Where, how and when did the prestige and respect of the guru, or teacher, come down?
R Mahadevan | Rakesh Sharma
For long, the farmer and the teacher have been revered as the two practitioners who make human life possible and better. Teaching has often been referred to as the noble profession. Indeed, it is the profession that prepares people for most other professions. Over the decades, centuries and millennia, especially in India, teachers have occupied exalted positions in terms of respect. The original teacher, referred to as ‘guru’ was more than someone who just imparted structured knowledge, the three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic. He was someone who instilled in his students life skills – physical, mental, psychological abilities – that enabled them to be the best version of themselves. Instruction and monitoring was personal, customized, in the best tradition of the gurukula system, where the guru was also the father and mother – and god – of the student.
But, look around you now, and you find teaching among the last career options for the upwardly mobile. While most professional courses attract good talent who then go on to jobs in their chosen lines, teaching is hardly something that you will find children mentioning among their top three – or five, or ten – choices as far as a career is concerned. This is a surely a matter of concern, especially in a country like India where millions of children join the school system every year, and require the services of good teachers.
So, where, how and when did the prestige and respect of the guru, or teacher, come down?
It goes without saying that this is a sad state of affairs, because this is the kind of situation that can lead to a fall in quality and a decrease in capability in the generations to come. This is the kind of thing that can have a negative effect on a nation.
Teaching, however, remains one of the most important vocations, and timeless. If it is not as preferred a vocation as it ought to be, then it is just a matter of put things together right, of getting priorities right, of changing the outlook adequately. And it is necessary, because it is crucial. A few numbers should lay it out in the right perspective. Almost 10 per cent of India’s population is less than five years old – in terms of numbers, this is about 125 million children! This is the number that is getting ready to be in school over the next five years. On average, this is 25 million children who enter the schooling system every year. And one can expect this situation to continue in the foreseeable future. While that itself is a challenge, statistics show that, among those already in school, almost half can’t deal with the basic mathematics that they should have learnt three years before. Their reading and comprehension skills are in the same region – three years behind. It is worthwhile asking what kind of generation we are cultivating.
While it is possible to look around and identify maybe a handful of factors that are responsible for this state of affairs, at least some of this has to rest with the teachers and their lack of skill in addressing basic problems concerning their wards. Or, lack of inclination. This, when the country faces a shortage of nearly a million teachers. Where are all the teachers? India needs them!
Just go back half a century – it isn’t all that long back in time – and you will find a completely different situation. While we can quibble about the relative quality of teachers then and now, talking to a few people who were in school students 50-60 years ago will show you that there was a big difference. Even though schoolteachers then were much less qualified – often just matriculates, very few graduates – their knowledge base and their ability to impart knowledge was much superior. They had much better command over their subjects when teacher training was conspicuous by its absence.
College teachers – graduates and postgraduates – were generally reckoned to be masters of the game, with mathematics and language teachers being very strong in their subject matter. One reason for this could be the barrier for entry. Those were the days when matriculates or pre-degree holders were low in number, let alone graduates and postgraduates. Only those who were serious about their education and those who wanted to get into a job that required the qualifications – to say nothing about being able to afford it – would go for higher studies, or even college studies.
Today, with education being free – or so cheap as to be almost free – in government institutions, it is possible for anyone who wants an education to get one. The only problem here is that of the quality of education, and we come once again to the question of teachers.
Many schools themselves are ill-equipped to provide quality education. Once you step out of the urban areas, things deteriorate further. One routinely comes across reports which talk about schools in rural areas with no buildings, no students, no teachers. It is disturbingly common to find schools – and this is not just in the rural areas – where a particular teacher teaches a number of subjects, which have seldom anything to do with each other – biology and language, for instance. Or English, for instance, being taught in the mother tongue! Whether in schools or colleges, it is common to find teachers who struggle to express themselves and communicate effectively with students.
In all this, the system if often at fault. The issue seems be a vicious cycle, with an indifferent system producing indifferent teachers who produce students who grow indifferent towards teaching as a profession, and so on. Accentuating this problem is that of a huge undersupply of teachers. With bad money chasing bad candidates and vice versa, the situation is in dire need of remedy.
We have a situation where teacher quality is bad, and relative to other professions, so is remuneration to a large extent. So, is the lower remuneration a result of the lack of talent in candidates, or is the lack of good candidates the result of bad remuneration? Perhaps more pertinently, is it a worthwhile career to pursue in terms of advancement in position and money?
That question has to be addressed in two parts. We have a scenario where we have government and private schools. And, even in the private schools, there are the prestigious and the other. As far as central government school are concerned, teachers’ pay after the seventh pay commission is nothing to scoff at. A primary school teacher can expect to be placed in a payscale starting about Rs 35,000 and a post graduate teacher about Rs 45,000; with the perks added, this increased by another 30% or so.
The story with private school teachers is different, and depends on the quality of the school. Pay can be as low as Rs 15,000 or as high as a couple of lakhs in the really prestigious schools. But most private schools are not great paymasters.
Another point to note. The approach to teaching as a career can’t be all about money. Remuneration is one thing, but this is one profession where the right candidate is also one who looks for job satisfaction. One of the reasons why teaching has been considered the most noble of professions is that the duty that goes with the profession often goes beyond what is set out in a contract or is generally understood. One could probably talk about medicine in a similar way. Often, the outcome of both depends on the personal touch, on taking the initiative, on being proactive – with the other person is mind. Teaching would differ from medicine in a crucial way though – it is unique because of the emotional bonds that teachers form with their wards, very often lifelong. And the success of the students is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of teaching, even, one might say, more than money.
So, if one is to consider the ideal teacher, they would be one who is constantly looking at the welfare of the students. Most people are likely to know at least a couple of teachers or stories of teachers where they went out of their way in the performance of their duty, often spending their own money or resources, worked on their time, in their endeavour to do the best they could for their students. This demands a commitment that goes beyond what one might consider the baseline of involvement, and it demands this commitment in a sustained manner and over a long period of time. We are talking about the ideal teacher here.
This, in turn, demands capabilities beyond mere knowledge of the subject. It involves the ability to share the knowledge, it involves the ability to inculcate a love of the knowledge in students who might otherwise be not too interested in the topic. It involves the ability to constantly challenge the student in a positive manner.
All these are true of teaching as a whole, but especially in the context of teaching at school. Talk about the ideal teacher, and the demands – mostly self-induced – are many. But, as any thoroughbred teacher, especially from the old school, would say, there is nothing quite like teaching. It’s like a drug. Once you get a taste for it, you will want it forever, and nothing else will do!
So, the rewards are many in considering teaching a career – again, for the right candidate. That is in terms of intrinsic job satisfaction. The remuneration, at the right institution, can be more or less commensurate with any other average job. However, teaching is surely not just another job, though that seems to be how it is considered now. In government institutions, teachers get paid better than at most private schools or colleges except the prestigious ones. However, given the conditions at most government institutions, job satisfaction beyond the better pay cannot be looked forward to there! Even among government institutions, there are a few exceptions, where both teachers and students approach activities with a certain pride.
For teachers, central government institutions are considerably better than state government schools and colleges in terms of job satisfaction. Facilities are generally better, and the atmosphere is also better. Central universities offer better infrastructure, and this benefits teachers, too, where research needs are concerned. This is important because a good part of being a teacher is constant updating of one’s knowledge and skills, and the time and space necessary to engage with ideas. Though keeping oneself upskilled is necessary for any profession, in teaching this is crucial because this knowledge will have to be imparted or shared, not just the fruits of it – to say nothing of how it could adversely affect students for the long term if there is shortcoming or fault in the sharing.
In the final analysis, where does teaching stand as a profession or career to be considered by the twenty-something fresh out of education and looking for a job? Just to reiterate the point made earlier, it is the best job for the right candidate. There is a lot to be expected by way of job satisfaction, wider perspectives, increased empathy, an opportunity to constantly learn and upskill, and a chance to make a positive difference in the lives of hundreds of youngsters. For, as one might have gathered by now, teaching is a matter of not just basic ability but also of mentality, of aptitude. Without the last mentioned, aptitude, teaching would be a commitment that achieves little. And, in this case, the candidate would be not just inadequate but also detrimental.
Again, as mentioned earlier, at the right place, the right candidate can expect decent remuneration, though frankly and fairly, it ought to be a lot more. In government colleges and universities, a teacher with 15 years’ experience can expect to earn upwards of Rs 1 lakh per month. This also comes with perks such as a relaxed workload, the concept of annual holidays, and the promise of a normal life! One might also include a government pension at the end of a full career, though that should definitely not be in any way a primary consideration in taking up teaching as a profession.In a country like India, especially, it would be the hope, if not the logical way forward, for teaching to be recognized as one of the most valued professions, and steps to be taken for it to attract the best talent. This is one point where idealism and practicality could meet and coexist in the most worthwhile manner. The future needs it; the future demands it.