Why Do Teachers Teach?

21 Apr

The teaching profession has been affected by a crisis. Teachers have become a confused collective, though individually they manage to find their own path

Why do you teach?” It was the end of a transformative year for our teacher innovators, and they were graduating that day. Impulsively, I dropped my prepared speech and spoke from the heart, as one does when teaching.

And halfway through talking about their journey in education innovation, I stopped to ask them this — Why do you teach?

A question that they had answered many times before, I am sure. But a question that teachers ask themselves often in the midst of chaos, and unruly playgrounds and cheerful children.

Their answers were awesome. One said, to bring change to society. Another, to help the children grow up to do good. Another — to help them understand the creator and creation. The answers kept pouring in. And not one of them spoke of exams. Or marks. Or syllabus. Or curriculum. Each of them was speaking of education, not schooling or just teaching.

These teachers were not from elite schools. Or progressive, as they are called now. They were from budget schools. For a whole year they had devoted their personal time to join with the STiR team  and worked together to hone and share their ideas with generosity. They lived and worked in the real world of students playing truant, of parents unable to support learning, of school heads keen on order and a world with not too many resources to support their work.

They taught to make a difference.

The teaching profession is judged harshly in popular rhetoric. And rightly so, for teachers are the bearers of standards. They hold the proscenium. They hold the charge that will light up the future. Or destroy it. Each teacher is personally responsible for building or destroying lives. Whether you like it or not, you matter if you are a teacher. That is a lot of power given to an individual. With power comes responsibility. And meaning, even if distorted. To give so much power to an individual is to trust. When teachers break this trust by berating or abusing the little ones in their care, or merely by being absent, then they break a piece of the future.

Strong words, I will admit. But the waters have been muddied. The teaching profession is in crisis. Teachers are a confused collective, even as individual teachers find their own path.

It is not wrong to hold teachers responsible. Too many of them have refused to look beyond their training or their own current limitations to make it a better world for their children. “This is the way it is done” is a constant refrain, as if there is only one template for teaching thousands who pass through their classrooms. Or tutorials. This is the best of them, the worst are those who destroy the spirit of curiosity and the will to learn by what they say and do in the classroom. All teacher-bashing is not wrong.

Many teachers work under very difficult conditions, many others cause difficult conditions. Teachers both incite violence and often have to deal with violent threats from students and parents. Teachers deal with a wide range of difficult conditions but that is true of many professions. The de-escalation of violence falls to the lot of the teacher. Why would any one want to get into this profession then? Why would they teach if the circumstances make it difficult for them to teach?

Teachers don’t work merely for pay, non-monetary considerations are also important. Teachers, when asked have said that they work for maintenance of lifestyle, for respect, for a sense of community. Some teachers become celebrities, others legends. Many have taught two-to-three generations of families and are connected socially and economically with their communities, which enhances their commitment. Till we understand the reasons for teaching, how can we design means to improve the teachers’ motivation levels?

The key question to answer here is the purpose and role of a teacher in the classroom. Is the teacher a guide or a mentor? Does the teacher lead or facilitate? Does the teacher discipline or foster? Or entertain. Or just hold the fort and keep the assembly line of students moving? Maybe they must teach only to make students employable? Or is the teacher a beacon, inspiring students to do better? Till we have better answers to these, we will not know what to do to recruit and retain teachers who work with a will to become better teachers.



This was published in the Daily Pioneer on April 18, 2013 and is linked here and http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/they-have-much-learning-to-do.html


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