Sunday, September 05, 2010

Remember, Remember, Teachers in September

It's the 5th of September today - a day we were never allowed to forget back in school because it was the day we had to shower love and respect on our teachers, even if, in some cases, we didn't particularly like them. Celebrated on the birthday of one of India's most scholarly Presidents ever - Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan - Teacher's Day was the day the "class monitor" was supposed to pool money and buy roses for all the teachers. Indian culture has always required us to revere our Gurus as ones who enlighten our paths and guide us to knowledge. Perhaps, when school days are a distant memory, the ones who still live on within us and bring a smile to our faces when we think of them, did really impress our hearts and minds. Here's an ode to the ones I can still remember.

Pre-primary School

Heck, I barely remember my primary school. What chance then of me remembering any of my pre-primary teachers? If Hindi movies were a guide to my memory, I am certain they were pretty and adored children!

Primary School

"A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others." - Anonymous.

Mukhtar madam, my Math teacher from Vidyodaya High School, springs to mind instantly. She would literally sweat profusely within the melting walls of the hot Hyderabad school, trying to shove concepts about Algebra into little heads. We loved her because she was brutally honest and dedicated, and the boys loved her because there was no favoritism to girls! You could see pride light her eyes up when one of us solved a problem she would pose for us on the board. I recollect the many times she clearly wouldn't be in the best of health or would be fatigued by the fasting month of Ramzan, but would keep going with sheer determination. We always respect someone who is clearly trying harder than ourselves. And as Indians, we adore those who let us ask personal questions like - "Happy Birthday Ma'am, how old are you today?", "Are you really not married? Why?". While others got roses, we would get her a tea-set.

My favorite part was when we were preparing for our 7th standard Board Exams (yes, kids have it easy these days!) - she would call out some 10 names and make them stand up in class, and lecture them on how she expects them to get a 100 in Math. When the results were out, and I was shy of a 100 by some 25 marks, I was lucky my dad got transferred to Bombay and I did not have to face her blazing eyes of disappointment.

Secondary School

“The test of a good teacher is not how many questions he can ask his pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he inspires them to ask him which he finds it hard to answer” - Alice Wellington

The first name that would spring to mind for any of my friends who studied at Poorna Prajna High School in Mumbai when asked to remember their teachers would undoubtedly be of Diana madam. I can't even remember if she was good at what she taught, probably because history and social studies always felt like subjects where there really wasn't much to learn. But, her openness to stupid questions and general student banter made her an instant hit with everyone. Her example made it clear to me how a good teacher must be - friendly and approachable, and always having the ability to encourage and deal with all kinds of questions. Respect developed this way, as opposed to fear-induction, has a lasting effect.

High School/Junior College

Classrooms of size 120, pretty girls everywhere, sweating with low self-esteem, worrying about catching the rush-hour train home that is less crowded than the others, the stench of chemicals from the chemistry lab below and the air-conditioned refuge of the 2 hours of Computer Lab time. No teachers ever registered I guess.


"A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron." - Horace Mann

The less said about the quality of teachers in the average Engineering college in India, the better. If this were meant to be a reverse list, I could fill it up with 4 years of teachers barely covering 25% of the syllabus, giving more assignments than lectures, and clearly peddling their coaching class stints over regular classes. The Math teachers were again impressive, but maybe that's because I felt an affinity for Math back then. The only other teacher that stood out was Mrs. Rekha Ramesh, once again for the qualities I always admire - open to questions, and something lacking in my college back then: a determination to cover as much of the syllabus as possible in her lectures. The one thing that stood out was the fact that she always appreciated if someone corrected her, and when she would say "I will answer that in the next class", she always did.


“Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” - Chinese Proverb.

If there was a complete opposite of my Engineering experience, it would have to be doing Masters at IIT Bombay. It is perhaps because of the shambles we face during engineering that this experience looks so much brighter. It's hard to pick one professor out of the many who taught us. However, Prof. Abhiram Ranade is probably the most inspiring of them all to me personally, most likely because of his calm and assured demeanor. He taught us Algorithms and Complexity, and his course structure and presentation style are unmatched with any other professor I ever encountered. Even the assignments were actually fun to solve, and led to much discussion and debate on our hostel floors. What I loved most was his personality though. He always smiled at each student he passed in the corridor, spoke softly and succinctly, wore a simple shirt that was never tucked in but always neatly ironed, and carried a humble cotton bag. He loved it when students asked questions and was most approachable with any other problems as well.

Now that his lectures are on YouTube, everyone can enjoy them.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” - William Arthur Ward.

Here's hoping that the students of today find more such inspiring teachers in their path to knowledge.