Agents of social change?

Though teaching is termed the profession of prophets, teachers are routinely derided and denigrated. Why?

Agents of social change?

Teachers and teaching elicit contradictory attitudes from our society. Teachers are simultaneously put on a pedestal but also routinely derided and denigrated. Pakistanis frequently refer to teaching as the profession of prophets but also keep complaining about the low status.

What is at the bottom of these contradictory attitudes? I believe it is our familiarity with teaching that breeds a naïve sense of expertise in teaching in nearly everyone who has been to school in the first two decades of his or her life.

Let us try and see how the perceptions of teachers and teaching develop and evolve over time in our imaginations. To do so, I will refer to my experience and how it has shaped my views of teachers and teaching. My first encounter with the formal teachers and teaching occurred when I was enrolled in the school. I cannot recall much about my teachers in the early school. But I do remember that I was not very excited to go to the school because I did not like being disciplined.

For most children, a typical school offers an experience of and in regimentation and discipline. Its physical and social architecture, its system of rules that governs pupils’ lives while at school, and its organisation of time in timetables are designed to curtail children’s freedom. For most young children like me, going to a traditional school in our society, teachers came across as discipliners. No one remembers any particular lessons taught by their early childhood teachers. But they vividly remember standing in long lines in the morning assembly. Teachers must appear to them, as they did to me, as agents whose job it is to make them stand straight, look clean, stay quiet, etc.

What children get from teachers in those early days at school are tons of instructions about what to do or not to do. The teachers enter their lives at an early stage as agents of discipline, not of individual or social change and improvement. At least this is how I recall my earliest experiences of teachers. It is remarkable how enduring this perception is for many of us.

A good teacher, for many, is one in whose class the children appear to be ‘learning’ silently. One of my acquaintances, a principal of an elite school, had this to say about her best teacher, "she is so wonderful. There is always a pin drop silence in her classroom." Success in keeping children silent continues to be seen as one of the teachers’ best achievements in our society.

Many experts on teachers and teaching have never set their foot ever in a school as a teacher. This can happen only to teaching and not to any other profession. The doctors do not usually tell engineers what good engineering must be all about and vice versa. But nearly everyone seems to have an opinion on what good teaching must be all about.

We learn more about teaching as we move up the grade levels. For instance, I can recall dividing teachers into many categories. Among those who taught me, there were teachers that I loved, others that I feared, and still others that I utterly abhorred. In some ways all of them showed me what it meant to be a good teacher. For example, my Urdu teacher in the secondary grades, Mr Munir, was one of the best teachers I remember from my primary school. I do not remember much of what Mr. Munir taught us in his class. But I remember his kindness, his diligence as a teacher, and the personal attention he gave to me. I also remember him for the learning opportunities he provided to me. He, in the nutshell, influenced me to read and write more than anyone else. It was all about me of course. I wasn’t going to assess him for the attention he gave to other students. In fact, I would be very jealous if other students took my place. But regardless of this, I began to look at teachers as both discipliners and helpers. Some helped me more than others. They were my heroes. Such adults, who can recall positive and transformative impact of teachers on their lives, carry a slightly different perception about the teachers. For them, good teachers do not only inculcate discipline in children. They also facilitate them to learn and grow. But what it means to learn and grow may vary from one person to the other.

A high school teacher recently showed me a letter from one of his ex-students. I am paraphrasing what his ex-student said about him as it reveals how the students can potentially see the teachers and what such seeing does to them. This ex-student, now a professional scientist, seemed to be his teacher’s fan. He complemented his teacher for being a very disciplined, organised and innovative role model. According to him, this teacher went out of his way, relentlessly, to create learning opportunities for his students with a clear desire to expand their intellectual horizons. He told his happily surprised, and humbled, teacher as to how the latter had introduced his students to the disciplines of science and basic engineering in an exemplary manner and how profound an impact he had on his students.

While the sentiment of this student left me touched, it also showed how profoundly the perceptions about teachers and teaching resulted from reflections on our past engagements with teachers. A good teacher, for this ex-student, would be one whose teaching practices and demeanour closely resembled his own highly rated teachers.

The characteristics of a good teacher can vary depending on our existing vocation and perceptions about the value of education. It is entirely possible for another ex-student to attach more value to a teacher who helped her make good scores in the examinations than the one who attempted to introduce her to the joys of learning. In such cases, a good teacher would be worth his salt only if he could get his students through examinations with flying colours. As we know, such ‘good’ teachers abound in the tuition industry associated with the high schools these days.

Regardless of the variation in early experiences with teachers and our current perceptions about teachers and teaching, one thing remains common. We almost never look at teachers, in any practical way, as agents of social change or transformation. All of us experience teaching mostly from a deeply individualistic perspective. We don’t sit in exams as a collective but as individuals. It is our personal success and upward mobility that matters and teachers appear central to it.

I did not think of teachers as agents of social change until I started working as a teacher educator. Even then, it was thrown at us as a slogan. As teacher educators, we wanted to believe that education must contribute to social transformation. If education was to be a mechanism of social change, teachers were obviously ‘agents of social change’. It was a useful slogan as it made the would-be teachers and teacher educators feel important. However, after they had graduated from their teacher education programmes, our student teachers were soon made to realise that aspirations for social change did not determine the daily grind of teaching.

It takes a long time of immersion in teaching and thinking about teaching to recognise that work of teachers cannot be captured in simple terms. It is far more complex. It requires a professional field to look at its multiple facets. As I have described above our understanding of teaching comes mostly from our experiences as students.

The heavy exposure to teaching in the first two decades of our life turns us all into self-declared experts on teachers and teaching. But as I have argued, our perceptions about teachers and teaching depend on our personal experiences with them. They do not depend on any professional knowledge of what constitutes good teaching.

My understanding of the work of teaching has changed many times. I assume that happens with all of us. But while the choice of education as career may lead some to understand teaching as a complex professional domain with its own professional knowledge base and code of conduct/practice, I do not think that happens with all of us. So being bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, soldiers, or even illiterate, do not prevent us from assuming that we ‘know’ what it means to teach young children.

Many current experts on teachers and teaching have never set their foot ever in a school as a teacher. This can happen only to teaching and not to any other professional vocation. The doctors do not usually tell engineers what good engineering must be all about and vice versa. But nearly everyone seems to have an opinion on what good teaching must be all about.

Personal perceptions and experiences about a professional vocation do not determine the standards of professional knowledge and practice in other professions. In teaching, however, our long exposure to it breeds a sort of familiarity that seemingly comes in the way of its professional understanding.

American sociologist of teaching, Dan C. Lortie, has given this familiarity a name. He calls it an apprenticeship of observation. We are all, he argues, apprenticed into teaching by observing it in the first two decades of our lives. The apprenticeship of observation comes into the way of according a professional status to teaching.

Our narrow perceptions about the importance of good teaching for the well-being of children gives teachers some value. But the fact that all of us seem to know perfectly well what good teaching must be all about also keeps teaching from growing as a profession.

Agents of social change?