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It seems appropriate that at a time when we are faced with multiple crises in terms of the COVID pandemic and the release of the New Education “Exclusion” Policy (NEP) by the state that we rethink what it means to be a teacher. Cornered with insecurities, fear and stress, mostly among students and researchers regarding the future, coupled with major infrastructural barriers like limited internet connectivity and access to technology, the situation has increased the gaps – socially and economically – between the stakeholders to an unprecedented level.

Under such circumstances, as researchers who will be entering the teaching profession very shortly, we constantly find ourselves wondering what kind of teachers we will be. Will we be able to bring in ‘Peace, Dialogue and Justice’ into the classroom or more appropriately into the Zoom – room? How do we talk of justice when major sections of society are affected by the digital divide, especially in a country like ours where houses don’t get electricity for hours, forget the capacity to access internet services! Our own semester registration process in a Central University in the nation’s capital took around a week’s time because of internet issues. That this may portend the hardships to be faced when the semester teaching goes online is a frightening thought. 

The NEP formalised by the government talks of “universal access to quality education” and puts the teacher at the “centre” of the education system, but fails to address the issue of recruitment of teachers from the reserved categories to create a more equal and equitable educational structure.  The claim of doing “everything to empower teachers and help them to do their job as effectively as possible”seems dubious especially when a policy of “graded autonomy” (10.4, 10.12, 19.2 of the NEP) is being pushed which will severely affect the Universities’ finances and in turn affect teachers and students.  

Contradicting itself, the NEP outlines the involvement of teachers in the governance of schools/school complexes (5.11), but also immediately states that “teachers will not be engaged any longer in work that is not directly related to teaching; in particular, teachers will not be involved in strenuous administrative tasks” (5.12). More ornamental captions like “Continuous Professional Development” (CPD) (5.15 – 5.16), “Career Management and Progression” (CMP) (5.17), etc. read very alluring, but may end up merely being bullet points on documents and PPTs. 

It is not our intention to give a critical analysis of the NEP which has anyway been done in detail by several renowned scholars. Our objective here is to delve into possible ways through which teachers could adapt themselves to the ‘new normal’, assuming an even more important role in terms of reaching out to students across different socio-economic and geographical locations to ensure their access to quality education. 

Education in the time of the pandemic could indeed provide us with an opportunity to build a network of teachers at all levels, which would lay bare the strengths and weaknesses of the respective contexts and allow for a friendly database through which they could receive feedbacks, provide suggestions to others in the network and also ponder over the loopholes in one’s own local set up. This kind of an internal networking portal would not only help connecting teachers across private and State funded Universities, within and across the regional networks. It would, if used carefully, lead to increased productivity, engagement and collaborations in the academic field.

Developing personalized bonds with students is often emotionally intensive on the teacher. It is at moments like this that we look back at our own teachers. The interaction that we have had with them during the pandemic has thrown light on the importance of the inter-personal relationship, which to begin with provided a safe space for us to confide in them and build a strong support system around us. This relationship, however, is not a given and needs time to be nurtured. Even in pre-pandemic times, our constant interactions ranging from formal reading groups to informal discussions helped us as students cement this bond with our teachers. We recently received an email from our supervisor informing us of the beginning of the semester, but what was heart-warming to see was that we were told that if we had any issues – psychological or monetary – we should be free to reach out individually. This, we acknowledge, is a privilege that not many experience and it is in this context that one might have to experiment with pushing the boundaries between the ‘official’ and ‘non-official’ duties, making education more meaningful and relevant for students and possibly enriching for teachers. This could also address the NEP’s desire for “achieving economic and social mobility, inclusion, and equality . . . with particular focus on historically marginalised, disadvantaged, and under-represented groups”.

It needs to be kept in mind that the conventional mode of classroom centric lectures, the pressure of finishing the syllabus and holding of examinations are not going to suffice. We remember how even after coming from ‘elite colleges’ of central universities, we struggled with certain lectures but the out – of – classroom discussions, both with teachers and our peer group helped us cope. Here we also want to highlight the importance of the M.Phil. – scrapped by the NEP – as a critical training and levelling field. It trained us researchers to the nuances of academic writing, creating the ground for students across varied academic backgrounds to formally enter academics.

Creative ways of engagement and receptivity are required at a time when an organic teacher-student, or for that matter, even an inter-student interaction, in a physical space is not happening. One also needs to remember that education acts as a great ‘leveller’ when the students are within a specific institutional space. For several women students especially, the school, college or university provides an escape, even if temporarily, from abusive homes. We hear of so many accounts where the pressure to drop out affects their mental well-being and knowing that they have a support system in their teacher, as well as a space that they can call their home outside of their home, provides a major respite. In the face of rising social stigma based on gender, caste and a greater economic divide among the students, we realise the importance for a more empathetic view, especially towards their mental health. And who else is better equipped for this role than the teacher.

Prerana Roy and Sneha Ganguly are Research Scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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