Another Teachers’ Day has gone by on 5 September. Newspapers and social media have, as every year, reported speeches extolling the virtues of the profession and expressions of gratitude. Some companies have used the occasion to sell their wares, tapping into the warm and fuzzy feeling about teachers that all this evokes. This admiration for the profession is strangely absent the rest of the year. Teachers are more often than not seen as the cause of the problems in education, deserving of derision. Securely employed, often absent, and not committed to their jobs—so goes the popular narrative about
This contradiction arises from a mix of three kinds of factors, and their interaction. First, the expression of goodwill is intended for specific teachers. These are often “my teachers” and “teachers of my children”, the bad ones are the large numbers who teach the vast masses, mostly in government schools. Second, some of the goodwill is a homage to the notion of the ideal teacher, and a lament for what should be, but is not. Third, teachers as a group are assigned the primary blame for the ills of the education system.
Let’s look at the third factor more closely. Public advocacy has certainly succeeded over the past 15 years in elevating quality as the most important issue in education in India. The simple (perhaps simplistic) analysis of the issue begins by noting that children in schools are not learning what they should, i.e., to read, write and do basic math. From the statement of this problem, most people jump quickly to what seems to them to be logical, unfortunately using information selectively.
The first step in this analysis is the idea that since most children are in school across India and have teachers, the reason for poor learning outcomes can only be ineffective teaching and teachers. Why so? The rough and ready explanation is: The people involved must not be working adequately and perhaps are not competent enough for the job. This is a faulty and largely false diagnosis. Why is it then so influential?
There are media stories, studies and popular anecdotes that convince people about the validity of their analysis. All reports, studies and arguments counter to this narrative are ignored completely. This is the classic phenomenon of selective cognition to confirm a theory, while discounting and rationalizing facts that don’t fit the theory. This particular theory is deeply satisfying because it has a sense of closure, and a group to hold responsible for the mess in our school education. A phenomenon called scapegoating.
The reality is that teachers are not any different from any large workforce group. With eight million teachers, it cannot be any other way, unless they are particularly chosen with great care to be shirkers, which they certainly are not. Much like the workforce groups of IT professionals or accountants, their effort in their role is distributed along a curve. Some put in enormous amount of effort, some not at all, and most will try to do an honest day’s work every day. If anything, teachers work harder, and that too under more trying circumstances. This is simply because they deal with children for whom deep down they feel responsible, and that is a feeling most cannot ignore. Their efforts are also certainly influenced by their local and systemic conditions.
Capacity is also distributed along a curve for teachers. But here lies one of the key issues. Our deeply flawed teacher education system doesn’t prepare our teachers with the capacities needed for their roles. So this whole capacity curve is below what is required. The very design of our teacher education system ensures such a perverse outcome. This obviously is not the fault of the teachers. In fact, practising teachers often want to learn and develop themselves since they frequently encounter situations where they find themselves inadequately prepared. Blaming teachers for this overall situation in capacity is not just wrong but unjust. Those who have determined the course of teacher education are responsible for this deep systemic inadequacy.
But this counter-analysis (as it were) cannot give the sense of satisfaction that comes from scapegoating. And so people, including the average person on the road, businesspeople, many ministers and officials, and the talking heads on television, find it easier to blame the teachers. And this scapegoating feeds a spiral of negativity against teachers, who, far from feeling valued, feel under siege.
Teachers’ capacity and their effectiveness need to improve. But that will happen only with structural and systemic changes in teacher education and professional development. Practising teachers will need an enabling and empowering environment where they are treated as valued professionals. And organizational changes in school systems and curricular reform will also need to happen. Till then, the least we can do is to not scapegoat teachers and stop repeating stories that confirm our biases. And that will really give teachers their due on Teachers’ Day.
A nurag Behar is chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.
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