In my first year as a teacher, I was fortunate to chance upon Kamala Mukunda’s book What did You Ask at School Today? From the chapter titled ‘Motivation’ I gained a perspective (perhaps not intended by the author) that has shaped my teaching practice over the past three years.
Broadly speaking, students seem to align themselves along one of two perpendicular axes—the axis of ‘Talent- Performance’ and the axis of ‘Understanding -Effort’. On the Talent-Performance axis, performance is paramount. Students see their performance as a result of having a certain talent or the lack of it. For instance, in a mathematics class this is evident in the statement ‘I am not the maths kind. I hate maths.’ Poor performance is seen as evidence of lack of talent, creating a spurious certainty about one’s inability. Similarly, good performance becomes a reinforcement of a static sense of ability. Learning then is reduced to a limiting either-or binary of ‘success’ or ‘failure’. Living on this axis crystallizes a self-image that becomes hard to challenge and leaves the student constantly yearning for ways to be better in the eyes of the world. This yearning is a treadmill built for disillusionment and therefore deepens the yearning even further.
The Understanding-Effort axis breaks out of this ‘stuckness’ by recognizing that learning is a dynamic, never-ending process, joyous and valuable in itself without any gain attached to it. It also recognizes that talent is a false god: talent is at best pleasurable and inspiring when offered generously, but often it is cruelly used to further one’s sense of power in order to mask a deeper sense of insecurity.
As a teacher, I decided to focus on the Understanding-Effort axis and thereafter worked to help students move consciously from fixed ideas of talent, reinforced by poor performance in assessments, to a more engaging frame of mind. I wanted them to be able to see that understanding was sometimes hindered by prejudice against the subject, born out of previously frustrating experiences with it.
It is possible to discover the lie in this prejudice by starting with a simple question: ‘What is 1+1?’ Once that is easily answered (after an incredulous look), one can progressively move up a ladder of skills and come to a point where there is uncertainty. One can then pose a challenge: ‘Is it really true that you know no maths at all? What is true is that you are confident of some concepts and skills and you are unsure about others. That is not a problem. In fact, that is true of all of us.’ Finding the point where certainty blurs (in a subject like mathematics at least) gives a good starting point for rebuilding skills and confidence. It is then possible to bring in effort as a means of intervention, to further understanding, not performance. I found that I could apply the same principles to my own teaching. It seemed that what was true for students was true for teachers also. It is possible to look at other teachers and think of them as naturally gifted in some way and that ‘good teaching’ was an ability that one had by chance or not. I realized early that I was not a ‘natural teacher’, but it took me a while to realize that it did not matter.
I began to think of teaching as a craft, not unlike weaving or web design, that could be learnt systematically and with deliberation. It was possible to gather skills and to hone them. What has emerged is a rootedness in understanding and effort, which has helped me move from a wellintentioned but diffident teacher to a more confident and effective one.
Below, I discuss three aspects of teaching I have consciously worked on.
The importance of preparation for a class cannot be overstated. For me, it has been the key determinant amongst the factors within my control. Preparation comprises reading ahead, working out problems beforehand, researching other resources, planning activities, and compiling worksheets. Another key aspect of preparation comes to the fore with the question: ‘Who is one preparing for?’ The obvious answer is ‘the students’, but there can also be a preparation for oneself.
To teach a class merely as a transaction of a syllabus or as an institutional requirement is a travesty of learning. When teaching is seen as an opportunity to dive deeper into one’s own understanding as well, pushing the edges of what we think we already know, ‘to play with it’, then an interest is naturally created in us. In the classroom, the live quality of the interest that has been aroused in us is what communicates and, by resonance, brings forth the student’s own interest. As a response to the more traditional idea that education is about filling the student’s mind with the teacher’s knowledge, it is countered that the root meaning of education is derived from the Latin word educere, ‘to bring forth’. But what is it that is brought forth? Is it the student’s existing knowledge? Is it his talent? I think not. It is the student’s innate interest and curiosity to learn that is brought forth, and that interest which is drawn out is the real teacher.
For example, before teaching a course in environmental education for the middle school (which may have more hands-on components), it may be useful for the teachers to study together the writings of, say David Orr or Schumacher, though it may not be of any immediate use in the course. The purpose would be to prepare one’s own mind through a deepening of understanding, as stated above. This may be done each time one teaches the same course, so that newer ideas and perspectives emerge, which may sometimes translate into appropriate teaching methodologies.
Similarly, a conversation among teachers before a study trip could focus not just on the practicalities but also on the topics or issues that the trip has been planned for. It would create the ground for an active engagement with what emerges on the trip.
Classroom management and teaching methodologies
For a new teacher, the prospect of a noisy, disorderly or chaotic classroom is daunting, and it rouses feelings of anxiety and helplessness. Such experiences may leave a teacher diffident about her role. A common response to such a situation is to ‘get tough’. While there is some validity in being firm so that the learning environment is not vitiated, it seems to me that the difficulties of classroom management (a terrible phrase, indeed!) are better addressed laterally rather than by a heavy-handed approach. Again, what is called for is a shift from the Talent-Performance axis to the Understanding-Effort axis for oneself. Instead of feeling a personal lack in the face of a disruptive class, one could look to experiment with classroom methodologies and take a greater interest in the students’ lives to understand the apparent lack of interest.
For instance, let us suppose I am most comfortable with a traditional chalk-and-talk approach, but in my classes I also notice that it creates a pattern of interaction where some students slip into passivity and the focus is entirely on me. This is ripe ground for what one may call ‘disruptive behaviour’ with attendant feelings of inadequacy for the teacher. Instead of haranguing, I could choose to use videos that explain the concept with clarity, thereby remove myself from the focal point, and change my role to one who asks probing questions that test understanding, help make connections with previous material, and inspire ideas for a project.
The Krishnamurti schools offer plenty of latitude in methodologies that a teacher may adopt. It is important to use that space to experiment and discover newer ways to engage with content. An exploration into teaching strategies makes teaching an active process of learning for oneself. There are several excellent resources available in the school library and online, but to use them consciously in one’s practice makes all the difference.
Learning to ‘talk maths’ is a critical skill that helps break the idea of mathematics as being an exercise in number crunching, symbolic manipulation, or formula memorizing. It opens the ground for precision in expression, an appreciation for closely related but distinct concepts, and articulation of a variety of different solutions for the same problem.
Sometimes there are unexpected benefits in exploring teaching methodologies. In using a series of videos from MIT’s Open Course Ware to teach calculus for class 11, I also learnt how to effectively use a blackboard!
The role of feedback (for the teacher and student alike) is dependent on the axis that one lives in. On the Talent-Performance axis, feedback is merely reinforcement of a static idea of oneself. On the Understanding- Effort axis, however, feedback is a critical ingredient of learning. In the virtuous cycle born out of effort leading to understanding which spurs further effort, feedback is the catalyst that changes the cycle into a spiral. It brings in reflection as the key process between effort and understanding, and lends depth.
Feedback for students would imply writing detailed comments on their test scripts or speaking to them individually about a piece of written work. At times, it takes 3-4 iterations of similar feedback before it begins to be incorporated by students. Feedback could also be built into a classroom conversation with constant probing to uncover patterns of thinking and fallacies, if any. Feedback for teachers is an institutional requirement in some schools; but it may also be sought voluntarily and informally. Co-teaching is a wonderful ground for simple, open feedback. We may also get valuable feedback from students.
For two consecutive sports days at The School-KFI, I taught folk dances I had learnt as a student at Rishi Valley School. In the first year, I had taught a dance done in parallel lines. After many days of practice, when we went to the sports ground the day before the event, we found that the lines were messy—what worked for smaller groups in a closed space was chaotic for the entire school in an open space. This was not something I had foreseen. The solution came from a group of class 9 girls who suggested that the formation be changed to circles. Initially, the idea was not acceptable to me because it flew in the face of how I had learnt the dance. However, when they demonstrated the dance in a circle, everything fell into place beautifully.
In the second year, I taught a dance where I struggled to break down a particular sequence of steps. Again I had learnt it in a specific way, and though I could see that it was not working, I did not know how to correct it until a class 12 student introduced two simple pauses to fit the steps to the music, and then magically all was well.
In either instance, the need to be right in front of others could have overshadowed the opportunity to learn, but happily that was not the case.
In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer states that teaching is a public profession that is practised privately. Surgeons operate in the presence of other doctors, lawyers argue their cases in public view, so why do teachers seek the security of a closed classroom? Palmer writes, ‘If we want to grow in our practice, we have two places to go: to the inner ground from which teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft.’
A personal note
The first line of the article should really have been ‘In the first year of my second stint as a teacher...’ When I was a student at Rishi Valley School, I was certain I wanted to teach. When I did join The School-KFI in 1999, I thought I had answered my calling. The experience of the next three years, however, left me with deep self-doubt. I was left asking myself: ‘If you are not good at that which you think you love doing, should you still do it?’ Unable to answer the question satisfactorily, and feeling that I may be doing more harm than good, I stopped teaching in 2003.
I rejoined The School-KFI in 2011, and I see now that it is not important whether or not teaching is a calling. The path of understanding and effort keeps me interested in other questions, such as ‘How do I address multiple levels in a mathematics class?’ or ‘How do we help children be safe in online spaces?’ or ‘Is education a process of preparing a child for the work of self-inquiry to be undertaken as an adult?’
It strikes me that the first three years of teaching are important years, as someone who has done it twice over! Especially in a Krishnamurti school, where classroom engagement is only one part of all that goes into being a teacher, the explorative freedom available can also be strangely overwhelming. Building competence through learning the craft of teaching helps create a stable ground for entering that other more challenging area: the art of teaching.