Lessons Learned from Teaching

scan0073 292x300 Lessons Learned from Teaching

Ramashree Alladi

Ramashree Alladi, is a teacher, academic counsellor and the author of four graded Hindi books for beginners. A consummate teacher by profession, Ramashree shares the many valuable lessons that she has learned over the years.

Have you always wanted to be a teacher?

No, actually. Though I did see a lot of teachers at work in my family, I did not think seriously of taking it up as a career. I was headed for a career in software, and was studying at NIIT for it, when they asked me to do a stint as a teaching assistant in their computer lab. As I did it, I realized how much more I was enjoying teaching than writing code. That’s what made me decide on taking up teaching rather than software. Looking back though, I think I should have caught on sooner!

Any valuable lessons that you have learned from your own teachers?

I remember a particular teacher called Mangalam Teacher in National High School in Calcutta. If any of you are from that school, you will remember her too, because she was around for decades. We used to love her class – she used to teach Biology. I remember admiring her teaching. She would enter the room, and there would be this almost-palpable buzz of all things positive in the class! She loved her subject.

I think watching her, and other good teachers over the years, made me see the qualities that good teachers share: a passion for their subject, a cheerful acceptance of every student in the class with all their warts and all, and a sense of total responsibility towards the teaching-learning….in all those years, I don’t remember a single instance when Mangalam Teacher (or Rina Mukherjee, Muthulakshmi, Sulochana, Rajashree Akka, our music teacher, Lakshmi Krishnakumar, MTRC, Hyderabad, Prof. Bopayya of Mysore, Dr. Malathy Krishnan, my guide during M.Phil at EFLU, Dr. Lakshmi Chandra at CIEFL, or many other good teachers I had the good luck of coming across) ever felt that if a student didn’t understand something, it was the student’s fault. They just always assumed that it was they who hadn’t done something well enough. Knowing how to define quality in a particular field helps you to get there.

What set you on the road to publish Hindi books for beginners? Any lessons learned from this venture?

Dr.Montessori has developed this outstanding system for learning unfamiliar pieces of information called the Three-Period-Lesson. It’s simple and highly effective (please do look it up). Knowing about this system on one hand, and the unbelievably flat, un-interactive Hindi texts in the market at this level (letters of alphabet/basic vocabulary and grammar) made me quite determined to some day create better learning resources for beginners in Hindi.

But it was all only a plan in my head, till my sister who runs Greenwood Montessori School in Bangalore said that she really needed something like this for her school as her children were plodding through Hindi in a most uninterested way, and would I please get a move on and do it?? So I did, with loads of support and help from my family, and I am quite gratified by the excellent use children are making of the series.

Almost every week, I hear some parent or teacher telling me how much their children like the series, and how “I’ll give you homework in Abhyaas – Akshar!” is being used at the proverbial carrot in their environments/classrooms.

My friend Jagruti was mentioning last week that a parent of Learning Tree Montessori School, Adyar, Chennai, had commented in a parent-teacher meeting that the series is very easy to use for the child as well as the parent, and is there something like this in Tamil too? Its this kind of thing that makes me determined to take this system across to other languages as well…I hope I will be able to do it some day…

I have learned a great deal about the print media in the process. And I think I am also seeing that a good product will sell. Contrary to what many people say.

Many think that learning in India has always been through memorizing and not through practical methods. What are your thoughts about this system?

I don’t think the Indian system is based on memorization. The original Indian system was based on the student asking questions – the teacher taught only that which the student wanted to know. I think that’s the origin of the saying that even if there is infinite water in the well, how much you can take depends on how big your vessel is…..How much more learner-centric can education get?

The memorization of verses in the oral tradition makes sense too. The auditory as well as the kinesthetic senses come into play, and a high level of retention is achieved. As far as meaning is concerned, I think the verses had so many layers of meaning that one couldn’t get at them all in one go. So the simplest layer of meaning was presented, and the rest of the verse is retained in memory as it is. As the person grows and learns, he discovers more layers of meaning from the same verse, because he has the words in memory… An example would be the ‘poornamadah poornamidam……verse. It refers to the concept of zero, the additive identity and also the nature of the Universe.

(And I don’t know how many more things besides) It wouldn’t be feasible to explain all of it to a child, so we just explain the ‘zero’ part of it, and let the rest unfold later on.

Montessori system is being hailed as the best one by many an educator as it relies on many practical lessons to impart valuable life lessons to the child. What do you think about this? Have you learned any lessons from being a Montessori teacher?

Yes, I do think the Montessori system is an excellent system of education. I look forward to seeing Montessori schools go all the way up to educating the child till he is an adult. The pre-primary / primary level is only one part of the story (and its an excellent part), but there is more to it.

Dr.Montessori developed a very sound system for 9 to 12 year olds, and also for teenagers. More of us have to learn all about it, and come to know it and trust it – only them we will want to send our children to Montessori school till they as 18. And schools will develop only when we want our children to get that kind of education – schools don’t function in a vacuum.

I feel very sad when I see parents pulling out their children before they complete the three-year cycle in a Montessori school. If they knew more about this wonderful system, I am sure they wouldn’t do this. As always, knowledge is the key. Knowing exactly how the system helps the child would set parents’ mind at rest about various concerns such as coping in a ‘big’ school, the competitive environment, etc.

Being a Montessori teacher means being a student everyday. Children’s minds work in such beautiful, original ways….it is a privilege to watch them. Though I am not seeing 3 – 6 year-olds every day now, I always listen in awe when my sister shares stories of the children in this age-group in her school.

Here’s the latest: A group of children are now learning all about the classification (phyla) in the animal world. (yes, the young ones – they are capable of learning so much more than we sometimes think…next time you come across a child seemingly uninterested in what you are trying to teach, jump a few levels. You may be pleasantly surprised). The teachers had brought one of those plastic animal-model sets to show them. In it, there was a plastic sea-cucumber, (phylum Echinodermata) but it had a rather pronounced ridged line on one side. So a child asked, ‘here is this animal’s vertebral column. Why didn’t they put it in subphyllum Vertebrata? Are the taxonomists wrong, or the model-makers wrong, or are you wrong?” Such beautiful clarity of understanding, such logic, such confidence, don’t you think?

Another favourite of mine: As I was walking on the road along with a child,  I pointed to a corporation garbage-box and asked, “ what should be done with all this, do you think?” I got such a long silence that I thought she hadn’t heard me, or wasn’t interested.  Then she said, “I can’t think of anything better than to collect it all and put all the non-biodegradable stuff into orbit in space. Anything else we do will be bad in some way. But even this is not very good, because if we do this everyday all over earth, it will get too much even for space…” (She was 5 ½ years old.)

If it were possible to travel back in time, what life lessons would you share with your younger self?

That’s a twister. Here are a few possible answers….

  1. I think the things we learn help our future selves, not our past ones
  2. Having a bit of knowledge ahead of its time may actually render it useless. Like having a cell-phone number before cell-phones are invented.
  3. And anyway, there are so many many variables involved that its not possible to ever predict how changing one past action will affect the rest of them.
  4. Thinking “If only I had done it like that!” never helps. What helps is to remember the lesson and use it in the future.  If possible.
  5. I think of it like this – you buy knowledge from life, and you pay in time. So till your payment is made, in years or days or moments, that bit of knowledge isn’t yours….
  6. And even if I did get back in time and told myself something, I doubt I would be wise enough to listen!
  7. And actually, I think knowledge isn’t an object that exists – its co-constructed, it comes into being just as Time does.

Having said all that, I admit it would have been nice to have known things ahead, to have had a holographic version of me come tell me, “Go here now, don’t step there, wait a bit there, go to that city, call this number…” But overall, its easier to believe in a benevolent Universe, and say ‘its all for the best’.
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