An Ode to the Vocation of Teaching

The act of teaching is essentially a spiritual act. The work of a teacher is to touch the being of the learner and enable her to discover the treasures that lie undiscovered. Here a teacher pleads for retaining the distinctiveness of the vocation of teaching and invites students to the vocation.

Amrita Sastry teaches Sociology at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.



[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s he said towards the end of his classroom lecture, “I end this lecture with an appeal. You are young filled with life-energy. Accept these challenges, and choose the vocation of teaching.” –  My teacher.

Alas! My wait comes to an end. A new academic session has begun in Delhi University. My euphoria as a university teacher to engage with the new batch, the inquisitive young minds and the creative souls has no end. I am excited to learn new things from my students, to share my experiences with them and to begin the process of recreating a ‘new social reality’.

I understand and want to assure others that this euphoria is not ‘self-praise’ rather I am aware that this ‘feeling’ comes with its own limitation. Yes, it is not easy to be a teacher especially in – a ‘highly technocratic society’, where students are enslaved and contented with gadgets, where ‘Google’  has an answer to all the problems they encounter in real life and where friendship goals are based on ‘social networking interactions’.  

As one enters the classroom, one can see that majority of them deny reacting and engaging in classroom discussions, they behave like ‘robots’ and as ‘bloodless souls’. They are there in their virtual world, constantly engaged with their cell phones and social networking sites, as if it is the ‘new normal’.

Teacher’s entry into the classroom goes unnoticed, wishing the teacher becomes cumbersome and hence everything is reduced to just a ‘formality’. For most of them, the ultimate goal is to get a ‘degree’ hence the purpose of learning is to clear the semester examination.

The readings on ‘reflexive sociology’, ‘interpretative sociology’, ‘and social construction of reality’ are just reduced to a number of pages to be reproduced during the end semester examinations. Thus, knowledge remains as ‘mere piece of information’ as the agent rejects its transformation into self-awareness. As a teacher, I feel restless as the deeper bond between the teacher-taught seems losing its soul and hence the joy of teaching brings no euphoria.  

It takes me back to my student days which reminds me of Emile Durkheim speaking about the moral authority of teachers, Paulo Freire’s notion of teacher as emancipator and Karl Mannheim’s teacher as facilitator/catalyst. A classroom situation which was absolutely different from what we see now- hence I feel privileged as we were not solely dependent on gadgets (though cell phones were there), no social networking sites to define our friendship goals and for every conflicting situations, the life affirming solutions came from our teachers/elders.  A grace was evident in the teacher-taught relationship where the idea of respecting teachers was not in the form of ‘command’ but solely because of the love, trust and faith. By reflecting on the past, I wish to make it clear that I am not glorifying the past and criticising the present- the past had its own beauty with its limited resources, so as the present has its own charm with full of abundance.

Yes as a teacher in contemporary times, I see problems in everyday classrooms dynamics, I am critical towards the ways things are happening now, I also feel dejected when some student asks question like- ‘How many sides/ number of pages should I write an answer on objectivity?’, ‘If two pages on Durkheim’s idea of social fact will be sufficient for a 10 marks question?’, ‘whether to reproduce everything in the exam that is being taught in the classroom’- a pure mechanical way of learning. I feel helpless as a teacher as I fail to answer their questions, I understand their plight yet I condemn their act.  Have I failed as a teacher to invoke that sensitivity in my students and am I in the process of producing mere cogs in the wheel?

It takes me back to Jiddu Krishnamurthy and his appeal to all those who wants to pursue teaching- ‘The first thing a teacher must ask herself, when she decides that she wants to teach, is what exactly she means by teaching. Is she going to teach the usual subjects in the habitual way? Does she want to condition the child to become a cog in the social machine, or help the child to be an integrated creative human being, a threat to false values? And if the teacher is to help the student to examine and understand the values and influences that surrounds her and of which she is a part, must he not be aware of them herself? If one is blind, can one help other to cross to the other shore?’

Thus, first I begin to look within and remind myself about the possible challenges associated with being a teacher. Why I took up this challenge despite knowing its nuances. My inner voice helps me to overcome the situation of crisis, as an optimist I look at the glass as ‘half full’ and not half empty. As I said, not everyone in the class is a ‘robot’, some of them are excited, waiting for the lectures, to share their everyday lived experience, to engage in the classroom discussion and question the rhetoric. This gives me hope to look forward to every new day and search for new possibilities -recreate the joy of teaching! It might appear philosophical to many, so I wish to share a narrative from my classroom.

It was yet another normal day in college- I had scheduled a class test for my third year honours students for Environmental Sociology paper. As a routine procedure, I went to sign on each student’s answer script. While signing on the script of a one girl who was late for the test, I found her left hand fist clenched. There was a doubt in my mind- Cheating!!! I asked her to open her fist, she was reluctant. Her reluctant behavior strengthened my belief about something fishy. I said her again to open her fist and this time she did as per my instruction. I was surprised it was a DTC bus ticket.

She was holding it so tightly, I was wondering why… Then she got up and smiled. She explained me the reason and it was that reason which strengthened my belief as a teacher. Her explanation was given with reference to the classroom lecture- that environmental problems are primarily created by us and hence we should be sensitive towards our environment. She showed her sensitivity by not throwing that DTC ticket on the road and she was getting late for the exam she did not wasted her time in search of a dustbin and hence she was still holding on to it. There was a smile on her face- and for me it was a moment of euphoria! I am still relieving that moment and her sensitivity touched my soul. I realised that moment that our society needs teachers, teachers not necessarily always with credentials/degrees – but with wisdom.  

Hence, on this day I appeal my students, if you have ever had a teacher who took the time to care for you, inspired your dreams, changed your world view, then accept the challenge and choose the vocation of teaching.

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