After a brief hiatus of one and half years; a phase that I now recollect as a sabbatical from the world of higher academia, I finally enrolled myself in a B.Ed course in one of the most reputed colleges in Kolkata. Owing to the pressure from the larger societal norms of doing something ‘productive’, catering to, in fact specific demands of having a ‘stable job’, accompanied with my own frustration of lacking ‘permanency’ and inability to crack the monstrous other, aka ‘NET’, I, finally succumbed to enter a vocational course that would not only help me secure a respectable job and financial independence but also a world so pristine in its claim of fulfilling the ‘overall/holistic development of a child’. Except, that it was not.
The allure of being deemed as respectable has its own drawbacks, a fact which I was oblivious to and at the same time acquainted through the idea and culture of ‘ Bengali Bhadrolok’. Over ages, teaching has been widely viewed as a prestigious job, although lacking the glamour and cool quotient that is often associated with other professions. Imagine the archetypal image of the ‘Mastermoshai’ widely pervading our imagination fuelled by mainstream media and popular culture. What the picture immediately brings before us is a simpleton, probably belonging to the middle class and often austere in outlook. Now, one might dismiss this image as probably a cliché and in fact outdated, except for the fact that even today holding up to a certain image of ‘simplicity’ and ‘decency’ is sacrosanct to the profession. I recall that even as a child studying in an all girls missionary school, some of the behaviours like shaking your shoulders while laughing or sitting with your legs stretched seemed highly inappropriate. Undeniably, body languages and gestures have their own semiotics and is rooted in the way they shape our personality, but what felt as problematic was labelling it as ‘un-lady like’ (reinforcing the idea that gender is performative). At a time, when schools are making it imperative to impart ‘sex education’ to school children, it is almost farcical to see how even today, in many schools it is mandatory for female teachers to wear a ‘dupatta’ to retain the sense of ‘decency’, thus reinforcing our un-comfortability as a nation with the woman’s body.
The centrality of this respectable and decent image has an underlying gender discourse that is often overlooked. Firstly, the fact, that it is women who hold a higher ratio compared to men when it comes to teaching in general and teaching humanities in particular; a fact that became visible when I, myself enrolled for this course. There were hardly ten boys in a class of one hundred students in total that often led to labelling them as ‘minorities’ in simple jest.
Secondly, the idea of a hetero-normative discourse even in child pedagogy was baffling. I remember an incident when one of the professors told us to our amazement that a ‘homo-erotic’ relationship was ‘unnatural’ in the adolescent stage. Luckily, a counter argument was voiced by a small group of trainee teachers which startled him a bit and he finally dodged the topic diplomatically by scheduling the argument for the next semester. If this happened to be the premise for creating future teachers, I wondered what was professed and practiced in the schools. Not to my surprise, this hunch got re-affirmed when I went for an internship in one of the popular schools in the city as part of my B.Ed training. I remember this incident when I was asked to ‘observe’ a class. Now, it so happened that one of the boys in the tenth standard was mumbling an answer and was slightly standing in a tilted position, when all of a sudden the male teacher reprimanded him saying, “If you are a man, then stand straight.” I don’t want to assume that he was a stereotypical teacher with lack of awareness about gender studies, but this off handed remark about ‘manhood’ shows these stereotypes exists in our imagination, even though displayed very subtly.
The perennial discourse surrounding the idea of a perfect teacher, in fact is even historically speaking, problematic. Starting with the ‘Gurukul’ system, which was casteist and sexist in its structure as it provided scope of learning to children of higher caste and only catering to the male child. Of course one would argue that post RTE Act (2009) and the introduction of mid-day meal, the system of inclusion and the goal of equality in terms of education has reached a wider spectrum, when in fact what it has done is glossing over the intricacies of caste, religion and gender politics under the garb of ‘education for all’ and widespread literacy.
During my period as a B.Ed trainee teacher, we were introduced to a project known as ‘Vidyadeepam’ which was initiated by the department of education with the aim of teaching the under-privileged children of schools ‘X’ and ‘Y’ in the sub-urban regions of Nepalgunj and Santragachi respectively. These schools were adopted by our college and as future teachers; this was introduced in our curriculum to make us morally aware of not only our social responsibilities but also to make us acutely aware of the social scenario prevailing at the grass-root level.
Even if we blatantly dismiss the Evangelist mission behind such an undertaking and look at the ‘larger picture’, the discrepancies and loopholes became evident in hindsight. When we visited those children once every month after a journey of almost one and a half hours, the smile etched on their faces provided us a warm welcome. There wasn’t any strict methodology of teaching them because the main idea was to impart the joy of learning among the young learners. The possibility of having the mid-day meal was perhaps the only reason why the parents in fact send these kids to school, most of whom survived on ‘moori’ (puffed rice) for breakfast and as such there were often reported cases of young kids fainting due to dehydration and lack of proper nutrition. What has been observed from several studies is that many of the kids didn’t retain their interest to attend their classes post the mid-day meal. Another major debacle in the attempt for universal education was that despite such schemes being presented, their social condition hardly changed and were mostly trapped within the idea of what is called ‘culture of poverty’. Moreover, most of these children carried the baggage of social expectations, being acutely aware of their caste, class and religion. It would, in fact be preposterous to think that by simply making them stand every morning in a queue to sing the national anthem would change their social reality and bind them into a homogeneous unity.
There was this incident that I recall during my period of internship in the aforementioned school. A boy in the seventh standard who was generally known for his notoriety in class, once remarked in a tone that was hushed but audible enough, “Ma’am, have you done plastic surgery?”, a remark that automatically elicited peals of laughter in the class. Although initially, it was a kind of a shock, I made efforts to tell the class about the topic in a way that addressed the issues of body shaming and body image; a method which I believe was a bit helpful since by the end of the class, the boy came up to me and apologised without me actually asking for one. Later, I also realised that the boy was also subject to a sort of bully from his fellow classmates for having the surname ‘Majhi’. I believe that it had to do more with plain mischief and my reading too much of caste politics may be a bit erroneous. However, these subtle points made me aware of the scenario that is often white washed to make us believe otherwise.
Undoubtedly, the task of a teacher as a flag bearer of society and in nourishing young minds is a laborious task, but neither the teacher nor the system is without their own set of biases and prejudices. Moreover, a system that manufactures teachers as a multi tasker is a system that believes in some sort of utopia, notwithstanding the in- congruencies that exists between theory and praxis of pedagogy.
Ayesha Begum has done her graduation and masters in English from Jamia Millia Islamia and Presidency University respectively. She is currently pursuing her B.Ed course from St. Xavier’s College, (Autonomous) Kolkata. She juggles between teaching kids and parenting a cat at home. Part time musing in her own solitary dreams and part time reading graphic novels and poems, she wants to pursue a full time course as a teacher and awaiting for her story to be told.