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The Quest For An Ideal Teacher

Biswajit Mishra
Professor and Head
Department of Geology & Geophysics
IIT Kharagpur

Looking for an ideal teacher is not that  easy a task. To me, an ideal teacher is a dream and only some dreams come true. First, let us think of the teachers in  schools. Here a teacher is expected to handle students with utmost personal care, he/she must lead from the front as far as discipline is concerned, and now and then act tough with mischievous pupils, just like parents. Sometimes the teacher-student relationship is very personal, to the extent that the kids often listen to their teachers, not the parents. Therefore, when the teacher preaches moral and human values, these words slowly act as a catalyst in very young minds, sometimes in their early teen. Also, school is ideally the place from where a student gets interested in specific subjects, may it be mathematics or literature.
When I look back upon by schooldays, I feel that majority of my teachers were good at teaching, some of them fought hard to convince some intricate parts of the lessons, and most of them had delicate touches with us. My schooling was in a government-run co-educational school in Cuttack, where the exclusive medium of instruction was my mother tongue, i.e., Oriya, excepting in the classes on English or Sanskrit. Since Hindi was not compulsory and was only up to class VIII, hardly anyone stayed in the Hindi class. We used to run into the school playground for a quick game of soccer or cricket. But the poor Hindi teacher never missed his class.  After bunking about five Hindi classes, once we thought of exploring about the proceedings in our class room. When we peeped in, we saw the teacher was faithfully teaching to some ten odd students, while our class VIIIB section strength was about forty. When we approached the entry door, our teacher spotted us and asked us to get into the class room. After we were seated, he politely told us that we might run away from the class but his duty was to teach us Hindi. Perhaps on that day, I got my first lesson on responsibility.  Such was the commitment of teachers during my schooldays in the sixties - a rarity in most of the non-private schools these days. As a result, many public schools have come up during the last forty years, which charge huge amount of fees that millions of poor Indians cannot afford.  We need to watch and see how the right to education bill, passed by the parliament, will work in the ground level.
Now let us move up the ladder to college/university level teachers. Classroom teaching is an art by itself. Consequently, some people are born teachers, who, by virtue of their colossal personality, shear power of impromptu delivery, aided and abetted by the command over English, attract students to their lectures. These people teach creatively and spice their lectures with anecdotes and stories. There is another group of teachers, who may not have that immense power of delivering the lessons, but they work hard by taking interest in as many pupils as possible and experiment with innovative methods of teaching. Since these teachers work hard, they make theirs students work hard. However, in both the cases, the passion for their subjects is common, which ultimately results in stimulating the students. These people inspire their students intellectually, move them emotionally and they are virtual masters at igniting the quest of learning; sometimes on the corridors of their Departments, in their personal chambers or for that matter in a tea shop within the campus. Therefore, these teachers break through the classroom walls, thus proving the ultimate strength of an ideal teacher. Students Remember their teachers for their kind and stimulating words, their impartiality in rewarding them with the deserving grades, and their counsel when the former got it wrong. While doing Masters at Roorkee, I was called by one of my very good teachers to his room. He told me that I did exceptionally well in his paper and he proposed that I should do my dissertation with him. I only politely told him “Sir, examination and dissertation are two different aspects. As a student I had to put same efforts for all the subjects, but for my thesis, I may be left to my choice”. Then my dear and magnanimous teacher looked at me and said “Excel in whatever you do, best of luck”.
It is important to note that a teacher’s job is not only teaching but also personality development in students. Here, I find perhaps no difference between school and college teachers. Because emotionally there is hardly any difference between a fifteen year kid in the school and an eighteen year undergrad in  college, no matter how much the latter may try to prove that he or she is more matured. Such situations have become more acute during the last two decades or so, mainly because of our typical middle class social mindset with one or two kids in the family, leading to ultra-protective nature of the parents. As a result, when these kids go to residential colleges, problems of homesickness start. The cell phones have their advantages, as well pit falls. While the advantage is first communication during emergency, the disadvantage is unnecessary talking, not to the likings of these young people.  Thus, in a residential Institute, the role of a teacher is beyond teaching. Just imagine, your teacher apart from teaching, asks a few personal questions such as about your hostel life, mess food, your family members. You will certainly feel that your teacher cares for you and this is one of the happiest moments in student life. Agreed, friends do care for each other. However, personal touch from your teacher, from whom you expected only to learn, is completely different.
Teacher-student relationship is exclusively mutual. If students expect their teacher to teach and clear the doubts that they have, then the teacher also expects the students to have passion for their subjects and perform well. If the teacher is structured in his task he or she also expects the students to be disciplined and organized. Sometimes I wonder that if the same students who are disciplined while playing a game of cricket or basketball, why they don’t carry on the same into their studies. I am worried about the change in the attitude of the students over the last two decades. Many students always think that they can do everything on the last moment.  Take this example. Recently, on a late Sunday evening, I got a call from one of the first year students of my Department, who wanted to get his KVPY form signed. I told him to meet me the next morning in the Head’s chamber. When I came to my house I was told by my wife that one student rang up and when he was told that I was in the Department, he said, “even on a Sunday”? Next morning when I asked him about the reason of his urgency, he simply told me that he was nearing the deadline. The bottom line is I signed about twelve KVPY forms on the Friday afternoon. In summary, all these eighteen year-old kids were approaching the closing date. Again, some students tend to relax after they crack some national level examinations and get into colleges. What they forget is  that school to college transformation demands more commitment and conviction. Standard of the plus two education is in an extremely bad shape in the country. In general, the students these days write and speak poor English. This is one of the worst effects of mushrooming of coaching Institutes. Many of the students were not asked to write anything for two or three years. This was not the case some fifteen to twenty years back, when I came across many students with reasonably good knowledge of English. In this context, I congratulate Mr. Anand Kumar, an IAS officer from Patna, whose ‘Super 30’, comprising very poor students excel in the IIT JEE every year. To me, Mr. Kumar is certainly a near-ideal teacher. However, he must also inculcate the skill of writing and speaking English in his pupils. I would certainly convey this message to him one day.
When we look back on the present day college education, I find a change from black board to power point. Agreed, the student strength has severely increased. But then why power point, why not draw and write on a small piece of paper and project the same though document cameras or digital visualizeers? When the teacher draws/derive/writes on the board or on a piece of paper for projection, the students are expected to replicate the entire exercise and in the process, the very first step of learning is accomplished.  When some of the best teachers including noble laureates in MIT and Harvard are still continuing with the conventional board and chalk method, the power point culture of some of our teachers is really worrisome. May be that occasionally one may make use these audiovisual tools in order to save time, but certainly not in everyday lectures. Well, this is my personal view; certainly not accepted by some of my younger colleagues. Another point in college education is what the appropriate course content to be covered. I narrate a good story here. Some thirty years back one young faculty, with a fresh US-PhD, joined the Mechanical Engineering Department at IIT Kanpur. One day, he told his Head that it was not possible to cover the entire course. He was graciously told by his Departmental Head “young man, your job is not to cover, rather to uncover the course”. The message was very clear. As a teacher, one is supposed build the basic foundation in the minds of the students and while doing so must leave some questions, with pertinent hints. Let the students dig into those questions and come back with plausible answers, leading to discussions outside, thus breaking the barrier of class room. In addition, more interactions can be there in the laboratory and tutorial classes, where I think individual teacher-student interface is of vital importance for learning. After economic liberalization of the nineties, another striking change has evolved in the students’ career interests. Many students with B. Tech./BE in core engineering opt to crack CAT and get into IIMs or some other business school after their graduation and finally end up serving in banking and insurance sectors with huge salaries. This is the hazardous consequence of the modern day higher education, which makes only managers in this corporate world. In the end, we are not producing manpower with inquisitive scientific minds and engineering acumen, which is frustrating.
I keep getting e-mails, telephone calls and greetings on the occasions of the Teachers’ day. I came across many students, who made my academic life exciting. As an example, let me tell about one of my favorite students, Raman, who did his thesis with me in 2003. One evening he came to my chamber, with formal dress. Looking at his attire, I asked whether he had an interview. Raman told me “yes Sir, it was Infosys”. He paused and then with a courteous smile continued - “I gave them a chance and they did not know how to make use of it; so I pity them. Forget it Sir, let us get down to my dissertation”. After a couple of days he was picked up Reliance petrochemicals. Three years back, Raman sent me a mail telling that he left Reliance and joined a Dutch multinational, based in Mumbai. Then he went on to say “I left not for the reason that I am paid more, but because, now only I am allowed to think independently, which you always stressed”. Raman’s mail certainly gave me a little peace of mind. Some of my Ph. D. students, on various occasions directly told me that I was forcing them to accept some conceptualized models, which were if not wrong, were not convincing. I congratulated them, followed by elaborate discussions and culminating with some more compelling explanations. My point is students have to say ‘No’ and justify why they say so and an ideal teacher has to accept his or her error. Then only Science flourishes. Once I was listening to Prof. M. M. Sharma of the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Mumbai, who was delivering the prestigious Sir J.C. Ghosh memorial lecture in my Institute. For the benefit of the students, I may remind that Prof. Sharma is a renowned Chemical Engineer, the first Indian Engineer to become an FRS, London and he is also the recipient of the Leverhulme Medal of the Royal Society for basic research.  Between the lines, Prof. Sharma proudly said that the fundamental philosophy behind the most of his important papers was an outcome of his UG/PG teaching. From his one hour lecture, I could surmise that he was my ‘ideal teacher’.  
The basic question - what inspires a person to take up teaching, when he or she can be heavily paid by the Industry? Teaching is a creative art and some people are obsessed with such ingenuity, just like some others go after painting, writing or music. At the university level, the teachers have complete academic freedom, which is more satisfying than any salary offered by the industries. Further, as a teacher when I deal with people varying in age between eighteen and twenty five, I feel mentally young at fifty two. If the basic question is who is a teacher, I sum up with the famous Bernard Shaw’s quote. “I am not a teacher; only a fellow-traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead-ahead of myself as well as you.” To my mind every student must learn this lesson. Finally, my message to the students: follow the advice of your teachers in particular and elders in general, not because the latter groups of people were always right, but because they have more experience at being wrong.     


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