Challenging Foundational Beliefs: The Importance of College Education for Teachers
As a mentor teacher, I often get the opportunity to speak with teachers. However, they are under tremendous pressure from work of multiple natures and always experience a paucity of time. Despite this, they manage to make time out of their busy schedules to listen to me for a few minutes. I share a story with them: Delhi-NCR accounts for approximately 50% of India's top schools, and I ask them if they know of a teacher in a private school who has never appeared in the DSSSB exam and who was not willing to be a part of the Delhi government school. The answer is a resounding NO! I then ask them if they know of a teacher in Kendriya Vidyalaya and Navodaya Vidyalaya who doesn't want to be a part of Delhi government school system. The answer is also emphatic…NO!
Delhi Govt. Schools have the best teachers available in the country! This statement suddenly lights up the faces of the teachers attending my talk!
In the last couple of years, around 10,000 new teachers have joined the department. I do not have any survey data, but often I come across speaking to new teachers and find that out of 10, 7 to 8 teachers come from non-attending colleges. The non-attending college requires an operational definition. Many of them have attended regular college, but most of the colleges lack teachers and could not conduct regular classes. By definition, they come from a regular college. In reality, this can be defined as a non-attending college.
So what? All of them have competed the All India exam to become a part of the best schooling system. There is no doubt about it. What worries me is the absence of those crucial college years from their life and the deep impression it will leave in shaping their disposition as a teacher.
We all grow up in a particular socio-cultural setup, and thus we carry the norms and values associated with that culture. These norms and values also contain stereotypes and prejudices. For instance, a child brought up in a vegetarian family may develop certain stereotypes about people who are non-vegetarian. Religion, language, region, and caste-based stereotypes invade our personality during our growing up years. These norms and values form the foundational beliefs and shape our disposition. For instance, a normal boy growing up in a Hindu family may continue to think that Muslims do not appreciate the value of cleanliness. A boy growing up in an upper-caste family may continue to think that merit belongs to them. A Muslim boy may continue to think that non-believers in Islam are Kafir, and they have no place in Jannat. Patriarchal family values instil a strong notion of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman in a traditional sense. Unchallenged, boys and girls brought up in a patriarchal setup may continue to see men and women in their traditional roles.
Three to five years of university life (bachelor's + master's) bring an opportunity to challenge the foundational beliefs. It's in university when one comes into contact with people from various different cultures. The secret of challenging the foundational beliefs lies in this cross-cultural conversation for a longer period of time. A Hindu boy may significantly change his belief about Muslims when he becomes a friend of a Muslim boy/girl. A North Indian boy may significantly change his belief about South Indians when he studies in a college in Chennai, and so on. Aided by the enchanting lectures by university professors and an introduction to the world of literature, the university is a place that prepares modern humans.
We conduct in-service training programs that serve most of our utilitarian purposes. However, we must seriously consider whether it can compensate for the crucial formation years that most of our teachers missed by being a part of a non-attending college. What about their foundational beliefs? Can in-service training challenge their foundational beliefs? I do not know, but the resource person facilitating such workshops must be aware of the complexities.
How would teachers who missed the opportunity to work on their beliefs deal with tricky situations in the classroom? How would they address crucial issues of gender, religion, caste, reason, language, and so on ? The belief that these issues come under the preview of a social science classroom, itself reflects the possibility that foundational beliefs could not be challenged. For example, a math teacher may continue to believe that boys perform better than girls in mathematics. This simple belief could disrupt communication between the teacher and students in the mathematics classroom and put female students at a disadvantage, ultimately leading to a disposition of disliking mathematics. Bruner has described it as a problem of corresponding language between teacher and students.
Teachers whose foundational beliefs cannot be challenged raise questions about our larger education system. With few exceptions, most universities appear to be continuously declining, lacking sufficient numbers of teachers. Even if universities do have teachers, the teacher-student ratios often exceed 100. In some universities that still perform well, their students do not choose to become teachers.
The teaching profession, which has the responsibility of imparting education to 280 million Indian students, is facing a significant crisis. If college education is not improved immediately, the nation will fall into a vicious circle where mediocre teachers create mediocre students. Consequently, a land that has a history of producing some of the finest thinkers and scholars will become a land of mediocrity. The crisis in the teaching sector is not only a crisis of a profession but also a crisis of the nation.