During an English class in Grade 9, it so happened that a classmate playfully flung her stationery pouch at me. The pouch hit me square in the face, and before I knew it, the blood rushed to my head and all I could feel was a paralyzing anger. My mind shut out all my senses, and several moments were spent seething in the rage pounding inside me. At the back of my head, I heard a faint voice calling my name, and when I regained my focus, it turned out to be my teacher. She was absolutely incensed that I didn’t respond to her several calls, and took the next 15 minutes to humiliate me in front of my entire class. Her words cut through the confidence I had worked so hard to build, even going to the extent of asking my friend why she chose to associate with a person like me in front of 30 other students in the class. I have forgotten her words, but I still haven’t been able to shake off what she made me feel.
Just a year before, when I was 12 or 13 and in the same school, we were being handed out our English test papers. Now English was my forte- I loved the subject and often performed well in it in comparison to my peers. In a paper worth 20 marks, I’d expect an 18 at the least. There was a new English teacher in school that year, Mrs. Novena, and she graded my paper a 16. I wasn’t disappointed, I was shocked. I mean, I did answer every question just right without grammatical errors, then why a 16? I went up to her and asked her exactly this. She said “Sharon, even if you wrote better than the others, this definitely isn’t your best- why will I grade you as if it is?”. I ended up working doubly hard on her papers, not because I wanted the marks, but because I didn’t want to fail the confidence she put in me that day. She taught us only for 6 months before she quit, but she was the best teacher I ever had.
I’m telling you this because throughout my school years, I often encountered teachers who just didn’t like me. At that point, I was dealing with a lot of emotional and psychological pressure. This pressure reflected in my behavior, but I don’t recall any teacher ever approaching me to find out the root cause and help me. The choice was to tell me off, or to report it to my parents. The former happened more often than the latter, and needless to say, I spent a significant portion of my schooling being shaped more by my friends and classmates than I did by my teachers.
Determining the impact that teachers have on adolescents isn’t very hard. You’re starting to become an adult, slowly understanding things you didn’t understand as a child. The list of expectations laid down on you starts to increase in length. Young girls are only beginning to understand and bear the physical burdens of womanhood. But most importantly, you begin to search for and discover your identity, and this search is greatly influenced by your social environment.
This search for identity is a crucial period in an adolescent’s life. It affects their inter-personal as well as intra-personal interactions all through their life. Considering that children in India spend a third of their day in school, the influence of their teachers and peers weigh in heavily on their search for identity.
Going back to the two examples I began with, they are quite similar in that there was an event to which I reacted, followed by a teacher’s intervention (the teachers being a stipulated authority in the classroom). The way they chose to intervene, however, made all the difference. Where in one case my teacher essentially told me that I was good for nothing, in the other case, Mrs. Novena chose to tell me how much more I could be. The power of such positive interventions far surpasses those of negative ones- because Mrs. Novena chose to empower me, I now have the confidents to face someone else putting me down but not give in to them.
Now, multiply such positive interventions across classrooms and schools, and imagine the generations that rise from it. That’s what we should be aiming for.
Ofcourse, such an ideal is deeply embedded in several restricitions ranging from the lack of knowledge and intellectual infrastructure (syllabus and pedagogy) to a teacher-force that is not trained enough to handle students at an impressionable age. Organisations like Teach for India, Make a Difference, Smile Foundation, or even smaller ones like Bookwallah Organisation offer a silver lining. While their impact is concentrated on low-income schools and children’s shelter homes, at least the mantle of empowernment is not lying in a dusty corner until the educational reform that so many of us are waiting for comes. It’s a start, and as history has shown us across several situations, some beginnings can culminate into movements that shape countries, and as globalisation takes over, even the world.