Teacher, educate thyself

This article was published in the September 2007 issue of the Education magazine, Educare.

Will a gardener ever insult the plants he is nurturing? Then why do educators do so?

Recently, a story made front page news in the national newspapers about how school children should not be admonished with condescending words like ‘idiot’, ‘fool’ etc and such acts too should come under what is called ‘corporal punishment’. One newspapers reported, “Making a student kneel down or stand for hours and pinching or slapping him or her could land teachers in trouble as all acts involving insult or humiliation to the child could soon be banned in schools. Taking a serious view of increasing incidences of violence on children in schools, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has expanded the definition of corporal punishment to include even small acts. NCPCR chairperson Shantha Sinha has written to all chief secretaries recommending that there should be no gradations while judging corporal punishment and noted that ‘small acts’ should not be condoned as they actually lead to gross violations.”

In a similar article, somebody had even suggested that an FIR should be lodged against the teachers for behaving like that. A week later, teachers and principals from various schools replied that while children cannot be addressed like that, penalizing the teachers in the manner suggested was taking things too far. A teacher even asked that if the child is disrespectful to the teachers as some students are likely to be, would that child be similarly punished?

The story above was preceded by a couple of stories on how children had grievously suffered physical punishment at the hands of their teachers. There cannot be two opinions about the fact that children cannot be punished physically or humiliated. “Words harm more than the sword” is a saying that is applicable to adults and is even more so to sensitive children. Children tend to be sensitive and their self-esteem should not be hurt at all. The NCPCR person is right about the expression ‘small act’. It is said that a small leak can sink a big ship and a small spark can cause a big fire. Who knows how the child takes it and how it multiplies in his or her mind? It could create a permanent grouse against the school and studies in the child’s mind, which may be very tough for both the students and parents to handle. I know a couple of cases where the so-called “dumb” children did much better when shifted to another school. How is one then to decide whether it is the school, which is at fault or the child.? Even well-experienced vocational psychologists are not always able to pinpoint a grown up person’s potential. Who then is the teacher to decide the child’s potential?

Ironically, the teacher’s role as educator is diametrically opposite of what has been reported in the papers. In this context, Wipro’s chairman Azim Premji had once said in an article as a parent a couple of years ago in The Times of India.

“The primary purpose of a school is to guide the child’s discovery of herself and her world and to identify and mature the child’s talents. Just as each seed contains the future tree, each child is born with infinite potential. In the article, he suggested that many teachers and parents try to be potters instead of gardeners in moulding their children’s future. Imagine a school which sees children as seeds to be nurtured — here the teacher is a gardener who tries to bring out the potential already present in the child. This is very different from the current view, which sees the child as clay to be moulded where the teachers and parents are potters deciding what shape the clay should take. There is an old Chinese saying, ‘Give a seed to a potter and you shall have a bonsai.’ In a nutshell, as a teacher and parent, be a gardener, not a potter. Has anybody seen a gardener insult a plant? He nurtures it like his own child. The fact is that some genuine practical compulsions apart, teachers are simply not aware of their real role- Education is helping the child realise his potentialities.

What happens when teachers do not behave as educators — they end up in the wrong professions.

Maybe the teachers are idiots because they did not behave like educators. This is because some vocational psychologists try to know the victim’s interest as a child which, ideally, is something that a teacher should probe proactively as according to the great philosopher Socrates, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”. Teachers, when they behave like instructors end up mistreating children.

I once had the opportunity of visiting a school of ADHD children where I saw a big photograph of Albert Einstein at the reception. When I asked the reason this is what they had to say, “Mr Einstein suffered from dyslexia. His photograph is installed here as an inspiration to parents whose children suffer from learning disabilities”. Many so called intelligent people need inspiration when they face problems that are beyond their control. From that perspective, in school, the so called dumb child is facing problems that are beyond his capacities vis-à-vis the so called intelligent child. Even grown-up adults need a high degree of emotional intelligence to cope with such problems; then, how can the child be called an idiot? Coping with conventional dumbness requires a lot of intelligence. People who are good at conventional education and go on to become doctors, engineers, CAs etc and live with a high degree of self esteem in contrast to some of the fields in the arts sphere where it can take a long time to determine even the basic occupation. (In many examples of career switches, people opt for arts later in life). The emotional and financial implications are not easy to face as creative people, because of mood swings, tend to suffer more in the wrong occupation. In a larger perspective, they are facing tougher problems. How can they be called idiots?

The school authorities handling children with learning disabilities feel that they should be handled carefully as they are often deemed ‘careless’, ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’ etc and if not carefully handled, they may end up as juvenile offenders or have substance abuse problems. Often their problem is not of comprehension but lack of reading, writing and arithmetic skills, but deficiency in one field often mean efficiency in some other field. Some of the world’s most famous dyslexics apart from Einstein are Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Alva Edison, Mark Twain, Winston Chuchill, Woodrow Wilson, Tom Cruise etc. This clearly shows that circumspection of a high order is required before judging someone harshly and prematurely.

The basic issue is to enhance the self esteem of the child. There are some schools which have abolished the grading system so that some children should not feel inferior and like in boxing, only children of like abilities are pitted against one another. (heavy weight with heavy weight etc). There are several examples which state that the functional talent is something that can be revealed only in real life situations — dumb students reveal better practical intelligence and vice-versa. Some Nobel Prize winners have conceded that not being conventionally well qualified worked to their advantage as they could get creative ideas, which may not have been possible otherwise. Some companies prefer to take candidates from less prestigious institutions because the students from the topmost institutes are egoistic. So the so-called dumbness can actually be an advantage in real life. Calling any child an idiot is not only premature but is something beneath basic human dignity and diametrically against what the teacher as educator is really expected to do- develop potential and enhance self esteem.

The problem is, who educates the educators. Teachers enhancing the self esteem of their students can be explained by one of the all time great songs of Hindi Cinema, Amar Prem which explores what can happen when people do not play their real roles or do the reverse of what they are supposed to do.

Chingari koi bhadke to saavan use bujhaaye,
Saavan jo agan lagayee, use kaun bujhaye


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