I met a teacher extraordinaire

31 March 2018 4:30 pm

“A textbook is just a tool for me, just as a chalk, table or board is. I talk about things that are on their minds. I look at the reality of my students’ lives and the conditions they come from and try to meet their needs. We talk about life, sex, religion, anything…in an open environment. I pick up content and do comedy, drama and songs around it. We sing so many songs in a year that by the end of it they remember all the songs and they do not have to try to remember the content”

– Sridhar, a Government school Tamil teacher in Chennai.

To develop a Human Rights Education curriculum, I was in Chennai attending a workshop for Government school teachers, a workshop organised by Amnesty International India and  Institute of Social Education.

workshop in Chennai
Participants at the workshop in Chennai

It was here that Sridhar caught my attention – he was funny, eloquent and cared deeply about children. He kept saying, “We have to make sure that children enjoy the process and own the learning no matter how important we think the content is.” Sensing a passionate and dedicated teacher in him, I caught hold of Sridhar towards the end of the workshop to pick his brain.

I spoke with him for close to 2 hours and I only heard him say “I learn with them” and “I learn from them”; he never said “I taught them”. He told me “A teacher should not be like a TV where only one side communication happens but like a telephone where a conversation can happen. A teacher should be like a mountain – that is inspiring, generous and giving; like a flower –that you take with love and just looking at it shall make you happy; like earth – that doesn’t get angry with you when you dig it but only gives you water.”

I asked him – “Why did you become a teacher?” He wanted a job and money and becoming a teacher was the easiest path for him. But his first job as a teacher changed his outlook towards teaching. He began listening to children, understanding their backgrounds and became such good friends with them that the school asked him to become the warden of the hostel as well. That meant he had to work from morning 4 till night 12. “It was a great learning experience for me”, was all he had to say about that.

He then moved to a school that had children from a very poor neighbourhood. “We can preach morals to children. It is easy for us to tell them but we might not have any idea of their conditions. I went to their homes, ate their food and walked with them their streets. They were surprised that a teacher could do that for them. I learnt a great deal from them. I began buying and reading a lot of books of various educationists – Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire, etc. I began changing my approaches and tried new ways of dealing with students.”

He has been teaching for the past 10 years but hasn’t saved any money. He spends all his money to buy food, books and stationery for children or helping with college fees of some ex-students. His only personal indulgence is books.

At this point I must clarify that he mentioned all this as a matter of fact and sometimes even with humour but there was never a slight hint of pride. His revelations were a result of my prodding and persistent questioning.  In fact he said, “We should try to forget the help we do or the results because it might get to our head.”

Finally, I shall remember this message that he said he gives to his students – “We have 3, 4 or 5 years together. We can either chose to live this time – laugh and cry, learn and explore, debate and grow, feel the full spectrum of emotions  – or we can simply ‘stay’ in the school and leave after that.”

This opinion piece was written by Nischal, the Founder and Managing Trustee of Orenda Initiatives, an NGO working in the field of education. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Amnesty International India.