Yesterday, I had been writing late into the night, resulting in me waking up a bit later than usual in the morning. I was ready to go on with my usual schedule but stopped abruptly when I glanced at the notifications on my phone. To my heart’s delight, my inbox was flooded with my students wishing me on Teacher’s Day. It includes not just my current students but also my ex-students, even those that I had taught seven or eight years ago. While most of those messages were a “Happy Teacher’s Day, Dada”, accompanied by a heart symbol, there were some which mentioned special anecdotes from the time when they were my students. Dada is the Bengali word for ‘elder brother’. I always discouraged my students from calling me ‘Sir’, because of its obvious colonial connotation and because it felt much more comfortable being addressed as Dada. I also started teaching at the age of sixteen, and there were not too many years between my students and me. As you can imagine, it was quite difficult to hold up the persona of a 'Sir' at such a young age.
I started out as a private English tutor for a child studying in standard four. Her name was Sagarika. I cannot pinpoint exactly how I managed to acquire that job but in all probability, it was a neighbor’s word of mouth that reached Sagarika’s mother’s ears about a local boy, who is proficient in English and can teach her ward. Looking back, I can hardly recollect what her English lessons exactly were. However, I distinctly remember teaching her how to ride a bicycle, after classes. My monthly salary was ₹400 and though it may not seem like much now, it was a hefty sum for me back then.
Even though I come from a not-so-well-off family, my mother never made any compromises with my education. She toiled all day, providing private tuition in our home to countless students to sustain our family. Everything that I have learned about teaching was from the endless hours of sitting quietly in a corner and keenly observing my mother in her element. I was aware of our dire straits and so I never asked for any pocket money. However, that did not stop me from developing a tinge of envy towards my peers, who would get pocket money from their parents. I knew that I had to figure out my own way of earning that money and that acted as a catalyst for me gettign into teaching as a profession.
Soon after, I took on a second student named Aki. He is one of the sweetest boys you will ever meet but teaching him brought about challenges that I was not prepared for. Aki was on the far end of the autism spectrum, which was why he struggled with normative classroom learning. He was chided day and night by his school teachers and even his mother, who failed to recognize his special needs. Nowadays, there are entire courses on Special Needs Education that make you a well-equipped educator for students with disabilities. Not only did I not have that training but I was not even aware of such teaching methodologies.
The only tool in my arsenal was empathy and patience and years later, I realized these are the most important couple of qualities a teacher can possess. A teacher might have several degree certificates but without patience and empathy, they are just teachers in theory. Normative schooling and society had completely shattered Aki’s confidence. I made it my first priority to build up his self-confidence. There were moments when I almost lost my cool but there was always an internal voice guiding me to be patient with him.
As a teacher, I do not believe in raising my voice at my pupils and neither should a parent. Aki’s mother would often employ such harsh parenting techniques and I often lied to shield him. I was not just his teacher but his confidant. His progress was slow but one must not forget the story of the tortoise and the hare. After a year, his progress was finally reflected in his grades, and for the first time, he scored 50 % in his English exams. I taught him up until he finished school and even years later, he never forgets to check up on me from time to time.
By the time I was twenty, I had been able to make a more or less thriving (by my standards) profession out of teaching. What started as a side hustle with a single student bloomed into me teaching twenty students. There was this batch of seven students who joined my English classes when they were in standard nine. As I taught them, I learned that when you are teaching a group, you must realize that every student is unique and you cannot treat them as a monolith. Your method of instruction cannot be the same either. Every student’s pace and method of learning varies. For example, some learn more from visual aids, some prefer lectures, while some are more tuned to kinesthetic learning.
A classroom is a place where diversity must be celebrated and acknowledged. A teacher should also be conscious of avoiding things like favoritism. Also, a teacher should pack their ego and ship it off to the Caribbean Islands. I know so many teachers unwilling to learn from their students but that is just orthodoxy. My proudest moments were when my students would correct an error I made or overlooked during the correction process or my lectures. Respect must not be given to a teacher or anyone, for that matter, because of their age; respect must be earned. Even though I was barely five or six years older than my students, they held me in the highest regard only because respect is a two-way street. However, a teacher must also know when to criticize but more importantly, how to criticize to elicit positive results from the students. All the students from that batch passed both their board exams with flying colors. I remember when the results came out, they all came over to my house with sweets and a Batman t-shirt for me. Till date, I have never told them that the tee does not fit me — it's the thought that counts.
Now, fast forward to the present day, I teach for the Access Program, funded by the US Consulate. Institutional outlines and my age no longer allow me to go by Dada but rather as Sir. I teach communicative English to children from the slums but that’s in no way their identity. Even though they come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, their birthplace has not stood in the way of their growth. Some of my students represent the nation in Under-20 Rugby, while several of them play at the district and state levels. As I write this, several of my students are in France playing in the Rugby Heritage Cup 2023. I have never played rugby myself, and so after I take their class, I often challenge them to the game that I am good at — football. Also, if they are playing any rugby matches in Kolkata, I make sure I attend it as their most ardent supporter.
Recently, there was so much outrage against the teacher who encouraged a Muslim student to be slapped by his peers in the classroom. This shameful incident must deeply hurt all teachers across the world. A teacher’s role extends far beyond the four walls of a classroom. A teacher is not just responsible for creating students with good grades but for inculcating humanity in them. Grades come much later. Students are like clods of clay — easily malleable and it is the teacher’s duty to mold that clay into beautiful pottery. From toiling from house to house to becoming an educator for the US Consulate, I too, have grown and evolved alongside my students. I shall continue to teach with the same gusto and enthusiasm as the sixteen-year-old me, who took baby steps into one of the most fulfilling vocations that can ever exist.