This writeup was intended for teachers’ day, but never got completed on time. Failing to meet the self-imposed deadline as there was so much to say, I have decided to chunk it and publish it in parts. I am attempting to give you an honest account of my journey and that of many colleagues who have taught and are still teaching online. Now there are all kinds of teachers. Not all teachers strive. Many have a great breadth of experience that they brandish in front of their younger peers: 12 years as a teacher, but one can see that the profession has not touched them. They go about it in a monotonous manner, teaching the same concepts just the way they had taught them years ago. But then everyone teaches for a different reason. A friend had said once “it does not take all engines to push a train. It needs bogies too. I am happy being a bogie”

My write up is about teachers who push the boundaries, who dare to question the authority and their own beliefs, those who do not land into the profession as it is considered an easy one for ‘domestic life’ (that’s another myth to bust) but view it as a calling. Notwithstanding the different reasons for being a teacher, all of them have been challenged during the pandemic.

I wish to take you on the roller coaster ride that is ‘teaching’ in these uncertain times. Often while listening to Swami’s soothing voice on Black Lotus, I can now relate to when he says, ‘emotions are neither good nor bad. They make you soar heights of happiness and fall into abysses of fear and anxiety.’ His words perfectly encapsulate the daily life of a teacher. One day you are swimming blissfully with the tide. Maybe the lesson you planned, or an unplanned strategy you devised touched a chord with your students, and you walk out of the class with a spring in your step; your entire being suffused with boundless joy. And the next day you are a non-entity; a cog in the wheel who must soldier on even when all seems dark and morose. Maybe students were a bit restless, distracted, or plain undisciplined for whatever reason. You walk out of the class feeling physically and emotionally drained, ready to resign into a corner with a heap of uncorrected notebooks waiting for you. Suddenly, you are told to pitch in for an arrangement period. Then there is a long parent call during lunchtime or a sudden staff meeting. You’ve already skipped your lunch and can sense the beginnings of a headache. Just as you snatch a few moments to eat, someone frantically points out how you have missed out on giving an important announcement to your class, or a colleague complains that you have not sent the list he/she had been waiting for. Depending on your mood and energy that day, you may look at the comical side of this rigmarole or hold back a few tears to counter a sense of inadequacy. You might even snap or act surly and earn the title of being ‘difficult’. Teaching tests you every single day. You are placed in the innermost circle of many concentric circles formed by the students, their parents and extended family, your colleagues, and the management. The inner circle­– the center– must hold everything around it with utmost sincerity and humaneness and yet remain brutally honest to the profession.

For a new teacher, teaching can be an overwhelming business. I think every teacher thinks of quitting her/his job a few times during the peak madness of the year. He/she is much like the mythical Sisyphus forever pushing a stone on a hill. The amount of work that a teacher must do on any given day is humanly ‘undoable’ in 24 hours. Even the most organized teachers can never uncheck everything on their task lists.  No wonder google throws up many ‘how to survive your first year as a teacher’ articles. With time, they learn to prioritize. A teacher learns to not seek euphoria in every single period or wallow in despondence. For teaching is neither this nor that. You just soldier on, believing that a little work each day would amount to a significant something at the end of the year. You just keep walking.

I remember when I was young, the NCERT books began with a Gandhian quote titled ‘Gandhi ji ka jantar’. I had been intrigued the first time I saw it, believing that the grand old man was up to some magic. And Gandhi Ji was a different type of clairvoyant, wasn’t he?  To summarize the magic spell, he says that whenever you are in doubt about your work, think about the weakest person you know and introspect if your action will have any impact on that person’s life. I think there is a possibility to apply this ‘jantar’ to any profession and more so in teaching. A teacher must make himself accessible and understandable to the weakest, most shy student in the class. He/she must be like ‘Lear’s fool’ couching his/ her knowledge in humour. He/she  must become like a clown, armed with several tricks up the sleeve.

Shaky Beginnings

However, no tricks or guides were ever drafted to understand or cope with the tectonic shift in learning beginning 2020. I was a grade 10 teacher last year. The sudden lockdown left us high and dry, not knowing how to close the academic year. Initially, it felt like a small disruption, and many believed ‘this too shall pass’. The older teachers (the ones over 50 and 60) were convinced that schools would reopen after the summer vacation, give or take one or two months. The younger amongst us knew it was a long haul; we had to start looking for solutions to cope with the impending reality. I remember anxiously going through different platforms (Udemy, google classroom, zoom) and finally deciding on google classrooms —which was not so popular at that time— along with zoom meetings. The school I then taught in being an alternate set up, actively discouraged exposure to digital devices. We stood at crossroads. For many old Waldorf teachers, the idea of shifting everything online was unthinkable to the point of being obscene. They grappled with these ethical questions: was it right to enter a child’s home and bedroom via online classes? What about the physical presence of the teacher that builds the emotional connection with students? Studying in a natural environment was out of the question. How would then one retain the essence of the Waldorf curriculum? After much deliberation, the school applied for a g-suite for education. Meanwhile, those of us who were comfortable with technology started helping our non-techie peers. Some teachers, even though they were prolific users of smartphones, were petrified almost like a toddler is of a new school.

Here’s a snippet of my conversation with a language teacher whom I was trying to teach the basics of google classroom.

Teacher (sounding determined over the phone): Ok, Rashmi. I think I am ready.

Rashmi: Great! Let’s start. Log into your gmail id first.

Teacher: Accha. Give me the password.

Rashmi: Which password?

Teacher: The gmail password.

Rashmi (laughingly): How would I know that? Remember there was a mail from the school.

Teacher (faintly remembering): Hey Bhagwan, yes! Accha to wo tha login, password. Aisi ek mail aayi to thi. Ruko, main abhi dhoondhti hun.

In batches, I tried to help all the teachers (teaching Grade 10) get comfortable with technology. Let me remind you that some of them did not know what ‘browser’ meant and how chrome was more compatible with google classrooms. They would get dazzled by how the same classroom could be accessed from their iPad, laptop as well as a mobile device. All this circus went on from summer vacation last year and well into the first few months after the schools began online. What they lacked in technical know-how was made up in intent.

Many teachers who were intimidated by technology initially came a long way towards the end of the academic year. Each one found his/her own way to cope. Many installed classrooms on their mobiles and posted assignments, checked assignments, created quizzes and reflections (google forms and other platforms like Padlet, Kahoot, Mentimeter etc.), learned to convert image files and documents into PDFs. Language teachers learned to type in regional languages and provide feedback on children’s work. A very senior teacher I know, who really is the most experienced and amazing mentor, took printouts of children’s main lesson work, corrected the same with extensive feedback, and uploaded images. You may think that it’s not a smart way to work, but please pause before you make the judgment. She made sure that her students did not suffer because of her lack of expertise. After one year, she has learned the tricks of online teaching.

Another senior teacher who was more comfortable writing on paper entered the marks scored by all students in each and every section (in the term exam) along with the total on Google Classroom. The students were getting the checked papers physically, so there was no need for such detailed work. My heart went out for her effort. At her speed, it must have taken her a few hours to do this work. Later on, many young teachers eased the load by volunteering to do such work.

No matter which subject or class the teachers were teaching, they were looking to recreate a physical classroom experience as much as possible. Math and Science teachers learned to use pen tablets. A sympathetic parent from my class volunteered to teach the Digital Pen Tablet to Math teachers. I remember my math colleague thanking me and the parent profusely as if we had saved him from drowning. Science teachers made videos of their live experiments and integrated AR (augmented reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) in their online classes.

Primary school teachers pasted blackboards in their homes and included charts, paintings, craftwork, and other decorations just as they would have done in their physical classrooms. It was an emotional moment for a friend (a junior schoolteacher) while she was removing a pasted blackboard from her bedroom wall after the announcement of school reopening recently. For the past 1.5 years, she had made paintings, solved sums, and written poems with her students on this blackboard.

“Only while peeling off this black sheet from my walls, I realized how much the online school had encroached into my personal life. All my life energy just geared around helping my children cope through these tough times”, she said.

Before the online classes commenced, every conscientious teacher had gone through a self-inflicted boot camp. They dreaded the worst and prepared themselves. ‘What if the wi-fi dropped suddenly?’ They installed google classrooms, meet and zoom on their phones, got routers installed at home. Some bought new machines, tablets, whiteboards, and cameras. Many schools supplied these resources too. Teachers instructed their family members to mind their p’s and q’s when online classes were on. Their own children were told to study silently in a space/room so that their online classes could run smoothly. The constant elevation of teaching as a noble profession makes it difficult to imagine teachers as regular people performing any other social role. They functioned without any house helps: doing all household chores before and after the online classes and working till late in the night preparing resources for the next day or correcting their students’ work.

Teething Troubles

Despite all preparations, there were surprises in store. On the first day of my son’s grade two classroom, we witnessed an enthusiastic teacher but a bemused battalion of seven-year-olds. One could see the class teacher trying to make them laugh, getting them to talk, helping them slip out of their comfort zones. None of the 32 students sang the morning verse that day. It just did not feel right to do that in front of the screen. Teary-eyed- the teacher sang it alone, all the while prodding her students gently, never for once forcing them though. Later, some students confessed, “I think everyone is looking at me, teacher.” Junior classes began with that inhibition. More than learning, teachers had to focus on the emotional well-being of children. They had to be sensitive to the diabolic reality unfolding outside and often at children’s homes. How could a child think about studies when there were parents/grandparents quarantined in another room? How could they grapple with abstract concepts when they were grieving the death of a loved one?

Many teachers initiated one-on-one conversations with their students to keep a tab on their emotional health. There were initiatives like ‘bonding over breakfast’, ‘festival and other celebrations’, ‘quizzes and debates’­­–all online, just to give a semblance of a real school. Over the year, some schools overkilled this idea. Children’s and teachers’ timetables got overscheduled with mindless activities in a bid to prove to parents that they were getting full value for their money. The advertising-driven school setups began pushing more and more for evidence of these activities

It is the bane of teaching that while being one of the most venerated professions it remains a low-paying job. A teacher is supposed to provide her undivided attention to children, come up with innovative and engaging solutions (all of this is part of his/her job anyway), prod children to have nutritious food, be at their best behavior, develop well-rounded personalities. They are mentors and unsaid admin staff at the same time: they prepare a plethora of lists and acting as a bridge between the school and the parent body.

In his influential book ‘The empty space’ world-renowned theatre director Peter Brooke argues that if you remove all the frills, the extraneous stuff from a performance but have just an actor and the audience, you still have all that is needed for an act of theatre. That’s really the quintessence. I feel that analogy can be applied to the relationship between the teacher and her students. Away from the pressures of the board, parents, demands of the school, in the classroom, she can ignore all the din and just create a sacrosanct learning space where it’s just her and the students.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. More about Teenagers and online classes in the next part. 

May Swami’s grace always be on all of us!