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        Volume 10 |Issue 43 | November 18, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Lessons Learned

(Part I)

Farah Ghuznavi

These are not the best of times for teachers. Let me rephrase that, these are not the best of times for good teachers. Two of my friends teach at college (intermediate/higher secondary) level in the UK. For different reasons, after years of dealing with children and young people, they are both feeling exhausted and demotivated. I should say at the outset that they are extremely dedicated to their work - both view teaching very much as a vocation - and to their students, so I was disturbed to hear them express these views. Social justice is also an important issue for my friends, which is why they choose to continue teaching in state sector institutions, despite having received better offers of employment elsewhere.

For one of them, the strains of navigating disciplinary issues for a generation of students who come from fairly standard backgrounds, but have often not had the most stable of home lives, is becoming too much. According to her, "They can be extremely rude. They are insolent, occasionally hostile, and all too frequently use foul language. It's maddening, but we are supposed to avoid reacting too strongly. Essentially, teachers must bend over backwards not to say or do anything that can be deemed to hurt the student's feelings or infringe on their rights. But such consideration is a one-way street. It makes it very hard to maintain a minimum of discipline - even that which is required just to facilitate learning in the classroom."

My other friend is married to a social worker, and feels that too many of his students take for granted what is offered to them by the system. Students at his college are not significantly underprivileged, but choose to play the "victim game", and have an attitude of entitlement that he suspects is related to parents who do not value education themselves. His survival strategy is to focus on nurturing the young people who respond to his attempts to reach out to them, and do the best to instil some learning in the rest.

Basically, both my friends are paying the price for their dedication in a system that does not value commitment, or give them the opportunity to do their best work. In Bangladesh, on the other hand, the problem is usually (though not always) the opposite. Parents who care very much struggle to get their children into what they consider good schools, and yet the issue of teachers that are overly-harsh, inflexible in their teaching methods, or simply uncaring, crops up again and again in almost any discussion related to education. Private tutors have become de rigeur for anyone who can afford them, and are considered essential, where once such a role was non-existent simply because it was unnecessary.

Of course, there is no question that there are still teachers out there who are stand out from the norm, and continue doing a good job, sometimes against the odds. In fact, I recently had the privilege of observing a group of five-year-olds from one school who were impressive in terms of their engagement, interest and obedience during a school trip – as their teacher had assured me that they would be! But from all accounts, such individuals are too often the exception to the rule. And most of them teach in a small minority of schools, which are often accessible only to relatively wealthy people.

Many of the schools that, just a generation ago, had excellent reputations, now seem to have become overwhelmed by a combination of student numbers, faculty politics and sliding standards. It makes me sad when I hear these kinds of discussions, not least because I believe that teaching is genuinely one of the most important jobs a person can have. A good teacher's influence is second only to a parent's; it is a position of tremendous privilege and should be recognised as such - by teachers themselves, as well as by their students and society at large.

Having been through a number of educational institutions (and no, I was not chucked out of any of them; my parents made the decision to move me on the basis of changes in our location, and what they considered to be better educational opportunities), I have probably encountered a higher than average number of teachers in my school life, and I can honestly say that many of them left their mark - in one form or another!

Of course, a few of those unfortunates might make similar claims about me. I have always been one of those people with the doubtful blessing of bringing out strong reactions in others - surprisingly often, this is not as a result of actually doing anything myself, but due to whatever perceptions or preconceptions others choose to nourish. My relationships with various teachers have not been an exception to this particular rule. As a result, especially during my years in Holy Cross School, my teachers tended to be divided into those who violently and somewhat inexplicably disliked me, versus those who just as strongly and equally inexplicably defended me.

Until I experienced an epiphany in Class Eight, I had largely gone through my school years passing my exams, but not doing particularly well. When one of my strongest defenders, my class teacher Miss Rokeya, told me that year that she simply could not understand why I refused to do more than the bare minimum of study, especially when I had such nice parents and could easily do better, the penny finally dropped. I began to feel terribly guilty that I was letting down not only my nice parents, but also my teacher, who clearly cared about me when I had given her no reason to. My reformation, in all honesty, was spectacular - I went from being ranked 37th in a class of 50 students, to 4th in the space of one quarter. I don't know who was more surprised, my teachers or myself!

It's probably true to say that one of the reasons that happened is precisely because it was Miss Rokeya rather than anyone else who gave me that heartfelt speech. I knew that she was one of my well-wishers; and despite my lack of attention, she had consistently tried to engage me in the geography classes that she had the responsibility for. Another reason for my sudden interest in academic results was that I'd just had my first encounter with Miss Katherine. This tiny lady was a stiff-backed martinet standing at well below 5 feet tall, who had no trouble ruling a class of 50 unruly students with an iron fist. That too, when she was teaching a subject as unexciting (as far as the majority were concerned), as history!

Yet despite that, Miss Katherine did manage to ensure that every one of her students passed, by drilling the knowledge into us during class - she never relied on homework to teach us anything - and then grilling us regularly with a combination of quizzes, contests and question-and-answer sessions. She figured out quickly how to get the best out of me. The truth was, I liked history, but learning all the dates and facts was a challenge, and I just wasn't sure that I wanted to invest that much time in the pursuit of knowledge. There were so many more interesting things to do, like read or daydream. Or if all else failed, watch TV.

...to be continued


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