Talking Shop

It has been admitted by better people before, and I will admit it yet again over here – Teaching is nasty business.

First of all, there is the fallacy you will walk into – and if you are unlucky like most teachers – never walk out of, – the misconception that you actually teach anything.

No one teaches anyone anything. One day we were sitting in the classroom with the windows shut closed, because it was winter and we wanted to keep the chilly wind out. It was a chemistry period. Our chemistry teacher was Bishnupada Karan, a young man whose passion for his subject was only matched by his enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and fascination of chemistry with all of us. Karan-da was something out of a Narayan Sanyal novel – a fervent romancer of everything chemistry, a teacher born, a student in his very bones. We did not understand 50% of the stuff he told us in the class. Teaching a class of 10th graders he veered off into university-level discussions about oxides and peroxides and their numerous types and whatnots, while we might not be understanding the stuff but took down the notes anyway. The subject was not necessarily made more intelligible to every one of us, but it was Karan-da’s exceptional zeal that made us love his classes.

That day Karan-da walked in, swept up to the table and put down his chalks on it (he carried two chalks to every lecture, and exhausted them during the course of the period), and yelled out an order to open up the windows. We did not want to; someone in the class said (in distilled Bangla), “But sir, cold is coming!” Without a moment’s hesitation, Karan-da replied, “Your statement is thermodynamically incorrect – cold doesn’t come anywhere – heat leaves!” – Those, indeed, were the days.

Our little fallacy about teaching is akin to this. No one ever really teaches. All that takes place is learning. You don’t impart anything to anyone. A person is always absorbing stuff from his surroundings, picking up signals and storing away memories constantly, – round the clock, – all the time. If you want a person to learn something specific you have on your mind, what you can do is to place that thing in their vicinity, and hope they pick it up and put it away somewhere inside of their mind. You want them to pick up a whole lot of things, you’ve got to scatter a whole lot of things all around them and hope a percentage of all that goes in. If teachers remembered this, there wouldn’t have been so much stupid frustration about ‘the students not remembering half the things that were taught.’ How about you remember this thing, dumbo: nothing was taught. If they did not buy what you were selling, maybe your ware just wasn’t good enough, or you were selling it to the wrong customers. Why go selling flowers in a fish market, or fish in a flower mart?

(There, of course, we arrive at the problem underneath it all. Our schooling insists that children buy fish, flowers and other variously fragrant thingummies right from the same shop, and put them all right in the same basket all at the same time. All of them, buying all the things. It’s less like a buffet feast and more like a lunch queue in a prison.)

Then there’s the idea that some of the more idealistic ones among us sometimes get, – that we should try to give them as much as possible.

This one is tricky, because, at the bottom of it all, there’s love and genuine concern for the students that make a teacher think this way. The teacher will work their ass off, try every possible angle, use every trick in the bag to load as much software into the children as they can, trying to make them as enabled and empowered as they can, getting them to the best possible place and prepping them as completely as possible for all the weird vagaries of life. It is like that part in the film The Matrix, where Tank is loading programs onto Neo’s brain and Neo has been taking it for ‘ten hours straight.’ – The dedicated teacher, in their eagerness, always desires the students to be like Neo. They always fantasize that what they are serving the kids with so much hard work, so much meticulous care – will be guzzled up by hungry mouths like they deserve to be. — But in reality? – that is hardly ever the case.

Kids who are learners will learn at their own pace, in their own time. They have their own moods, likes and dislikes, times that are right and times that are wrong. Think of your favourite singer, and ask yourself if you can listen to his or her songs at any given moment, or continuously all the time. If you are a normal person, you cannot. Likewise, even if you are really serving something that is heartfelt, masterful, and very, very important, – there’s no guarantee that the kid there is ready to receive that thing – at that moment – in the exact same way you want them to receive it.

You’ll need to be a Dumbledore among teachers, to remember all that. Being a Dumbledore isn’t easy.  – But maybe we should try. We should learn that we are putting paper boats on the water, and we cannot demand to know where they all go, or even that they all keep going on. Some of them get stuck. Some of them get soaked and drown. Some of them, maybe, didn’t even want to be a boat in the first place. Maybe they wanted to be a paper plane or something. Anything but a boat. Possible, no?

You want your kids to pay attention and learn up, because you think you have this job to do. If you are a scoundrel who’s in the job for money and status and such petty loot, then to you the job means to complete the syllabus, do the paperwork and get them promoted. If you are a simpleton who’s in the job for idealism and things that spring from idealism, like love and humanity and visions for the future, then to you the job means to expand their horizons, strengthen their minds and grow them into good human beings. — Either way, just because you need to get your job done does not mean the students have to be getting out their way for you. You are not doing this for them, you are doing it for yourself because you tell yourself that you have to do it. If those on the receiving end don’t respect that, – well, bugger them and call them an idiot, but you can’t hold it against them as if they denied you your due.

Remember the classics. Let over the doors of every school and every classroom be inscribed these words for every ‘teacher’ to read as they enter the school – “Behold, a sower went out to sow.” – Not all will get it, but it was not spoken for all; only for those who have ears to hear.

So what should we do? What should we do, now that we simpletons have forsaken the juicy cups and come to the stony fields to sow? Shall we not throw ourselves into it, heart and soul? Coming to the sea, shall we now merely stand on the sand?

I guess the wise Anatole France had an answer as good as any…

Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.

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