Teachers Don’t Need Recognition — They Need a Democratic Classroom

“Textbook culture can suffocate and stifle students’ and teachers’ creativity,” writes a former school teacher.

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

Teachers’ Day is one of those rare occasions on which almost all stakeholders acknowledge the contribution(s) of one of the most overworked, underappreciated, and multi-tasking of ‘cogs’ — the teacher. In India, particularly in our schools, the teacher is more than just a classroom educator.

S/he is required to be a disciplinarian, bureaucrat, and administrator — among other things. Constant “planning” for lessons, the unrelenting cycle of assignment-test-examination corrections, take away from the time the teacher actually gets to prepare for a class.

Caught Within the Stuffy Confines of Textbook Culture

Due to the sheer number of sundry responsibilities a school teacher is entrusted with, s/he usually becomes the first target of blame — whenever something goes wrong in the system.

School teachers tend to be under the constant scrutiny of overzealous parents, and bear the brunt, especially when their wards don’t fare well in competitive tests and exams.

These teachers are then at the mercy of the administration, for ‘tarnishing’ the school’s reputation by delivering below par results.

That’s not all. Having to work within the suffocating confines of a ‘textbook culture’ — where completion of the curriculum is the main task — the teacher’s creativity suffers at the altar of bureaucracy. This takes a toll on not just their physical day-to-day capabilities, but also their mental and psychological well-being.

Breaking Classroom Barriers

The classroom is a space that has its own power structure, and this needs to be navigated carefully by the teacher, in order to promote an egalitarian learning environment. In schools, teachers are referred to as ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’, while in universities they are addressed as doctors, professors, lecturers, and readers. While formal terminology may be required to draw a distinction between the learner and the teacher, all these terms reinforce hierarchies of privilege and power in the classroom.

A teacher should ideally combine their intellectual prowess with an empathetic approach to teaching, and allow for a space that blurs these hierarchies.

A teacher could have countless books to their name, endless entries in peer-reviewed journals, and get regular entry into academic conferences and networks. But how many such ‘intellectuals’ actually make the painstaking effort to break the academic ceiling, dismantle jargon, and truly engage with the students? And, more importantly, how many acknowledge — that at times — their ways and methods of teaching can go wrong or are counter-intuitive for their most important audience — the students.

It is not just students who come to learn/unlearn and relearn concepts which they probably took for granted; teachers have just as important a role to play in these continual cycles of learning.

The best teacher is one who goes the extra mile to work within the system (revolutions are tough), and chops away at classroom hierarchy bit by bit. The refusal to be addressed as ‘di’, ‘da’, ‘comrade’, ‘ji’, ‘guruji’ and other honorifics, goes a long way in making way for a more democratic exchange of ideas and knowledge. Thus, teachers are students, and students are teachers.


The Ideal Classroom: A Space for Democratic Thinking

The teacher’s job is not merely to prepare students for examination; it is to challenge students, bring them out of their comfort zones, help them question each aspect of their privilege — to understand the world around them. It is also to challenge themselves, and acknowledge that because of the position(s) the teachers find themselves in, they are part of the unequal structure of power prevalent in the education system.

Teachers ought to acknowledge this structure, and endeavour to not just question it, but also find ways to challenge it. This, in the form of introducing and compiling reading lists and alternative curricula, which the mainstream ones omit or delete.

An ideal classroom inculcates a spirit of democratic thinking, where students are not afraid to voice their views for fear of being put down, and teachers acknowledge that their students are equal stakeholders in this learning journey.

Of course, critical disagreement between the two is always healthy, and ensures that they acknowledge their mistakes and work towards self-improvement.

Moral & Intellectual Superiority Don’t Belong in a Classroom

Every student wants to learn. But every student comes from a different background, and has different ways of approaching a subject. The teacher cannot rely on a manual, or a one-size-fits-all method of learning. It is precisely for this reason that the teacher has to take the (individual) student’s interest as paramount, superseding parents, administrators, inspectors etc, in order to make learning not just wholesome, but fun for all.

Teachers should not use their ‘superior’ status to put down students.

Diktats such as “please read my book before you come to class”, or admonishments such as “how dare you disagree with me”, only seek to reinforce the age-old hierarchy which alienates students further.

Thus, a teacher must be empathetic, selfless and introspective. Moral and intellectual superiority do not belong in a classroom — the classroom represents a space where any idea can be challenged. It is for this reason that the teacher becomes one of the most significant channels through which a student understands and navigates knowledge, and the world.


Teachers Don’t Need a Day to be Eulogized

On Teachers’ Day (the idea of the day itself can be a debate for another day), we must remember that teachers don’t need a day to be eulogized. In fact, they do not seek eulogies, greatness — or even material recognition; teaching is a selfless service. If we want to give teachers something, it ought to be space — the space to do what they (are supposed) to do best — bring out the best in their students. An environment that is judgement-free, a space which, while acknowledging inequality and power, attempts to democratize through a mutually beneficial engagement between teacher and student, where both roles can be interchanged.

And finally, let’s stop taking teachers for granted, and thinking of them as ‘troubleshooters’. They are only human.

So, on this Teachers’ Day, let’s remember that we are all teachers in one way or the other; how we teach each other will go a long way in shaping a just and democratic society — something most of us long for.

(Pradyumna Jairam is a PhD student of History at King’s College, London. He taught history and political science at two schools in Delhi between September 2012 and September 2016. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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