Monday, January 24, 2011

A new class of teachers

Replacing old teachers and recruiting new, young faces in Nepal’s public schools could be the first step in revamping the public education system. At a fundamental level, however, we need to revamp the dehumanising relationship between teachers and students.

Taplejung’s only college, Pathibhara Multiple Campus, has seen a huge shift in enrolment among the humanities, management and education faculties, Kantipur reported on Jan. 21. Of around 400 students, only 31 entered the fields of humanities and management, while the rest enrolled at the Education Department. The History Department closed down two years ago after students were no longer enrolling in the programme. The hopes of obtaining employment quickly after graduation might have led to this shift, the college administration head, Matrika Nepal, was quoted as saying in the paper. Perhaps, it’s just a coincidence that a recent cabinet decision has paved the way for the voluntary retirement of around 40,000 of the 109,000 permanent teachers in Nepal’s public schools. It is not clear whether these 40,000 potential retirees will be replaced by new recruits. But if that does happen, it might be a good opportunity to revamp Nepal’s public education system. For one, new recruits will naturally be young faces. Many believe that having new, fresh faces in the nation’s schools will help revive the lost glory of the public education system. Something that, at present, is woefully unsuccessful when it comes to imparting a meaningful education. The old heads are too stuck in their routine and too old to learn new ways, it is argue.

But the challenges are much deeper than the lack of young faces. One of the main challenges is to establish new relationships between teachers and students.

“It was so hard,” my mom once told me about her first experience at the newly opened school in her maternal home in one of Tanahun’s interior mountain villages. “I was always scared of the teacher. He would have a big stick in his hand. And somehow, we were made to do uth-bas (stand-up-sit-downs) several times everyday—even for minor faults.”  The teacher would sit in a chair, and we would sit on the floor. Don’t forget, we had to bring our own chakati, she added.

That was over five decades ago and as a nation we had just started our tryst with modernity. The wind of revolution was blowing all around. Democracy had come. Development projects had begun to spread. People began to get used to the new vocabularies of life. The enlightened had begun to spread their new-found wisdom of the need to teach their children. Many found their enlightenment in Benaras, some in Kathmandu.

During the last five decades, we have become a schooled society. Though schools have varied widely in terms of their ability to instil creativity, there seems to be general societal consensus that everybody needs to go to school. We can say schooling—sending kids to school, making them learn through books—has become a broad, societal obsession. No patriotic citizen would shy away from promoting schools. Pandits have no trouble raising millions through dhanyanchal utsavas for schools. Building schools has become one of the most lucrative construction activities—both for contractors and bureaucrats.

But along our journey, we have created schools that teach very little in the way of creativity and innovation. To create, one has to keep asking questions—even absurd questions. In fact, young kids learn by asking all kinds of questions—at times ridiculous ones. A good teacher’s job is to encourage students to ask questions—something the image of club-wielding  teachers has kept students from doing.

The educational system we inherited was designed for what we might call the age of industrial certainty. Industrial progress became our goal—couched as modernisation—and the role of public education was to mould citizens into cogs of the industrial machine. Whether we like it or not, this industrial machine lies sordidly out of sync with both the human desire for creativity as well as the earth’s capacity to regenerate ecologically. While our students are less and less skilled in terms of actually creating something, we are faced with one crisis after another all around us: climate change, degraded urbanscapes, and a phenomenal amount of rubbish on our roadsides and backyards, to name a few. Extreme weather events have become the order of the day all around—from the Arctic to Australia. Whether we like it or not, the fossil-fuel based industrial life is not viable anywhere on earth. To a large extent our ability to deal with these issues will be largely determined by the nature of our education system—not by what percentage of students passed SLC exams or how many could get admission to universities in the US or Europe.

The challenge of being a good teacher, therefore, has become one of instilling creativity in students to live in a post-industrial (or for us non-industrial), ecological future. That means letting students explore and ask questions. That means helping them discover their place in an ecological context. What kinds of insects live here? Or where do the birds lay their eggs? This means exploring skills that are required to make a living without destroying the earth. Which is only possible by letting kids explore their world unencumbered. Teachers have assumed the role of all-knowing monarchs for far too long. Many relish in that role. After all, having command over hundreds of young kids is no less a source of power for some. Some even get pleasure (sadism is what it is called) out of inflicting pain on kids.

The recruitment of tens of thousands of new, young faces into Nepal’s public education system is a welcome goal—but will these faces be able to shed the deeply ingrained club-wielding and all-knowing aura? That is perhaps the most important question.

SOURCE: Anil Bhattarai ,eKANTIPUR