Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Teaching is Connecting

Back in the corporate world, I’ve experienced many a day when a colleague or the customer was seemed expendable and then, actions to that effect followed. The customer was often simply an “Account” to manage and there was almost always the freedom to point the finger when things didn’t work out. Such an environment gradually leads to half-hearted efforts in achieving the objectives set forth. The once “most important and crucial for survival and growth” customer, in a predictable manner, becomes someone “not worth providing the quality in service to” customer. Of course, there are enlightened beings out there that make sure this derision doesn’t creep in their work environment. However, generally, it may seem ‘affordable’ to take the mediocre approach and not care for the customer. In light of this brief background, I’d like to make my point now: caring is indispensable for a teacher, period.

The above said scene in the corporate environment is mainly due to the implicit knowledge that it isn’t important or necessary to connect with the person on the ‘other end of the line’. The prime importance of financial gains and the lack of human element in day-to-day communications draw a non-existential form of the colleague/customer, someone you could feel free to become irresponsible for and even worse – get away being that! There is little visibility or lack of it, of the impact of one’s actions on a human being. Hence the individual is turned into a “can’t be bothered” slacker.

Enter the Teaching World. There’s a radical change in attitude needed here. You are no longer dealing with just another “good for nothing and always demanding” customer at the other end of the line. You have innocent, unselfish and at times demanding lives to care for and cater to. Every step you take, every move you make, every word you speak is all noted by them and has the potential to change them in either of the two obvious directions – good or bad. So, the Teacher, at whatever level, has to be like those few enlightened beings of the corporate world and more. There is an uncompromising need to connect with the lively minds both in the classroom and outside. The teacher has the potential to make the deepest impact in a child’s life. Till the day I entered a classroom for the first time as a prospective teacher, I held the view that a role within the Investment Banking industry was the most important job in the world. Because it was the most important, the challenges faced and overcome were of the highest concern for the well-being of any world citizen. Little did I know back then, how wrong I was!

As a teacher, I have come to realise that to connect with the students is of the utmost importance. Connecting is the outcome of communicating – both verbally and non-verbally. As listed by John Maxwell, one can’t afford to commit the “Four Unpardonable Sins of a Communicator”: being unprepared, uncommitted, uninterested, or uncomfortable. He aptly explains further that in order not to commit these sins and to connect requires energy. The teacher is the communicator and has to walk the talk 24x7. This is not an extra responsibility, rather, an absolute fundamental requirement to be a teacher. This makes the job of a teacher The Most Important job in the world. At the same time, the prospect of touching so many lives makes the job of a teacher The Most Honourable job in the world.

I am very fortunate to have company of highly motivated inspirers whose lives are embodiment of this connecting process. Further, I have the privilege of knowing some of the best of the available literature on education. Allow me to narrate an illustration. One fine day on our way to the training institute in Bangalore on the public bus, I was reading “What Great Teachers DO DIFFERENTLY” by Todd Whitaker. The title of the chapter was ‘Make it cool to care’ wherein Todd briefly describes this incident. In (Principal) Todd’s own words...

In Chapter 1, I described my interest in understanding what great teachers do differently. The first time this struck me was during an informal visit in the classroom of my best teacher, Mrs. Heart. I watched as Darin approached her desk – Darin, a rough, tough, tattooed discipline problem who easily intimidated the other students (and many of the teachers, and maybe the principal!). Making no effort to keep the other students from hearing him, Darin said, “Mrs. Heart, I was working on my poetry last night and I had a hard time with some of the words in the third verse, I was wondering if I could get your help on...” My jaw must have hit the floor.

Believe me, Darin was not a fan of poetry. Darin was a fan of Mrs. Heart. She had made it cool to care about whatever was happening in class...Getting along with others, treating everyone with respect, doing your best – that was Mrs. Heart.

This incident was very touching for me and furthermore, enlightening to me. There were a lot of reflections from this small incident Todd narrated. The most obvious one was the connection Mrs. Heart had successfully made with Darin, regardless of his appearances or apparent behaviour with others. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess it that Mrs Heart would have poured her heart in establishing such a platform for effective teaching-learning. The connecting process always requires energy.

There’s however a way to effortlessly radiate this energy. Let me briefly narrate another incident to that effect. A friend of mine had an interview with the Head of the Department at a highly respected, industry leading company in the UK. His technical interview overran for more than an hour (total to almost two hours) and most of his responses were technically wrong. Despite this, he got offered the job! He later revealed to me that after the interview, when his interviewer showed him around the department, he was almost hopping around out of excitement seeing the opportunity to learn and contribute. His energy made all the difference. He didn’t have to put in efforts for radiating that energy, it just happened naturally for him. This was because he had the appreciation of the significance of that job and that industry.

So, connecting with students, after all isn’t necessarily draining, despite its need for energy on the teacher’s part. However, for that, natural enthusiasm has to be bred by the teacher. And this, my fellow inspirers, is possible only if we allow ourselves to gain the right perspective that – Teaching is The Most Important job in the world and that we are THE MOST FORTUNATE PEOPLE IN THE WORLD to have that job.

To quote the gifted Robert Frost,
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Teaching is a life long endeavour of fulfilling promises, a life long connecting process. So, let you and I not settle in for something good enough, instead, embark on the journey of excellence.

Because, it’s worth it...

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