Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Drifting to teaching

Given some of the basic characteristics of the teaching profession, it isn't surprising that people drift in to teaching rather than choosing it

Why did you become a teacher? In my many discussions with teachers, I never ask that question, but it does come up often on its own. Rarely does someone tell a story of teaching being her life’s calling. Most often they are stories of drifting to teaching. There are four common narratives.

The first is that of the young person who has struggled financially to complete schooling. Despite education in government schools being free, there are costs of schooling for a family, which mount with each higher grade. Each day is uncertain; they aspire for the quickest possible economic anchor. For such people, the two-year Diploma in Education (DEd), after grade 12, which qualifies them to be a primary school teacher is a good option. It is perhaps the lowest cost professional qualification available. Also it doesn’t close other options. So, many find themselves as teachers, having treaded this path of struggle.

The second common narrative is that of the person, who tried many other things but didn’t make it, and ended up being a teacher. These are the kind of people who have enough socioeconomic capital to aspire for the “higher" things. They wanted to be doctors or engineers or government officers; some time along the way, as options start closing they complete a Bachelor in Education (BEd) on the side, almost like insurance for the possibility of failure in all their aspirations. When they are tired of trying for all this higher stuff, they try the teacher recruitment process and become teachers.

The third common narrative is usually that of many young women. They complete a BEd or DEd, with the idea that after their marriage they want a teaching job. It gives an income, has predictable working conditions and is respectable. It is perceived as a good balance, when the woman wants to be a homemaker and have another job alongside.

The fourth narrative is of a different sort. From the mid-1990s many states appointed a significant percentage of teachers on short-term contracts, on markedly lower salaries. This was still reasonable for the individual, since these contracts would just keep getting renewed. Anyone who had passed (at minimum) grade 12 was considered for such appointments i.e. a wide set could drift in to being a teacher. In the past few years, the numbers of such short-term contract appointments have reduced across states, and the Right to Education mandates a teacher qualification for even such appointments.

Let me point out some caveats to these four narratives. For sure there are other narratives, also that these very narratives and their distinctions may not be very neat. These narratives relate to government school teachers; most (non-elite) private school teachers that I have heard stories from fall within the first three, with the additional twist that they are still waiting and trying to join government schools.

Given some of the basic characteristics of the teaching profession, such as its income and wealth potential, its relatively low status in the social power hierarchy and the locations (in the smallest of places) of the jobs, it isn’t surprising that people drift in to teaching rather than choosing it. These basic characteristics are there because school education is a mass endeavour. And it is a mass endeavour because we have a national commitment to good education for all our children; we have eight million teachers in every nook of the country and growing.

John Dewey commented, “Education is, and forever will be, in the hands of ordinary men and women."

This sentiment emanates from a notion of education, which is deeply rooted in democracy. It is our democracy that demands and drives the commitment to good education for all children. This is what makes it a mass endeavour, which then can only be shouldered by ordinary men and women. This doesn’t mean that these ordinary men and women can’t be good teachers, and Dewey didn’t mean that either.

Let’s first recognize that the role of a teacher is not ordinary. Teaching is a complex and highly demanding role: cognitively, emotionally and socially. It requires depth in a wide range of capacities, certain dispositions and ethical commitment to be an effective teacher. But the widely prevalent notion of the role of a teacher is opposite of this reality—we have an impoverished notion of teaching i.e. that teaching is a very ordinary role.

Thinking of teaching as a special role is central to having effective teachers. This will enable and force certain fundamental things: the quality of professional development—both pre-service teacher education (BEd/DEd) and in-service teacher support, a culture of empowerment to energize the creative nature of a teacher’s role and not messing up on some basics e.g. no corruption in appointments, not treating teacher as all-purpose-labour.

If we get all this right, there is no reason why the ordinary people, in whose hands education will be forever, will not perform their special roles well.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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