Today is Guru Purnima in India—the day we dedicate ourselves to those timeless teachers who have inspired us. I have often drawn inspiration from a certain mathematics teacher who I greatly admire. Her profession can best be described as mathemagic rather than mathematics. Students say that there is something magical about her classroom presence. She rattles off numbers like the sound of music. Her own colleagues are envious of her growing popularity and bitch about her in the staff room.

However, the truth is we rarely learn from teachers whom we do not like. My love for geography became a thing of history when a particularly mean character with multiple chins doubled up as our geography teacher in Standard IV. He made every geography lesson feel like crossing a mid-day desert on the back of a burping and belching camel. On the contrary, looking at this mathematics teacher it seemed to me that likability is integral to a teacher’s teaching ability. A teacher who is kind can find students far more teachable rather than the one who is not.

Teachers who are liked by their students can almost do the impossible. I wanted to ask this mathematics teacher if she could teach even a zebra some algebra? This incidentally became the title of my most recent book (you can see the book cover here).

Here are brief notes from my learning diary that I wish to share with you. You can read the book if you like, for a more elaborate explanation. I will call these notes LEARNING SUTRAS. Sutras are like threads that hold nuggets of wisdom much like a string that holds pearls in a necklace. I present some here:

CAN YOU REALLY TEACH A ZEBRA SOME ALGEBRA?

Realistically no. Not even if the zebra grazed around in the lawns of Harvard or Oxford for donkey’s years. Teachers are so obsessed with teaching subjects that they forget that it is not subjects that they teach—they just teach learners. I went around in a school and asked teachers what they taught. Someone said geography and someone else said mathematics. I asked, is there anyone who teaches human beings?

The first sutra of learning is that nothing can really be taught until it is learnt.

The second sutra is: whatever is learnt is already inside us as our human potential.

Can you imagine Shakespeare’s mother trying to teach him to be a world renowned boxer or Mike Tyson’s English teacher (assuming he had survived baby Tyson’s punches) trying to inspire him to write plays? If the answer is ‘no’—you may as well forget teaching a zebra the intricacies of algebra. The beast is not genetically up for it.

Therefore, SOME DAYS TEACH NOTHING; LEARN A LOT ABOUT WHO YOUR STUDENTS ARE. IF YOUR STUDENT IS A ZEBRA, DON’T WASTE TIME TEACHING HIM ALGEBRA

Sutra 3: TEACHERS MUST LIVE NOT IN THE SECURE SHADE OF THEIR KNOWLEDGE BUT IN THE SEARCHING SUNLIGHT OF CURIOSITY

Sutra 4: DON’T OBSESS OVER COVERING THE SYLLABUS, DISCOVER THE STUDENT INSTEAD. Teaching is the art of discovery. Teachers discover learning potential.

Sutra 5: WHO YOU ARE DEPENDS ON HOW STUDENTS FEEL YOUR PRESENCE

A teacher’s real personality is what the students feel in her presence. Do the students feel bored, fearful, anxious or joyous or even mischievous when the teacher enters a class? You can rest assured that a teacher communicates through ‘thoughts’as well as ‘felts’. Felts are feeling experienced by young, impressionable minds when a teacher enters a class. There was this kindergarten kid who was uttering out loudly: “Two plus two—SON OF A BITCH—four!” Perplexed by his high proficiency in using swear words at such an early age the hapless parents of the students complained against the math teacher who was supposedly teaching such rubbish in class. When hauled up by the principal the teacher said that all she had asked the students to repeat after her in class was: Two plus two SUM OF WHICH is four. It was another matter that the teacher was in a particularly foul mood as she had had a fight with her husband the previous evening. Naturally, she transmitted her mood to the little kid who picked up the words that were appropriate to the “felt” message.

© Debashis Chatterjee, 2015