Magic or maddening teachers

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Our last training session was an inward journey. We went to look for answers (questions too) in the untrodden patches of ‘our-world’, these distant corners we rarely acknowledge as our busy lives seal them off. To get to these rich sources, you have to dig a little. Unwrap layers, think or write them thin so that the dormant answers can surface to surprise you.

We teach who we are … and who we fail to be. Teachers are like spirits hovering in the classroom making magic or madness happen. Not necessarily directly, not by spraying stuff right into students’ faces, but by diffusing feelings, attitudes and beliefs that silently seep into the learners. Most teachers leave an imprint, some deeper, some barely recognizable traces. And these traces are tightly intertwined to who we are or who we fail to be.

In our last seminar we travelled back in time and tried to remember the teacher we’d appreciated a lot. My colleague talked about an ‘ugly’ bottle-glassed teacher who wore the same old tweed jacket year in and year out, combed his hair in a funny way and was young and old at the same time. But, his lessons were always calm, well-structured and had the magic capacity to make the learners feel at ease and confident. I was intrigued and asked my colleague to dig a little deeper. What else could she remember? What about the voice? The gestures? Sanctions? How did he correct the students? How did he give feedback? And that’s where my colleague remembered that he didn’t even talk that much. He was calm, reassuring, more like an all-embracing scaffolding helping students raise to their own feet. He didn’t need to go into sanctions as students hardly misbehaved. They had no need to provoke limits as these were so well defined. From what the other teacher said I could only conclude one thing – that tweed-clad teacher was solid as a rock. He harbored so much self-confidence and calm he didn’t need to mess around with limits or naughty learners. Because the learners felt calm and self-confident too. How powerful is that!

And then I remembered a teacher we used to fear and hate in the secondary school. Even more, we loathed him because of the way he made us feel, how he pushed us into a corner, how he enjoyed being superior and tyrannical. His weapon was fear, and he had acquired quite a mastery of it. But now, looking back, I am sure that fear was not simply a tool he used, fear had enveloped him, fear was eating him from the inside. He could find and manipulate our fears because it was all too familiar to him. He knew fear. He knew it so well he could smell it from far and coax it into the daylight, twist it, play around with it. He was suffering from fear and thus, teaching with fear.

But I also remember a university lecturer, an Irish woman, who was poetry to me. Poetry and words and rhythm and love of literature. She had such a frail figure but powerful mind and feelings. I will never forget the time she brought a book by Doris Lessing to class and read a passage to us. I can still see how she held the book, how she turned the pages with her long and slender fingers, how her voice and body and breathing got captured by the story, how she forgot everything but the book. And I knew I wanted to be poetry too. I knew she had touched, stirred something very, very deep inside of me. The ice had began to melt and I discovered I had loves and passions in me that had lain dormant till that day.

What will I stir in my students? What will I coax into the daylight? How do I make them feel? Can I say that? Can I see that? My students will maybe tell me one day. But till then I will take care of myself as a human being who has passions and loves and interests. I will nurture the good, the hopeful, the soulful sides in me hoping they’ll shine through.

If you want to become a better teacher, start by taking care of yourself as a person … because in the end you teach who you are … or fail to be.

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