Goolbai Gunasekara urges teachers to be at their best

There are teachers… and then there are teachers. Having been to eight schools in three countries (viz. India, the US and Sri Lanka), I have probably run the gamut of the many kinds of teachers – from nuns to socialites, graduates to poorly trained instructors and brilliant scholars to lackadaisical youngsters who are marking time until something better comes along.

This pattern is changing, and the importance of good teachers and potential teachers being thoroughly prepared for the job is assuming tremendous importance. Rich and advanced governments with fairly small populations are beginning to fix teachers’ salaries among those of the highest paid government servants in their countries.

This is happening particularly in Scandinavian nations, which now boast some of the highest education standards in the world.

Of course, these teachers need to have a master’s degree before they’re allowed to stand in front of a class of youngsters.

Teachers aren’t recruited as they are in Sri Lanka’s state schools the moment they have a degree because the government has foolishly promised them jobs after they graduate. And if these jobs are not provided instantly, the newly minted graduates stage huge protests.

The result is that they are offered jobs that aren’t necessarily suited to the degrees they hold. I will draw a curtain over the mess that’s now being created in the Ministry of Education in the hope that the forthcoming election will usher in fresh systems.

It’s nice if one can love a teacher; but one must be able to respect him or her at the very least. I recall one or two teachers I’ve really loved; and one or two I have really hated. But in general, we had good teachers back in the 1940s and ’50s. My best and most loved teachers were in my school in Jaffna – because their work ethic and concern for educational standards were exceptional.

Nothing is more resented than favouritism; and so a teacher needs to have a strict sense of justice. No teacher earns more contempt than one who shows partiality to a child. The trouble is that such teachers can’t be pulled up since it’s very difficult to prove partiality.

Unfortunately, favouritism often rests on the social and financial standing of a child’s parents. But there are also other reasons for a child being picked for extra attention – such as his or her relationship to the teacher and outright bribery.

And before you say it never happens, let me assure you it does!

If the principal gets to hear of it, there are repercussions; but who is going to report it? Not the parents and certainly not the recipient of a bribe.

I have heard of airline tickets being among the inducements offered to influence votes for places in teams, prefectships, nonacademic prizes etc. where selection is hugely dependent on the personal opinion of teachers.

With regard to the relationship between pupil and teacher, this is tricky because a wise teacher needs to be friendly but never familiar. Teachers in international schools move and talk fairly freely with their pupils. It is not uncommon for a student to compliment a teacher on a sari or handbag, or even a new hairstyle.

It happens and can be dealt with through good humour and friendliness; but all teachers don’t possess the necessary poise or sophistication to handle such situations. And yet, such qualities are becoming very necessary these days as students are being brought up in a far more liberal way.

I had also taught for many years under my mother in local schools. She guided her staff through the intricacies of appropriate relationships and I learnt from her that what a teacher says can colour the entire day (and sometimes, even the life) of a child, much like the anonymous quote that claims the following: ‘To teach is to touch a life forever.’

We were also forbidden to use certain phrases. Many of these had been used on students who had been quite traumatised as a result. Here are some of them…

‘If your mother is never at home, ask your poor father to help you with your homework.’ (The mother ran a successful garment factory.)

‘You obviously don’t get your uniforms washed daily.’ (This was said to an underprivileged child who was on scholarship.)

‘Does everyone in your family have lice?’ (Far too personal.)

There were others too. The point is that the influence of a teacher should always be constructive. Far too many are outright destructive. Remember the poor child who was accused of being pregnant because she vomited in school? The girl was not pregnant but her family was almost hounded out of the village.

Teachers need to learn to wield their power not only wisely but kindly too. Let me repeat what I have often quoted before: “Only they deserve power who justify its use daily.”