grow.
The core thing in WOW is “no matter what” – you are worthy, you are original and you are welcome – no matter what your gender, ability, marks, sexuality, looks or background.
On this Teachers’ Day, let’s commit to practising courage with “WOW, no matter what” so that together we can build a world where no child is left invisible.