Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Being a Teacher...

Today being “the first day of the rest of my life”, allow me these musings…

….somewhere as I grew up, I became a “teacher” (a term that makes more personal sense to me than being a “professor”)….

[Why? How?... well, such conclusions are always post-hoc, but perhaps I became one, because I had hoards of role-models around me – my grandfather (a theosophist who became the principal of their Varanasi school, and at one time, was the private tutor to the JK Singhanias), my grand-uncle who became the principle of the Gwaliar’s Scindia School, my two uncles who were profs at Delhi and Bombay Universities…, etc.]

… As I grew up, I also recall a dream/fantasy in my teens and early-20s of an Ashram that I would start, to teach the marginalized children… (need-less to say, the fact that I ended up teaching in a business-school where I interact with people who are “marginalized” from the rest of 95%+ of society is an irony… another story…)

But coming back to being/becoming a teacher

It was not easy… how do you “teach” – i.e., make a difference in someone else’s life? Can you?

When I read Jerry Harvey’s “Learning not to Teach”, I could resonate with him…. He wrote:

“The longer I am employed as a professor, the less sure I become as to what a teacher is supposed to do. When I stand up in front of a class and someone says explicitly or implicitly, "teach me," I become confused because I seldom feel as if I have anything to teach...

…..anything of value can't be taught, but that much of value can be learned. I suppose that's one reason I find teaching so unsatisfying and learning so much fun.“

And then I came across this quotation from Rabindra Nath Tagore, which made so much sense:

“A very great musician came and stayed in our house. He made one big mistake… (he was) determined to teach me music, and consequently no learning took place. Nevertheless, I did casually pick up from him a certain amount of stolen knowledge.”

This, of course, led me to many academic explorations into issues of learning, tacit knowledge, Nonaka, John Sealy Brown, KM, etc. – but at the heart of all this, I realized that simple – and somewhat shattering – realization as a teacher:

You can’t teach anything to anyone; people learn what they want to learn… what need to learn.

{in retrospect, it was clear; I (should have) learned it the hard/frustrating way: …when our daughter was 2-3 years old, we thought that a stimulating environment will help her to grow. And so, we got crayons, a sketch book, and plastered the walls with cardboard sheets for her… the idea was to give her a medium for “freedom of expression”… parent/teacher, the frustrating part was that she was having more fun rolling the crayons on the floor (or just dropping them to see them break) than in using them on the paper…}

I guess, she was experimenting – and learning something (maybe about gravity)… but it was definitely not what we “wanted” her to learn at that time ;0)}

I found an analogue to this as I taught courses…. Students perhaps, learn more about how to “crack” the quiz/exam, than about the subject….

So it again all boiled down to: You can’t teach, but people learn…. Though, you can “facilitate” learning.

This issue of “facilitating learning” was quite seductive. For a long time, I felt that I have (or can develop) the power to create an atmosphere/ environment, in which people feel “facilitated” to “learn” and “grow” as a human being… the issue, however, still remained:

but how??... How does one “facilitate” learning & growth?

…Life takes its own turns, and mysteriously communicates… and so, though I never thought that I will be going through someone’s private diaries … but that also happened…

…which was a learning of another kind… to quote:

“I learnt once again that the self exists in relations to the other, but not necessarily to confirm the Other, or to be confirmed by the Other. Beauty in any relationship must be achieved though truth and some amount of genuineness - it is not a part of the basic givens of life…

...I think the sun facilitates growth, the rain facilitates growth; they facilitate growth by just being there, by being what they are. The sun does not rise - and the clouds do not rain - so that the plants will grow, but their being there is invaluable to the growth…”

This seemed so simple and easy: all that facilitating learning required was to “be yourself

Over a period of years, I have come to realize that this is really not as easy and simple as it seems…

…specially when:

• You know that “being oneself” is not a statement; it is an extremely personal – often an uncomfortable - continuous, and ever-changing process of self discovery, and

• You are standing in front of a class of intelligent people – and are part of a system – which expects you to teach!!!


Kush said...

Wonderful post sir! :-)

P.S said...

Good thoughts Sir.
Came across your site, while browsing. I agree with the 'facilitate learning '. Its nice to see you understand its necessity and implore more on that.
One question : What do you think it will take to change people perception
about the conventional learning ?

bombay dosti said...

You know, in everything I "facilitate" in HR, like performance appraisals, training programmes,engagement initiatives this is the one question that haunts me. That I could put the process in place, but the true success of the same would come only if everyone involved truly wants it. At the same time, i keep thinking, because of the process, "something better than nothing" happens...
Its different from what you are speaking about, but then it just struck me :)
But then, this post was insightful in the way, that even the 'teacher" has be himself/herself for the learning process :)

Madhukar said...

Oh, in organisations, the HR professional has no other option but to "create processes"... The reason being that, unfortunately, by almost an unconscious choice, the HR professionals have ceased dealing with Human "Beings", and depersonalised them (and oneself)into Human "Resources" :(

Jerre Harvey had one chapter in his book "Abilene Complex" called "Eichmann in the Organizations"... a must read for any professional in people-related vocation...

Avantika A. said...

Vey insightful post, relevant to what is happening to education today.
I come from an education/developmental psychology background, and what you say about learning is so true. Piaget shares similar ideas when he says that children create their own learning when they interact with the environment around them.
Today we dont allow that. In an attempt to teach we're in fact restricting their environments. They arent allowed independent learning.
A teacher who recognises this and allows her students the freedom to think, explore and question is providing the best sort of learning there is to be got.

Anonymous said...

Dear Madhukar Sir,

One of my friends insisted that I read your this post of yours. I work as an RJ for an online kannada radio station ( I decided to dedicate a special episode for the teachers who have inspired all of us. And I must say I am inspired by this post of urs. In my life, I have been inspired by teachers and lecturers who have been as you have mentioned "just been there", by being themselves, they have inspired me in more ways than one. I would like to seek your permission to quote excerpts from your article on my show. I would be obliged if you granted me permission to do so.

You can write to me on

Hoping to hear from you soon.


Ajju said...

Couldn't have been expressed better.. At best I can facilitate learning, by being myself.. In the process, I might enable some people to look at things differently, help them grow and reach their own potential. Simple, but powerful nontheless !

shanks said...

Bahut Khub!!! I have always felt much the same..but I have always felt the difference between the teacher in whose presence I learnt and others..

Praveen Goswami said...

Grt Article

mathai said...

Why is it that in Consumer Behaviour one spends a lot of time trying to understand what a customer needs, but in HR we hardly do? Is the word CHOICE in the domain of Consumer Behaviour? Now do our students. If students dont enjoy going to class, then why do we run institutions and force them to attend to get marks and to get attendance for a degree? What if we did not have a degree at the end of it? How would teachers behave?

mathai said...