The Superior Teacher

Revered Secretary Maharaj, Revered Maharajjis assembled here, distinguished speakers on the dais, and dear teachers, today is the 2nd day of the Annual Celebrations of this Ashrama. We are having a Teachers’ Convention today. Before I begin my lecture, I wish to ask you all a question. This question is for my benefit. How many of you have some teaching experience? Those of you, who have five years of teaching in a classroom, please raise your hand. (Around 70% of the audience raises their hands.) You see, the topic given to me us ‘The Superior Teacher’. Excellence in teaching requires fine-tuning of the teaching experience. You don’t start off your teaching career as a teacher-par-excellence. So, what I am going to tell you today will be addressed mainly to those of you who have already had some teaching experience. The rest of you, who are probably studying B.Ed now, may keep my ideas in mind and implement them as and when you get the opportunity in the future.

I think it was George Bernhard Shaw who was once asked which was the most dangerous profession. He had replied that the most dangerous profession was teaching. His argument was – if a doctor commits a mistake, it gets buried six feet underground; if a lawyer commits a mistake, it hangs six feet above the ground; but if a teacher commits a mistake, it destroys six hundred years of his country’s future! Our profession is that important!

I have been associated with the teaching – learning activities in Ramakrishna Mission for the last ten years. You all know that Ramakrishna Mission has pioneered nationalistic education in India and has gained enormous experience in the last 100 years. I am going to present before you the best practices of our Ramakrishna Mission teachers. We believe that the high quality of education for which Ramakrishna Mission has become synonymous today is because of the high quality of our teachers. Hence, if I explain to you the practices of our Ramakrishna Mission teachers, that would serve as pointers to you, as a benchmark, regarding how to become a superior teacher.

Analyzing the distinguishing characteristics of the superior teachers in our Institutions, I have been able to categorize them under three cardinal rules for teachers.

The first cardinal rule for being a superior teacher is ‘Patience & cheerfulness’. Enormous patience is required when dealing with students. I remember seeing a documentary once in which a very old man asks his son if it is a Sunday. The son answers that it is indeed Sunday. Sometime later, the old father again asks the same question. When the old man asks the same question for the third time, the son loses his patience and yells at him. Then the old man brings out an old diary. In it he had recorded something that had happened about 30 years ago when that son was a 5-year old boy. The old man had written: Today, my son asked me the questions ‘why is the crow black?’ a total of thirty-two times and each time I had lovingly replied that black is the natural color of the crow!

Children tend to forget very quickly. You can’t help it. They forget. We need to keep on repeating the same thing again and again, and put in processes to help them internalize the points we tell them. We need to keep this point in mind when we discipline the kids. It won’t do if we just mention the rules of behavior once and then expect the kids to remember them. They just won’t. And we shouldn’t end up concluding that the child is willfully ignoring our advice. There was a Sufi saint who was entertaining some friends one day. He had served them tea in some very costly china cups. After the tea, he called his son and asked him to carefully take the empty china cups and give them to his wife in the kitchen for cleaning. He told the boy to be careful about the china. Then he slapped him hard. His friends asked him, ‘Hey, the boy hasn’t done anything wrong. Maybe he will be careful with the china. Why did you beat him before he has committed a mistake?’ The Sufi saint replied, ‘What is the use of beating him after he drops the cups and breaks them?’ We have to take care to see that we don’t end up behaving like this.

Disciplining is a difficult job. It takes lot of patience. Lot of repetition is required. You need to clearly specify what rules you want to be followed in your class. In fact, when I was in our Along School, I had announced that the first few days of a new academic year, the teachers would concentrate on just explaining the behavior they expected out of their students in their class. The teachers would first of all have the rules clearly written down. Then they would dictate them to their students. Then they would explain those rules to their students and ensure that each student understood each rule. The underlying idea of disciplining is to train the child to enter into the complex system of processes and procedures that exist in our present day society. Just look around you. Everywhere, it is system, process & procedure that operate. Take this very convention for example. You all didn’t just walk in today. The whole thing must have started a month ago. From this office here, notices would have gone to your schools and colleges. Then your school or college would have announced appropriately for your information. Then you would have registered your name in the specified place and manner. That is how the present day world works. The child has to be trained to deal with this. The whole idea of disciplining is this training – how to adopt oneself to this ever expanding network of systems and procedures.

We teachers will have to constantly introspect whether we ourselves are the cause of indiscipline in our students. An ordinary teacher learns to correct and train his student. But a superior teacher learns to respect his student as an individual. Swami Vivekananda wrote to Swami Brahmananda once, ‘Take care of how you trample on the least rights of others.’ You all remember the famous drama written by George Bernhard Shaw called Pygmalion. In that drama, Professor Higgins undertakes to train a rustic flower-girl into a very sophisticated lady. After she becomes a lady accepted in the highest social circles in London, she explains what actually made her a lady from her humble beginnings. She says it wasn’t the meticulous training of Prof Higgins. She says she became a lady the moment Colonel Pickering called her ‘Miss Doolittle’!

We ourselves are not clear what we want the child to do. All that we know is what the child shouldn’t do. A superior teacher has a clear idea of what the student must do and not just what he shouldn’t be doing. Let me explain what I am trying to tell. A young mother was once walking on the road with her small child. She met her friend on the way. As happens when two ladies meet, they started talking. The child got bored. Children get bored very easily. So this child asked its mother, ‘Mother, can I play with that dog?’ ‘No.’ after a few minutes, ‘Mother, can I go over to that shop and see those toys?’ ‘No.’ Again, after a few minutes, ‘Mother, will you get me an ice-cream?’ ‘No, ice-cream causes sore throat.’ The child started crying. The mother tells her friend, ‘Have you seen a child like this? So difficult to control; starts crying anywhere and everywhere.’ We are always telling the child what not to do. If we specify what the child should do, maybe children will be disciplined better.

When I was in Along, I noticed something very interesting. I was on the corridor outside the classrooms and I was observing a particular class. A boy in that class was seeing outside the window. He was intrigued by a butterfly outside. You know, in the North-east, you have very large and colorful butterflies. The teacher was teaching something, perhaps mathematics. This boy got up and asked the teacher if he could go out of the class. The teacher asked why. He said he wanted to go near and see that wonderful butterfly. The teacher flew into a rage and shouted him down. After sometime, that very boy stood up and said he had to go pee. The teacher allowed him. I was observing. The boy went out, didn’t go anywhere near the toilet, went out to the garden, played around the butterfly and came back! Just see what happened here. That teacher had ‘taught’ the boy to tell a lie! So, we need to be very, very careful.

Our main problem is we forget that communicating with children is different from talking to adults. Suppose I am to address this audience here today regarding maintaining silence it is sufficient to say ‘It will be good if silence is maintained here in keeping with the decorum of the Ashrama’. Do you think this statement would mean anything to students? What idea do they have about an Ashrama’s decorum? If I were to address an audience of students I should have been much more direct. Then they would have understood. Listen to a story.

There was once a couple who had trouble handling their son. There was no way they could convince him that paper should not be torn. He had developed a strange habit. Wherever and whenever he got a piece of paper or a book or a magazine, immediately he would tear it to bits. They had consulted educational experts, counselors, doctors and even psychiatrists, but to no avail. One day, a good friend of the boy’s father came to their house and stayed with them for a week. During that time, the boy became very close to this man. One night, after dinner, the parents explained their dilemma regarding the boy’s inexplicable behavior to this man. And from the next day, the parents found that the boy had stopped tearing paper! They were shell-shocked. Where experts in the field of education and medicine and psychology had failed, this ordinary man had succeeded. They asked him about it. His reply is note-worthy. He said, “I took him on my lap, looked him in his eye and told him, ‘Look here, son. Don’t tear paper. You should use paper to write.’ You see, what happened with him is, all of you tried to do so many things with him, except tell him directly not to tear paper. If only one of you had told him explicitly what to do, the boy would have understood and the problem would have stopped long ago.”

So, the first cardinal rule is – We have to be patient and cheerful. The second cardinal rule is something that the Jesuits always say. You know the Jesuits; they have made some great contributions to education. Saint Ignatius Loyola used to say, ‘To teach Mathematics to John, you need to know two things. You need to know Mathematics. And you need to know John.’ Please try to understand this statement. You need to know your subject. You must be thorough in your understanding of your subject. You make only one statement. But, there are 40 minds in your class. All may not understand what you said. You will need to tailor your statement in as many different ways as possible so that every mind in that class understands. You must plan your class. You know, you must have your lesson plan, your evaluation schedule and all that stuff that you learn in your B.Ed class. That is a vital requisite. But the other part of the Jesuits’ saying is even more important. You must know John. You must know your student in as much detail as possible. You must know the child’s home background. You must make notes about each student in a journal. Every data, every bit of information and your observation about that child must be present in that journal. The Jesuits have another wonderful saying. They say, ‘A child that gets love at home comes to the school to learn; a child that is not loved at home comes to the school to get love & affection.’ Please remember this marvelous saying. Problems at home reflect in the behavior of the student in class. Dysfunctional family reflects as inability to concentrate or as general restlessness in the child. Then there are many other symptoms such as ADD or ADHD or Dyslexia that may also be contributing to the child’s lack of focus. Today, most school boards have mandated that schools must have a dedicated counselor who has psychological expertise. But I hold that each teacher has to be a counselor.

So the 1st Cardinal Rule is ‘Patience & Cheerfulness’. The 2nd Cardinal Rule for being a superior teacher is ‘To teach Mathematics to John, you must know Mathematics & you must know John’. Now we come to the third rule. You must love your job. You must have a sense of pride in your job as a teacher. Today, it is a matter of great pride to say that I am a space scientist in ISRO. Do we feel the same sense of pride when saying ‘I am a teacher’? That is needed. The child may not consciously understand all this pride stuff. But it will intuitively grasp whether we love our job or hate it. If we love our job, our students will start respecting us automatically.

You know, there is no such thing as a difficult subject. Some of us end up feeling – Oh! I teach history. Mathematics or Physics has prestige, but not history or civics. That is to be avoided. Listen to a story. A man once purchased a pet dog. He was greatly enamored with that pet. He purchased lots of good books on how to rear a pet dog, read all of them and patiently went about doing all those things mentioned in them. In all of them, it said that pet dogs love cod-liver-oil, and that it was absolutely essential for the pet to grow up fit and fine. Well, our man brings home a big bottle of cod-liver-oil. He pours some oil onto a large spoon, catches the dog, splices the dog between his legs, forces open its mouth and pours the oil into it. The dog pukes out the oil and runs away. The owner is flabbergasted. Something must be wrong with his pet. It simply doesn’t love cod-liver-oil. But every day, he did the same exercise. Then one day, while he was maneuvering the spoon into the dog’s mouth, the dog jerked strongly, and the bottle of cod-liver-oil fell down and broke. The owner was now livid with anger. But, he was surprised to see that the dog was greedily lapping up the oil that had spilled onto the floor, and in a few minutes, it had licked the whole floor clean!

So, the dog did not hate cod-liver-oil. It just rejected the method through which it was fed its favorite cod-liver-oil! Do we have a lesson here, as teachers aiming to be superior teachers? Let us all kindly think deeply over it.

Some of you may have a question – how to love our job? There is such a thing called Shared Vision. You need to key yourself to a larger vision in order to get pride in the small job that you do. A senior Swamiji in our Order used to say ‘You may be doing a clerk’s job; but why do you have to do it with a clerk’s mind? Do it with the mind of the President of India.’ Please think about this statement. Imagine the mind of the President of India. He may be living in a small room in Delhi. But every moment he is thinking about the whole country. Every decision he takes, he will pause and think how it will affect the remotest village of his country. So also, we may be teaching in a small class room to only 40 students. But we may be aware in our minds about the future of those students, of the 600 years of our country’s future; how my teaching will affect them.

When I was a student, I was a member of Vivekananda Balaka Sangha in our Bangalore Ramakrishna Ashrama. There was a senior Swamiji of Ramakrishna Order called Swami Ranganathanandaji who later became a President of Ramakrishna Mission. He used to visit Bangalore Ashrama once or twice every year. Once when he came, he spent some time with us. We were all school-college boys, volunteers in the Sangha. It was afternoon, after his lunch. We all sat on the ground in front of him. He asked us ‘Can you tell me which is the golden period of Indian history?’ We were all good students and we started giving our answers. One of us said it was the Ashoka’s reign. Another said it was the Gupta period, especially under Samudra Gupta & Chandragupta-II. Yet another said it was under King Harshavardhana. The Mughal period under Akbar-Shah Jehan was also said by some. Swamiji was just looking at all of us when we were giving our answers. Then one of us asked the Swamiji, ‘What is the correct answer, Swamiji?’ What he said was marvelous. He said, ‘You know, I was recently in Japan. There I met some students, just like this. I asked them the very same question – what is the golden period of Japanese history? And they all answered ‘Swami, the golden period of Japan is the future and we are going to make it.’ When I heard that, I immediately felt that those young boys couldn’t have hit upon that answer all by themselves. There must have been some teacher who must have put that amazing idea in their minds. That is what is called ‘Shared Vision’.

You have all heard of NASA, the American organization that deals with its space programmes. Sometime in the 1960s, J F Kennedy announced that NASA would put a man on the moon. That was the goal he gave. Once he was visiting NASA’s office. When he was walking down the corridor, he met a man. That man was the janitor, whose job was to clean the toilets and corridors of NASA. He shook hands with that janitor and asked him what he did in NASA. That janitor replied, ‘Mr. President, I am putting a man on the moon.’ He didn’t feel ‘I am an insignificant toilet cleaner in NASA’. Instead he was able to identify himself with the mission of the organization. A superior teacher will be able to do that with respect to his job of teaching.

Before I wrap up my lecture, I will summarize the main points I have placed before you.

A superior teacher is found to follow three cardinal rules:

  1. He/she is always patient and cheerful.
  2. He/she realizes that ‘to teach Mathematics to John, you should know Mathematics and you should know John’.
  3. He/she will love his/her job of teaching. He/she will have genuine pride in being a teacher.

I pray to Guru Maharaj that all of you may be inspired to raise yourselves from an ordinary teacher to a superior teacher. Thanks for your patient hearing.

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Author: Swami Vedatitananda

Monk of the Ramakrishna Order

1 thought on “The Superior Teacher”

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