My Facebook timeline and message box are filled up with “Happy Teachers Day” from my former students of Sherubtse College. To my pleasant surprise too, many students who were not in my course, but happened to listen to me in morning college assemblies and guest lectures, also dropped heart-warming messages. To all of you, I can just say, “Thank you” for all the outpouring of love and gratitude.
Teaching is the only job I did where I am remembered – at least once a year. In all other positions I held, it seems people make extra efforts to forget you. Just kidding.
I had a short stint as a teacher – for three semesters in Sherubtse followed by a year in RTC. Yet, in those few years, I have come to love this profession, admire those who are doing it as lifelong career and enjoy the goodwill of so many students. Currently, I am teaching assistant at the University of Macau as a part of my doctoral studies.
Let me share my teaching experience and approach; what drives me and what could make teaching worthwhile. You can call this Eight-Fold Path in Teaching Profession.
Path #1: Every student is someone’s child. In the two-day drive from Thimphu to Kanglung, when I got myself assigned there in September of 2013, I had just one question on my mind: what makes a great teacher. I have excelled in almost everything I did in my life. Under no circumstances, I wanted to fail here. I couldn’t think of any great strategy until, somewhere, when I was crossing Thrumshingla, I got a call from my daughter, Tseten. It was a usual call to check where I had reached. But that call just reminded me that I was a father of a daughter, who was someone’s student. So, it sparked a related question: What would I wish from her teacher so that my daughter do well? Tseten had a terrific teacher when she was in Dr. Tobgyel School – Subho Banerjee, who wanted her to succeed more than I did. So, there was the answer to my search. Every student is someone’s child and that someone would like the child to succeed. Think of that someone as you. Make sure that each of your students succeed like how you would do to your own children. That’s why Don Bosco became one of the greatest educators in history. He treated all his students like his children.
Path #2: Avoid prejudice. Be loved. When I was receiving briefings in Thimphu I was warned not to be too idealistic and to be prepared to deal with so-called bad students. I really didn’t let that advice bother me. From my own experience of being a little devil myself in school, we often do things based on who were are as person, the circumstances we grew up with, and dreams each one of us cultivate for the future. In other words, we are all different. Understanding those differences is key to cultivating good connection with your students and opening the great potentials in each one of them. There is no harm in being loved and being popular as a teacher. As Rita Pierson once said, kids don’t learn from people they hate. Avoid prejudgment. As my late mother used to tell me, waktsa ray, soenam ray (Every child comes with one fortune). Your job is to help the student find that fortune.
Path #3: The Why question. All the teachers I met know what to teach. Many know how to teach. But only a few know why they teach. A good teacher needs to make the students understand why they are learning what is being taught. If you do that then, a very small effort from you will have them fired up. They will figure out on their own how to learn. I used to start every new semester and every new class with a simple assignment: to write an essay on Who am I? Why am I here? What am I doing? Likewise, in life the question why is more important than what. Take any situation. Many people know what to do. Few know how to do it. But not many know why they do what they do. That’s the difference between success and failure; between leaders and losers. Tony Robbins says adopting Why in life will make you a champion. What will instead make you mere spectator.
Path #4: Dare to disturb the universe. Literature students will recognise this phrase from a poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by TS Elliot. As teachers, we must dare to disturb the universe if we want our students to think out of the box, open their minds or look beyond. While you must deliver the curriculum (I do that too) there is no rule or policy that says you can’t teach more. Time, of course, is limited but you can find it if you have the will. In Sherubtse, I took extra classes with tea and samosa as incentives. Many students worked, fell asleep on the table in the lab, woke up and worked till the morning Sun – on several occasions. They just didn’t want to stop. Then, we had picnics and field trips where I taught them how to learn to trust one another, empathise and cherish every moment. We had potlucks dinners where we sang and danced – and share what we could bring.
Path #5: Don’t teach. Inspire. When I decided to become a teacher one thing that I promised myself was never to “teach” or “lecture” or preach – but share my knowledge, experiences and the little wisdom I had gathered. Most importantly, I resolved to tell the differences between the three. Hence, every communication theory I shared carried a direct story from the field. Learning is not only a transfer of knowledge. In this day and age, there is Lord Google and King Wikipedia where people can look up for the so-called knowledge. Knowledge is everywhere and these young kids can find them before you can even punch the password to your smartphone. Teaching is a personal, emotional, and spiritual journey – not just an intellectual exercise. Share your experiences. Make it relevant. Inspire them to take charge towards learning. Let them drive their own vehicle. After you get off the car (one day you will), they will keep driving on their own. Much later after I left Sherubtse I learnt that this is called experiential learning.
Path #6: Provide reasons to come to class. Not fear. Attendance was, and is, like a bible in Royal University colleges. If there is one thing I would eliminate immediately, that is it. For me, if your lessons and lectures are not worth listening to, there is no point seeking refuge behind a rule to ensure the students come to class. Your students should look forward to your class. Otherwise, you have failed. I rarely took attendance but while talking or during class exercise I would also do a mental survey of who were missing. Very few would miss my lessons anyway. I would know but I would never reprimand anyone. Instead, I would work harder to make the class so rewarding that the attending students would share with pride with the absentees. They should be like, “You missed the class? Oh, my God! You can’t imagine what you missed”.
Path #7: Build cooperation, not competition. Our educational system has one major flaw: grading the students in percentage. And thereby creating hierarchy – a caste system – in a country that is already so ridiculously hierarchal. By doing that we are creating unhealthy conflicts, divisions and jealousies. That’s bad for our small country. Little wonder then that no one listens to anyone in the government these days.
“This is your best chance to build long lasting friendships,” I used to tell my students ad nauseum. Now that most of them are out in the unforgiving world called jobs and careers – fighting lonely battles, I guess they realise what I meant back then. To their credit though, I noticed, many became close friends and there was lot of cooperation. Make sure your students build friendships and communities – not confrontations and ego.
Path # 8: Respond to questions with questions. Now this may sound rude but I hate to think of myself as the repository of knowledge. The role of teachers in this age of 4G and smartphones is not to give out answer but to instigate questions. Curiosity should be encouraged – not scorned. They should also make you think and challenge you as a teacher. Try to respond to questions with more questions so that it gets them to think further and deeper – and to think critically. I used to be often asked, “Sir, is there press freedom in our country?” And my answers were: Do you mean absolute press freedom or relative press freedom? There is a difference. Do you think there is press freedom even in countries like India or the US? Do you think Barkha Dutt really says everything she wants to say?
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, never gave answers. He sent people away with questions. Engage students to ask questions – not to recite answers from their memory. History was made by people who asked questions. E.g. What did Isaac Newton ask? What did Prince Siddharta seek?