One of the features of schools is that teachers are expected to do what they are allocated. Any additional initiative is purely by chance or a product of the rhetoric and goading. Creating an atmosphere where the well-being of the teacher is one of the key concerns is generally regarded as too difficult in the face of various other institutional priorities that demand attention. One way of side-stepping the question is through the time-honoured sentiment that the school is for the child and the teacher must offer himself or herself to be consumed without an iota of the self. Beyond humane working conditions, to look for anything else seems almost a sacrilege. And yet we know that it is only a continually growing, fully alive human being who can create an environment that is truly nurturing and challenging for the child. Krishnamurti, in his writings and discussions with teachers, has indicated that the school is for the teacher and the student to learn together. The schools founded by Krishnamurti thus attempt to create more than just a good working environment for the teacher. There is a palpable invitation, not to rest with the given set of guidelines, but to move beyond the confines of one’s experience. Each school perhaps attempts to nurture its teachers in its own way.
This article gives an account of the practices and programmes aimed at teacher growth, as they have evolved at The School in Chennai. It also attempts to raise some of the issues involved in creating an atmosphere in school for ‘teachers-who-are-learners’.
Staff meetings are the one forum where all the adult participants in a school meet on a periodic basis. We have felt 64 that these meetings play a crucial role in the creation of a challenging and nurturing atmosphere at school.
Staff meetings are held once a fortnight, on alternate Saturdays through the year. These are 4-hour meetings with a tea break, where the whole staff body meets, from teachers of kindergarten to higher secondary classes, including teachers of physical education, music, art and crafts. The first part of the meeting is a ‘general discussion’ where wide educational questions are taken up for discussion. These can be initiated by any staff member (and not always by the head), and it may be done in different ways. Some days a Krishnamurti Video may be watched together, and at other times a passage read or a question elaborated as a starting point.
The second part of the staff meeting has to do with business matters and details of the school’s functioning. Issues from the junior, middle or senior school are raised, spoken about and decided upon. Sometimes a certain point may lead to a lot of discussion of a philosophic nature. This is given room to develop, for such a discussion helps each one to learn the various views that are possible and also we become aware of the many points of view that exist. However, unlike the previous part of the meeting, it is not enough to merely discuss them. A decision is often needed and decisions impinge on what one is expected to do. What usually happens when a group of people need to decide on a functional matter is that there are a few options that emerge; most often, one person decides and everyone else accepts the decision. Sometimes problems with the decisions may be voiced. Some corrections may be made. However, this process could be very much more dynamic and challenging if an attempt is made not to find easy agreement but to find an honestly debated solution. Having stated that ‘easy agreement is dangerous’, how do we then move forward? Is it through authority, voting or consensus? Or is there an intelligent way of moving ahead in the discussion, where positions are given up and the best decision for the school emerges out of the combined perceptions, through the consideration of many minds? This remains one of our ongoing concerns.
There are various formats that are used in the meetings for unfolding a topic. There are small group discussions where there is an opportunity for each member to speak. There are large group discussions that are initiated by listening to one person or to three or four people. Sometimes a conversation between two people, with all others listening, opens up the subject being discussed. There are meetings where the listeners offer their observations on the content and the process, on the manner in which the discussion has proceeded. The attempt is to hold on to the invitation to listen and participate together, without it becoming a burden. The importance of diverse contexts is paramount if a structure is not to get stuck as a ritual that has lost vibrancy. The key question is, “How do we, as concerned individuals, share and together attend to the education of the young and to the needs of the school?” The operative word is together.
One of the key features of these meetings is that any staff member may chair the meetings. This is decided through volunteering or by the chairperson nominating the person to chair the next meeting. Thus different styles of conducting meetings become evident and also the responsibility of conducting meetings is shared. One may feel that the content and the sharpness of discussions may get diffused. However, quite to the contrary, we have seen a shared space emerging that involves many staff members taking responsibility.
These meetings have proved to be a very valuable learning ground for a newcomer, as he or she is introduced to debates in education and also to the processes within the school. Moreover, any teacher is given room to openly voice his or her feelings, however radical, without repercussions and to learn about responsibly working together. Whether there is dissent or dirt, it is better to make it visible rather than push it under the carpet. This is actively communicated in a visible and experiential manner. After all, it is the accretion of unvoiced contrary views which block an institution’s energies. In the absence of an open atmosphere, doubts and fears (about what can be said and what 66 cannot be said, about who will get hurt etc.) tend to grow and occupy psychological space. Ritual politeness begins to mask differences. Adjustments replace a working together.
The underlying concern behind these processes has been to somehow ensure that the vision remains strong and bright and does not get foggy due to a crystallisation of habit and establishment of ritual. To keep the vision as a living concern, not just held in monopoly by a small group, but held as widely as possible, is seen as vital for the health of the school. Further, we may ask: is it possible to hold the vision in such a manner that the newest staff member feels free to join the ongoing debate non-intrusively, and the oldest member also participates and finds meaning and sustenance?
This has meant creating space for the growth of initiative among the teaching staff and the emergence of a widely shared mutual confidence. At times this has meant not fighting shy of confrontation even in open staff forums. Sometimes it is not only the content but also the tone of participation that has needed to be addressed.
Stepping out of grooves
In a teacher’s life one usually gets lodged in an area of competence and then rarely moves from there. However, this may not be in the best interest of the teacher or the school. We have consciously sought to invite teachers to teach subjects which they are interested in or have an affinity for, even if they have no direct qualifications for these. Competence in teaching a subject may be considered as a matter of developing a perspective; acquiring skills and knowledge is relatively easy. A person with a Masters degree in History can teach Social Studies at the middle school level and so also move to teaching Geography or English. A teacher with a Masters degree in Biology ought to be able to teach Chemistry up to class 10. The introduction of Environmental Studies in classes 9, 10, 11 and 12 has forced us to gain competence in an area where certification and qualification have not started in a big way. Teachers with degrees in various specializations, including Maths, Biology, Engineering, Medicine and English, have had to engage in self-study and get ready to handle the requirements of these classes. The knowledge that the ISC Examination board permits schools to send in alternative syllabi has also been used by us to create the Environmental Studies curriculum for classes 11 and 12, which has then been approved as a subject by the board.
A stretch of this kind makes demands on the teacher’s capacity to remain a student and also generates the ability to learn from and support each other. Such an approach also places knowledge in the right perspective. This may be seen as putting pressure on teachers. But, on the other hand, can an institution ignore the necessity that teachers should remain learners and that they must together collaborate, share and support each other? After all it is not one teacher who makes a school. We may in fact ask if the phrase teacher-learner does not better describe the teaching staff we look for in our schools.
Stepping out of the groove of one’s field is easier in areas like games and activities. Every school also needs teachers to take charge of many other additional responsibilities. There is a frequently encountered situation where the teachers who have easily visible capacities end up sharing additional loads, with the majority lapsing into fringe positions of passive bystanders or at best in support positions. There are several roles such as coordination of admissions, maintenance, stationery, books, activities, school events, assemblies etc. that teachers may be called upon to take up. We have found it important to rotate these roles. This is a clear statement that every teacher has resources and capacities and that these may be called upon by the school. Also, ‘I have not done it before’ is no reason not to try it this year. Usually the fear of sharing such responsibilities is that they may not get addressed efficiently. On the other hand if there is a supportive atmosphere and a feeling of sharing, it is possible for things to run well and efficiently even as teachers are learning the nuances of new responsibilities.
There are important benefits to be had from such a perspective. Firstly, there is the active emphasis on the notion 68 that common sense and resourcefulness are not specialities. Secondly, the functioning of the school becomes more transparent and therefore open to discussion, suggestions and criticism from colleagues. Thirdly, different styles can bring untapped qualities to a role and probably greatly improve functioning. A new person learning about, say, admissions, is looking at the whole system and hence is in a position to raise questions, reveal drawbacks and thus identify aspects that need change. Last but not the least, rediscovering a capacity to handle unfamiliar situations brings both a sense of confidence and a sense of being trusted. In our experience such trust has never been violated. And the whole movement makes for a group of teachers who are learning not only about tasks they have never done before but also, more generally, about collaboration, responsibility and working together.
The administration–teaching staff divide is quite pronounced in most schools. The ways in which decisions are made by the head or other ‘responsible’ people in school often leaves teachers uncomprehending or in doubt. We have tried to respond to this difficulty by articulating that ‘every teacher is concerned with all aspects of school’ or ‘no teacher can say that he is not responsible for what is going on’. (We have this pertinent statement from Krishnamurti: ‘The school is like a submarine and the people here like a submarine crew, willing to step in and do whatever is needed.’)
Another crucial area is the process of decision-making: how are decisions made by designated individuals? Our style of decision-making has generally been for the person making the decision to consult two or three people, if not more, about most decisions. A culture of consultation, which helps unravel the complexities of any situation, reinforces a culture of listening, and a deep understanding that no one person alone holds the full picture. “What can you do alone, sir?” Krishnamurti often asked.
The school has also moved in a direction in which there is no one person alone who knows the reasons behind a decision. Teachers who have been in school longer than 5 years meet to discuss crucial matters such as policies and emerging guidelines. Difficult decisions, such as the resignation of teachers over disagreements etc. are discussed openly and senior teachers are immediately briefed. This does not give room for rumours and dissipating processes to take root. Transparency is also maintained by inducting newer teachers into the crucial admissions and teacher interview committees. This provides an opportunity for new teachers to become aware of and ask questions such as, “What are the criteria for taking in a new teacher or a senior student? How do we interview parents?”
Feedback and self-appraisals
Over the years, through debates during staff meetings on the issue of teacher feedback, the school went through a difficult area—and this happened rather smoothly and painlessly. It had always been recognized that teachers, left to teach in their own way in the classroom, tend to get isolated. Classrooms can become very isolated and isolating places—what happens within their four walls is considered ‘private’; only between the teacher and the students. Thinking about how to enrich what goes on in any class, using the expertise that is already available with fellowteachers, has led us to developing a particular system of teacher feedback. Our attempt has been to evolve a system that is based on invitation, where the initiative rests with the person seeking feedback. Such a system is described below.
STEP 1: The teacher seeking feedback chooses and invites three of her colleagues to her classes. The three colleagues should be so chosen that they represent the following categories:
- one who teaches the same/similar subject to the same/similar age group
- one who teaches the same/similar subject to a different age group
- one who teaches a different subject to a different age group
STEP 2: each of these colleagues needs to attend three periods taught by the teacher who has sought their feedback. The schedule for this must be worked out at the initiative of the teacher seeking the feedback.
STEP 3: There is a feedback form that is to be filled out based on overall observations. The observing teachers will hand out one copy to the teacher seeking feedback and the other to a specific colleague without any of the names being mentioned. The Principal and the Managing committee receive the feedback forms about the new teachers, who are on probation.
To provide an opportunity for teachers to take stock at the end of the year and also to generate information about the state of various experiences in the school, a system of self-appraisal was introduced a few years ago. Every teacher, just before the year-end meetings, fills in a self-appraisal form with some clearly-worded questions. The attempt is to elicit from the teacher a sense of what was done well, what were some of the problems they came across, what was done when problems were faced, were there interesting situations encountered, were there opportunities for new or deeper learning etc. These answers are as much a reflective exercise for the individual who fills up the form as for the common space. The self-appraisal forms go into the teacher’s file, but are never to be used for any future evaluation of the teacher for purposes of increment in pay etc. We have seen that individuals feel free to write about difficulties faced and about problems and patterns they encounter, with great honesty. ‘The truth can be spoken without punishment’ is one of the most important messages for teachers and other staff to receive. The strength of this communication keeps the air clean. The depth and the sincerity of the responses from teachers are as much a gift to the school as they are a learning experience for individual teachers.
Sabbaticals, exchanges and inductions
The refrain of teacher growth has been stretched a bit further too. The schools under the Krishnamurti Foundation India have the opportunity of sending teachers to visit the sister schools in England and America. Teachers are nominated from the school with some care. The experience of entering a sister school far away from Chennai, watching the processes at work, and learning from these, has been found to be most enriching by individuals and, through them, by the school.
We have also drawn up other avenues for a teacher to pursue interests that may not have to do directly with academics. We have attempted to define the school as a place of learning, where living responses to life’s situations are being explored. A teacher, after some years at The School, can ask for a one day a week sabbatical. On this one week-day, say on each Monday, the teacher need not attend school but can attend to a certain pursuit of significance to him or her as an individual. So far teachers have used this opportunity to write books, study specific courses or issues, work towards evolving a course on Women’s Studies etc. There is an advantage in this way of working. The teacher and the institution understand that the teacher’s growth is also the institution’s growth. And yet the services of the teacher continue to be available to the school for the whole year, so that critical academic classes do not get affected. In this manner an institutionally coherent solution has been found, rather than an ad hoc response to teacher needs (which may invite doubts about privileges and fairness). It is important that even sensible things must be done only after being cleared institutionally, or else it must be stated that this is an experimental move. The school has moved in a direction whereby it is now possible to tangibly say that the teacher’s well being is part of the institutional concern and the relationship between individual and institution is both complimentary and synergetic. We are open today if a teacher, after a few years at school, wishes to have time for:
- researching into K’s teachings
- working with teacher orientation (training) and reorientation
- preparation for a new subject in the next year
- review or design of new courses and preparation of materials
- self-education which is nourishing and growing for the teacher
- documentation and publishing—books, monographs etc
- planning around future needs
- offering advice and consultancy to other schools and educational bodies
- organising and conducting workshops / camps for parents, teachers, students, alumni etc.
- public awareness work in selected areas such as environment, education etc.
By thinking of the school in this manner, all such work— that is needed to sustain a vibrant environment and wholesome debate—becomes legitimate. The school also continues to draw upon the resources of people, who would otherwise be unavailable, if they were to go away on sabbatical or leave in order to address their other interests. The school plans to simultaneously train teachers for newer roles and refresh its staff body. The definition of a teacher’s role in this manner permits us to say, for example, ‘We invest 15 per cent of our teaching staff time in “growth and meeting future needs” of the school, and 10 per cent of the salary budget to provide the kind of rich experiences which would promote these.’
To do this the school has had to review its induction policy as well. Teachers are not inducted only against vacancies. On the other hand the school invites interested individuals to consider the school as a possible place to work and grow. A capable individual, who would not fragment academic subjects and deeper questions and who has the capacity of working with others, may be invited into a threshold position. Once the school feels that this individual is serious about finding out what it means to be a teacher there are many options which can be explored, starting with non-teaching opportunities. There are certain explicit demands that are made:
- New teachers need to acquaint themselves with the teachings of Krishnamurti which are pertinent to education.
- No teacher at the end of the probationary year may say that he or she knows nothing about the founding principles of the school.
- Teachers are required to voice doubts and apprehensions that may arise on any points being discussed or which come to their notice. They cannot remain disinterested or unconcerned.
- A staff member may also be assigned non-teaching responsibilities and is not expected to refuse unless there are special difficulties.
It is through these means that we have been able to move in the school towards a culture, an ethos, which permits the operation of many styles and simultaneously makes quite legitimate and healthy the demand to move within one’s own orientations and deepen one’s own perceptions. This we feel is the key to the creation of an atmosphere in school where the teacher also remains a learner.
Education...has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.
[G M Trevalyan]