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Saturday, September 7, 2002

We celebrated Teachers’ Day this week. We suddenly wake up to the importance of education and teachers. The ritual is repeated every year. After a few perfunctory ceremonies and many meaningless shibboleths, it’s business as usual.

When I look back upon my schooldays, there are several fond memories and exciting experiences. Although there were no computers and television, and modern audio-visual aids to which our kids are exposed were unheard of, the teachers were men and women of great concern and commitment to learning. They shaped most children’s future, and in a substantial measure helped us realize our potential. They taught us the important things in life. There was fun and frolic, and there was also respect for the family and elders. Everyone who accomplished something in life was a source of inspiration, and was looked up to in awe and admiration.

Today things are infinitely better. Teachers are better qualified, and hopefully more informed. Youngsters work harder than ever before (parents too). The impressive performances reported in newspapers were unheard of even a generation ago. And yet, somehow the bond between the teacher and the pupil has become weaker. At best it is limited to the classroom. Rare is a pupil who can claim to have been inspired by his teacher, or adopted him as a role model. In fact even teaching is not the most sought-after profession. Though teachers are paid much better these days, not many youngsters regard it as a possible mission in their lives. A teacher has merely become a stepping-stone for a better life.

Yet good teachers are important to modern society. A teacher who merely explains what is contained in a textbook does not release the creative energies of the youngsters. One who sets problems for students to solve, and explore the world makes the kids think. An athlete can build his muscle and stamina only by exposing his body to many challenges, not by endless lectures and rote learning about physical fitness. Fine steel attains its quality only when tempered by fire. Creative energies, problem-solving techniques, application of knowledge and capacity to work in groups are what good schooling is about.

Somehow, we reduced schools into factories manufacturing good grades in meaningless, dreary examinations. Much of the fun and excitement of schooling is lost. A teacher who stimulates the imagination of the kids is considered a nuisance. And for a society which treasures educational qualifications, school does not occupy a prominent place in our culture.

In many wealthy countries, the school defines the community. People speak about school districts when they refer to a location or an address. We often talk of Taluks or Thanas as defining institutions! People in the west often change their residence to be eligible to send their children to a good school. In Britain, they are a step ahead. Schools are of reasonable and uniform quality. The neighbourhood schools are often the best ones. Parents trust their children’s future in the hands of the nearest schoolteachers.

We only have to remember our travails and the pain and anguish we experience while selecting a school for our kids, and securing admission. And when the child is deeply unhappy with the school, rote-learning and unimaginative curriculum, many of us suppress tears of frustration and do our best to comfort the child. That some children do fulfill their potential, or become decent citizens is almost a miracle.

We need to re-examine our schools. A lot more investment in money, talent, manpower, attention, love and concern is needed to make the school a home-away-from-home for our kids. A school today is a mirror of tomorrow’s society. Lincoln so wisely wrote to his son’s teacher, “Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself, because then he will always have sublime faith in mankind”.

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