I begin with an excerpt from an article I read recently-
“A few days ago Nell, my student came up to the desk, and looking at me steadily and without speaking, as usual, put on the desk her ink copy of the latest composition. Our rule is that on the ink copy there must be no more than three mistakes per page, or the page must be copied again. I checked her paper, and on the first page found five mistakes. I showed them to her, and told her, as gently as I could, that she had to copy it again, and urged her to be more careful– typical teacher’s advice. She looked at me, heaved a sigh, and went back to her desk. She is left-handed, and doesn’t manage a pen very well. I could see her frowning with concentration as she worked and struggled. Back she came after a while with the second copy. This time the first page had seven mistakes, and the handwriting was noticeably worse. I told her to copy it again. Another bigger sigh, and she went back to her desk. In time the third copy arrived, looking much worse than the second, and with even more mistakes.
At that point Bill Hull asked me a question, one I should have asked myself, one we ought all to keep asking ourselves: “Where are you trying to get, and are you getting there?”
It reminded me also of a story I used to read to my son when he was young. It was about a mother snail and a baby snail waiting to cross the road. Standing on one side, the mother would keep telling the baby snail – ‘Stop, Look, Listen.’
Putting both these points together was an epiphanic moment and I believe that this is one thing we must do as people again and again at many points in our lives – ‘Stop, Look, Listen – Where are you trying to get and are you getting there?’
In school, we so easily fall into a mechanistic mode to achieve what is all-important to the teacher – completing the syllabus. In our system, to finish teaching the content meant for the year becomes an end in itself and whether the child has learnt what he was taught and whether he has enjoyed what was taught becomes secondary. Much of what is taught is forgotten by the student by the time the next academic year rolls around and so needs to be relearned.
A progressive school such as the one I am working in has understood that the ideal outcomes of the process of learning (questioning, applying to real life…) is more important than looking at only the ‘finish the curriculum’ side of the educational equation. Unfortunately, when it comes to the High School, we still stick to the formula.
However, having been introduced to project-based learning and the Cambridge curriculum, I am glad that a generation in my school is growing up which is not only acquiring knowledge, but also using and managing that knowledge.
A major part of my teaching career was spent in schools where this shift had not occurred yet – the scope of education remained simply the imparting of knowledge with an occasional project thrown in here and there to satisfy the system. I have to confess that many times, I went with what was expected. Though I tried to make learning interesting, I do not think I accomplished what I now know is attainable in the realm of learning.
In my earlier essay about a teacher who influenced my life – it took me the better part of many days to decide on a teacher- I don’t remember a good teacher- I don’t remember passion or love- they did what they had to do and, job done, moved on.
I didn’t want to be THAT teacher at all. In fact, I was adamant that I didn’t want to be a teacher at all. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want. But, life has a way of throwing a curve ball at you and I became a teacher for all the wrong reasons.
So, the choice before me was – was I going to do what my teachers did – read the lesson, ask the review questions behind the lesson, and leave it at that or was I going to make a difference to children’s lives?
I began like the teachers I had in my life because I didn’t know any better.
Over the course of my first year in a Grade IX classroom, I taught students with remarkably different abilities. In the same class, I had students who read at the fifth-grade level and students whose abilities were comparable to a Grade XII child. I taught students who were eager to learn and students with a “who-cares” attitude.
In a month, I realized I was going nowhere with them. I spent hours learning the rules of Grammar which I hadn’t even done in school to equip myself with parroting it out in class, I read about the authors of texts that I had to read in class, I revised the points I had to teach in my Biology class – looking back, I myself would have gone to sleep.
I did not like what was happening – the bored looks that my students gave were like a slap in my face. I had to do something to ensure that I did not become that clichéd professor who drones on and on, as bored by the material as the class is.
Then I started my reading- how do I make sure they learn something in my classes?
I made small investments of my time – learned the students’ names, gave substantial feedback individually and in the class to students, would throw a debatable question at them so that my class room would become a hotbed of discussions, had role plays in class which ended up many times as comedy circuses…all these did not happen overnight. I read, I observed and relied on insights from students themselves.
Thinking back, knowing what I know now, I understand I could have made a bigger difference. But, for all that, I would like to believe that the line – ‘I teach, but they don’t learn.’ does not describe my teaching. Over the years, so many of my old students reconnect with me, thanking me for the difference I made to their lives. And that makes the sleepless nights I spent correcting their work, the endless hours planning projects and lessons all worthwhile because how else would I have come face to face with the magic a good teacher-student relationship provides!
Head- Senior School