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DateLine Sunday, 30 March 2008

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Strong bondage

The teacher - student relationship:

The day you were appointed as the school head prefect would surely be a red letter day in your life. But if someone says that it is the most moving incident of his/her life, wouldn't it surprise you? That was why the Senior Sinhala Lecturer of the University of Colombo, Sarath Wijesuriya had to have a confidential conversation with one of his first year university students at the end of the lecture.

Among several answers written on the subject the lecturer came across her 'unusual' answer - '

The day I was appointed as the school head girl is the most moving incident of my life.' Giving a fine start to our serious discussion on teacher-student relationship, the erudite scholar revealed to me the story behind her 'unusual' answer.
 


“Discipline matters a lot” Sarath Wijesuriya, Senior Lecturer, University of Colombo. Pic. Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

"The girl was the eldest of a family of three. Her mother worked as a domestic servant in the Middle East and her father was a daily paid casual mason. She had to play the mother to her younger siblings. Amidst all the difficulties she proceeded with her studies attracting the attention of all her school friends and teachers.

As a result, her name was nominated as the school head prefect and on the following day she was supposed to come to school with her parents for the prefects investiture ceremony." She did not have her mother with her to go to the prefects day the following morning. Father too had to go to work on a daily basis.

In great mental turmoil She went home, determined not to go to school the following day, but she never put her grief into words. To her utter amazement, her class teacher visited her home that evening with a new pair of shoes and a newly sewn uniform. " My dear, I am your mother tomorrow, do not miss this opportunity. Please come" were the words of the teacher.

She could not resist that earnest plea. So she went to school the following day and when she was summoned to the stage it was her class teacher who followed her as her mother. As the teacher headed her way towards the stage beside this girl, the whole staff got up from their seats as a gesture of respect to her noble deed."

How remarkable it is to find such noble teachers even in the present society, where we normally talk of degenerating values of teachers? What the student had emphasized to him was, though she decided not to go to prefects day, she had not told it to a soul. But her teacher was so sensitive that she could even read the minds of her students.

This incident which had taken place about six years ago in a rural school had instigated the student positively even to get through her A/L's with flying colours." "The teacher-student relationship should be such a strong mutual bond and a teacher's responsibility towards his/her students should not be limited merely to teach the subjects in the syllabus.

Teacher should maintain close relations with the students as the way a mother or father would do with their children" affirmed Wijesuriya.

A teacher's role is essential for the attitude development of students and for the well-being of society. It is normally said that school is a place where culture is being instilled. The teacher is the main agent in that procedure.

As ancient books say teacher could be a 'light' to the ones who are groping in the dark. 'About a few decades ago teaching was considered as a noble profession (It still is). But this elegant role started losing its prestige gradually with the intervention of politicians." It is from the early seventies-with the introduction of open economy that we began to experience this problem acutely. With matters related to teacher appointments, teacher transfers political intervention became intense "

The climax of this chaos according to Wijesuriya was the decision to give teaching appointments to 'Janasaviya' beneficiaries. "Eradicating poverty is one thing. But it is not atall justifiable to misuse this noble profession in that context.

It paved the way for several issues. First poverty became a qualification to enter this profession. Secondly the knowledge and the skills of teachers started diminishing. Above all the decision was a huge blow to the 'image' of the teacher. It is teacher who plays the responsible role of 'creating' intellectuals for all the prestigious professions. So when that 'figure' who should be exemplary has instead become a person with a weak personality, it is not possible for him/her to make a great impact on the students.

Problems may also rise when school teachers conduct tuition classes on a massive scale. There are instances where the school teacher orders his/her students to come to their private tuition classes.

If the student fails to fulfil the teacher's demand the former may even have to undergo embarrassing situations in the school. Also the student may find the teacher very unpleasant in the school, but at the tuition class the same teacher would behave in a pleasant manner.

The greatest misfortune here is the teachers' inability to understand the negative impact it makes on their image. "As I believe today's children are more thoughtful and knowledgable than the children whom we came across about thirty years ago. They have more exposure.

They have more facilities. Most of them have the ability to surf the Net. So a student can judge a teacher very well. They always check whether the teacher knows his/her subject, whether the teacher genuinely cares for them, whether the teacher would stand for them in a difficult situation, whether the teacher is a good charactered person.

The teacher should understand that it is not only one student who makes this judgement, but each and every student in the class-that means generally more than forty students!

So the teacher should be well updated. They should be well read and well informed. If not they cannot be attractive to the students. Another important thing is if a student fails at an exam, doesn't the teacher have a responsibility? In the past teachers were held responsible.

But today with the mushrooming tuition 'industry' some school teachers too seem to rely on tuition teachers. Recalling an incident of his school days, Wijesuriya said how his school teachers took individual attention on each and every student.

The teacher knows who needs extra attention. He used to keep them after school for extra classes. When the exam was round the corner the whole class was kept after school.

Those days teachers considered it as their prime responsibility to make every student do well at the exam. This shows their immense dedication and that was genuine.

Referring to the dress code of certain teachers he recalled the words of Maria Montessori, pioneer in primary education. She has said that teachers have to be very careful when appearing before students. So the teacher should be well dressed and should be pleasan." Teachers should understand how much their students love them.

Today we often find teachers in shabby attire, some in T-shirts, hair dishevelled, with long beard. In schools like Ananda College, Colombo all the male teachers including the principal come to school in white attire. "I do not say that all the problems will be solved if teachers wear white, but it is pleasing to the eye. In fact discipline matters a lot."

Today we could see a de terioration of moral values as well. "I can tell you with great responsibility " voiced .Wijesuriya going back to his school days again" that in our days I have never heard a teacher sexually assaulting a student."

When the students go out station for a match, or for a debate, a male teacher also went with them for their protection and they always treated the students as their own daughters and sons."

The main reason for this according to him was the excellent training given to them (apart from other socio-cultural reasons). The teachers who underwent that training in the late 50's entered the profession there after. So in early sixties we had a set of teachers who were well trained in every aspect.

They had the ability to teach several subjects." Even the principal used to come and teach us. What I want to tell here is that the teacher was a person rich in knowledge and moral values.

He was an all-rounder. They always tried to correct the students if they committed an error. It was done out of genuine love, not out of hatred."

Teachers should always set good examples to students. Today in schools the students who come to school past 7.30 a.m. are being held at the gate. They have to wait in a line (Parakku polim) as a punishment. But the teachers who come to school late are allowed to go in. "In fact it is a responsibility of parents to try to send their children to school a bit earlier than the starting time. Anyway I think a teacher should not use his 'civil' power unnecessarily.

Example should be stronger than mere advice." Referring to a recent incident he said how a set of teachers who had come to school late, forcibly entered the school breaking the padlock when the Security officer refused to open the gate.

When the principal inquired them about the incident they had even assaulted him! So do you think such kind of teachers will be of any use to the school? Discipline should come first," said a worried Wijesuriya.

"Under any circumstances I cannot justify the recent decision of teachers to boycott A/L paper marking. They may have their trade union rights. But do you think it is morally correct to let those poor students suffer further? See the struggle students undergo to get through this exam- studying the whole day, skipping meals etc.

Having made all the sacrifices, what would they feel in the end if the teachers refuse to correct their answer sheets?. As he said where can we then place 'the noble role' if they too think of getting into the same line of doctors who constantly keep poor innocent patients as human shields to obtain their never ending demands?

Favouritism too can be problematic. There are teachers who pay special attention to a particular set of students. Then the other students who are either poor or weak in their performance feel greatly disturbed. "This can be seen in primary section of popular schools to a great extent. Parents of well-off students make a large contribution to buy gifts for teachers at the end of the year and the children of the parents who fail to contribute are viewed with scorn. Some teachers give undue importance for the 'civil' power of the students' parents.

Favouritism could be harmful in two ways. The students who thus attract the attention of the teacher tend to achieve everything through that. It is not their talent that matters. So in later years once they get out of school also they tend to follow the same path and would fall into trouble. Secondly the great harm done to the second set of students cannot be overlooked. Though less privileged they are a talented group. They never get a chanc to outshine others, as a result they become rebellious and it is with hatred that they enter the society.

Can we judge a child by his/her parents' profession? I asked Wijesuriya overwhelmed by his vast knowledge on the subject. "Certainly not " " I cannot agree with the present procedure of allocating marks to the student's parents at the Grade 1 Entrance interview. If we had that system earlier most of the people who hold responsible posts in present society would not have been able to enter good schools as most of their parents were either farmers or carpenters!

Teacher training programs

Education Ministry should treat teachers with utmost respect. When a teacher is transferred to another school it takes a long time to get his/her salary transferred. If there is a promotion and a special allowance the teacher has to under go trouble to get it. The most important thing is teacher should be an independent figure , he should be completely freed from political process. It is a great disturbance if politicians constantly interfere with the school management. When they try to develop their 'territory' inside the school, it is the school staff that gets divided . In the end school deteriorates and poor students have to bear the brunt.

"There are so many advisors! Master teachers and apart from that subject directors as well. Once I came across a Commerce graduate who served as a Sinhala director!" It is not possible to ban tuition classes. Exams being so competitive students cannot be blamed for attending tuition. Instead the ' quality' of school teachers should be upgraded. They should widen their knowledge and should develop a genuine interest towards the job.

The National Institute of Education (N.I.E.) can play a great role here. When repeating the same syllabus over the years ,any teacher would naturally get bored. So the syllabus' should be changed accordingly.

Extra curricular activities should not be merely to overpower another set. Also teacher participation is not very high in student activities. For example at the time of a school literary festival it is the literature teacher along with the students who normally play the major role. But ideally all the teachers in the staff should get together to organize such events. The bond between students and teachers would then get strengthened.

"This cannot be done through circular. We have to be practical." Unlike earlier now our lives are more complicated. Some students come from fragmented families. With exposure to various types of media, they are in a way 'marooned' in a massive 'jungle' not knowing their way out! That is why counselling has become essential.

Though we normally get a counsellor in most of the schools, that person is not up to the standard. The counsellor should be selected with care. But ironically today the teacher who is doing counselling is the most ' untrustworthy' one! " Teachers who normally 'roam around' without a time table are being used counsellors most of the times! It is a responsible post and students should be able to confide in him/her. If that person is not trustworthy, the victim would fall to the fire from the frying pan!

"I believe each and every teacher should undergo a training in counselling. Though it is a must for trained teachers to study education psychology , graduate teachers do not undergo such training most of the times.

Once the appointment is given, the ministry should monitor the teacher. While giving increments on time, it is better to check whether they conclude their higher studies (such as M.A.s on time) and training on time.

It is happy to note that still we have ' noble' teachers like the one whom we came across at the beginning. They have no greater happiness than seeing their students holding high positions in the society.

Though I have never seen the lady teacher whom Wijesuriya met in a teacher training program in Hambantota , I can see her in my mind's eye-the way she along with other teachers prepare huge meal packets and distribute it among the needy students is exemplary.

If you do your job properly the happiness you get is immense. It is the student who 'achieves', but the satisfaction and happiness are solely yours. I see that happiness even in the eyes of my parents when they talk of their former students and now I know why it is so .The verse from ' Parakumba Siritha' which Mr. Wijesuriya finally recited still echoes in my ears....

"Kaloth Guru Sewe,
Suwanda Pathanala se we,
Noma kara esewe,
Banduma kavunalu bas kesewe"

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