This article is a rumination on what happens in us teachers when we 'teach' another. It appears to me that the question is relevant for the kinds of schools Krishnamurti set up because classroom teaching is not the only, or even the main, focus in these places. Explicitly and implicitly, teachers are expected to engage with students in uncovering the subtleties of life as it is lived. Yet, as Krishnamurti often pointed out and as must be apparent to us teachers with very little soul-searching, the teacher and student are not qualitatively separate; all of the psychological machinations and mechanisms that the student is plagued by are just as much present in the teacher. Typically, however, most discussions about teaching lead almost automatically to discussions about the best conditions in which students may learn or, more to the point, the reasons why they do not. The conversation gathers around techniques to better the relationship between teacher and student, and ranges from the need for that relationship to be based on affection rather than fear, to questions of attention and discipline. There is little discussion of the state of mind of the teacher, from where emerges her urge to 'teach'. This exploratory piece focuses on that question.
Teachers teach. Students also teach (teachers, that is) but that is not built into the structure of a school in the way that the former is. In a school teachers are called on to intervene in sticky situations and clarify matters, sometimes between students, between a student and her parents, or in her studies or her understanding of what she be allowed to do while at school. Some of these situations are straightforward in that a student knows and expects the teacher's intervention, even though she may not like or want it. These might include issues such as the need for eating right, sleeping well, playing games and so forth. At other times, however, the initiative to instruct—to point out or ask—may emerge from the teacher; at such times the student may be nonplussed at finding a casual chat change its shape to show itself as a 'learning experience'.
In the act of pointing something out to another (here, a student), does one seek a change in the other person—in their behaviour, in their perception? Does the teacher feel invested in the thing being pointed out? And if so, why? How is that received, and does the manner of the reception matter? Can received knowledge actually teach anybody? What is the role of verbalization in teaching and what the role of example? By extension, is experience the best teacher? Finally, should only those teachers who are free of attachment teach? Given that much thought and energy goes into the education of children, is asking only about 'effectiveness' reasonable? These are some of the questions that arise in my mind when I view the process of teaching from a teacher's point of view. Even a cursory examination of some of these has led me into subterranean terrain, much of it slippery and defiant of categorical answers.
Teaching as a vicarious activity
Those slippery moments can reveal the teacher's own thoughts, her ideals, her hopes and fears. In my case, some of these preoccupations are not hidden from myself or my students at all. Even by the end of just one year, students can no doubt predict the tenor of many of the questions I will ask them about malls or films or shopping. The questions will, generally speaking, be critical of much of the fun they have had over their holidays. But what is it that I am really saying through those interrogations? Students will probably be hard put to answer in any definite terms; they might say something about how they know I am going to say junk food is full of unnatural additives that only advertising makes attractive, but that they find it tasty anyway. As for me, I would say that I am concerned with students not being tricked by the baubles and trinkets that modern industrialized society sets before them.
Without getting into the details of why I might be so concerned, what is of interest to me in the context of this article are the underlying mechanics of such exchanges on the part of the teacher. Many of the questions I ask can be argued, articulated, defined. However, most of the real impetus of my interaction with students is nonverbal. It is intimately tied to my understanding of what it means to be a teacher, an understanding that is no less powerful for being ill-defined. This meaning includes something about not just making sure the student has been filled up with enough knowledge to duly pass her exams and get into a reputed college. It includes a feeling that the student should buck the system at least a little, that she not accede unquestioningly to the pressure to obtain 'high marks' and make 'good money'.
Even when not verbalized, ideas about the state of the world and one's responsibility in it are easy to access. It is harder to see the beliefs about teaching per se that underlie those ideas. Motivations for becoming a teacher are mixed; individuals differ and an individual differs from situation to situation. One of my unvoiced motivations is to put my sociological and other knowledge to 'practical' use by suggesting to young people that they pause before they go down many of the well-worn paths set out by their elders. I would like them to think of the question of livelihood carefully. It is in this way that I hope my livelihood is of use to society. Expressing this ideal in such terms is a little embarrassing. It reveals the degree to which my ideal of contributing to the larger good is dependent upon seeing the change in another.
Put like that, the patent absurdity of such a proposition strikes one hard. Put like that, teaching appears to be all about the teacher. And like all such relationships in which one's own sense of fulfilment is tied to an outcome in another, it must bring some degree of frustration and, eventually perhaps, a sense of burnout in the teacher. For this approach to teaching places great emphasis on the measuring of outcomes; it is animated by the unspoken (even unconscious) idea which says that an outpouring of my energy is only going to be worth it if I can see x change take place in the student. Again, stated baldly like that, the demand is revealed in its arrogance, and in that, its limitations.
However, if effectiveness is an issue that may cause some heartache to the teacher, surely abandoning a concern with measurement can ease some of the frustration that must accompany the approach.
The impossibility of pinning a cause to an effect, or measure what?
But is one to abandon all concern with effect as well? I began this exploration with the express intention of focussing solely on the possible motivations that reside in the mind of a teacher. However, it appears that any discussion of a teacher's methods and motivations cannot avoid touching upon some aspect of the student-teacher relationship. However problematic or laudatory a teacher's motivation, its effect on the student will be quite a different matter altogether. To be suspicious of measuring effect based on a preordained standard is not, therefore, to reject the question of impact itself. But perhaps the issue of impact is best addressed negatively—not by what it does, but by what it prevents. Are students adversely affected by a teacher with a too-strong agenda? Can a teacher's pushing of agendas, however pious, be conducive to a student's learning? Is the ideal teacher one who can speak out of a profound sense of detachment, which is to say, without a motive?
These questions are problematic in themselves because they appear to suggest that uniform answers exist in an area that so resists a formula. Different students respond in different ways to the same style. At this moment I have to take recourse to my own memories of being taught by various adults. I think back to a few teachers who were deeply tormented by social inequality and ask myself whether they would have made for better teachers had they been calm and rational, had they chosen to allow us the space to discover it for ourselves; I wonder whether their anger marked us. The question is not easy to answer because we students reacted differently to their teaching. For myself, their emotion was a pointer to something real; it brought home the baffling, intractable nature of injustice in the world. I also cast my mind back to other, equally powerful teachers with whom I had, and continue to have, a warm, open relationship. I try and remember what pearls of wisdom they offered me, what words to live a life by. None come to mind. Did they then lead by example? Not even that, or at least not always. And yet something endures of those interactions. There was something that distinguished these teachers from others in one's school-life.
It seems to me that pressing on the 'what' of teaching brings us, as if by a swing door, to the question of 'how'. This is not a new thought. But yet it is startling to discover that try as I might to focus solely on the content of a teacher's thought, in the end I have come to discussing the effect of the teacher's manner on the student. Kindness matters. But of what does it consist? I do not think it merely a matter of language or even of tone. Although these teachers did set out to 'teach' about inequality, or the environment, or, say, about the ways in which we repeated old patterns of thought, they were open to challenge; there was an honesty in their dealings. This was not an affectation. One knew this because they never seemed to lose sight of the fact that they were, themselves, part of what we spoke about; they did not hold themselves separate in kind. Thus we were able to focus on the thing itself in a spirit of, dare I say, fraternity, and that instantly made the inquiry more fun. The knowledge that the teacher had nothing to teach me freed one to learn from them.
So much for the effect of particular teachers on this student years ago. It is a truism to say that many factors influence and shape the young mind. It is near impossible, however, to trace the cause of an effect. The only possible definitive statement is that teachers, like parents and peers and the media and the trees and the hills, have an impact on a person when they are growing up.
Structural issues in the teacherstudent relationship
School is a place where teachers are supposed to have the upper hand over students, where students may be punished for not abiding by a teacher's wishes. If an educational institution where the structural roles are mutually interchangeable were to come into being, we should not recognize it as a school. As countless studies of the dispossessed have revealed, this merely means that the teacher-student relationship offers rich possibility for evasive and diversionary tactics. 'Reading' a student to understand one's worth as a teacher can thus be an illusory business. Besides, a student can be a tricky bellwether to adopt.
The teacher and student live in a framework in which the teacher, answerable to the parents and the school, and even on occasion to the State, is responsible for the decisions made by a student. The teacher therefore has the power—no, the duty— to challenge and curtail the student in ways that are not at all reciprocal. Students are fully aware of the discrepancy. One of the first things students shout out in class when one invites a discussion about teacher-student differences is, 'Teachers can "bomb" [or "blast", as the case may be] but we can't "back-answer".' Students are acutely conscious of not being able to show displeasure to a teacher.
By the same token, however (and this is hardly ever recognized by the student), the teacher too is not really free to voice her innermost thoughts to the student. Teachers are individuals, but they are also representatives of the institution in relation to the student. Moreover, they have also to be careful about the ways in which a so-called honest expression of their views might be insensitive, might potentially be hurtful or damaging to students. So the structural distinction between student and teacher exists and it is a real one; merely asserting the fact of our shared humanity will not wish it away.
Perhaps these are the sage reasons for which we appear, as teachers, to have accepted in some part the teacher-student relationship as belonging to a separate category of its own. In this box called 'teacher-student', apologies or explanations may not be required, perhaps certain kinds of information may be withheld; we may feel that we cannot, or should not, show our vulnerabilities to the student. It means that we speak in statements rather than questions. Within that structure we are expected to be, and can easily become, the authority, an institution which, in its very existence, assumes definitiveness and inhibits uncertainty. Working on the assumption that as teacher one has more clarity and therefore the ability, indeed the right, to guide a student to safe waters, makes the teacher-student relationship immediately more navigable for the teacher. In those instances, the question of what drives a teacher to teach is relatively easy to answer: it offers an authority which is seductive because it appears to offer the teacher a place and purpose; it offers safety and perhaps even an apparent sense of order born of concentrated power.
Yet there is hardly a relationship that is not conducted within a structure of one kind or another, official or not, recognized or not. There is hardly an intimate relationship, between friends, parents and children, husbands and wives, that does not admit of some institution, with its attendant role-playing, withholding, careful handling, at different points in its life. But we should baulk at saying that those relationships can therefore never be genuine, or need always be formal.
So we are back at the beginning: not looking to the student or to any other person to understand the success of oneself as a teacher but instead turning to our own capacity for truthful engagement. Oddly enough, accepting that the teacher and student are not different in kind does not, in practice, absolve the teacher of responsibility. It does not mean that the teacher must be uncertain or indecisive. Blurring—actually, denying—a qualitative difference between teacher and student seems automatically to make greater, more direct and more personal demands of the teacher. It requires her to step out of the safety of her institutional armour, so that teacher and student may then, together, begin to learn about living.