Richa Joshi Pant – Biology Faculty, Welham Girls’ School
Talking to Ms Richa Joshi Pant brings light to the fact that being a teacher is not enough to bring in effectiveness. Being an empathetic teacher brings in effectiveness to the position you hold. One needs to see the valuable post one holds when they adorn this profession. As a teacher, you have a long stint, to make or break an entire generation.
Can we have a brief introduction about yourself and your education?
I am a Biology teacher and have been teaching for almost 18 years now. During the course of my career I have studied and taught in various schools across India.
I did my schooling at Baroda and Bombay. I did my college- graduation, post-graduation and B Ed – at Chennai. Then, I did my Masters in Education at the University of Punjab.
When it comes to teaching, I have taught at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Right now I am in a residential school called Welham School located at Dehradun. It is a very famous residential school for girls. I teach Biology for IX, X, XI and XII. I have also taught in Maharaja Sawai Man Singh Vidayalaya in Jaipur.
I personally feel I am getting better every year with my teaching. One advantage of teaching in the school where I teach now is that the class strength is not more than 24 -27. Also, it is a residential school. So, you get time with the students all day. Once in a week I even do my prep duties.
The entire environment in a boarding school is completely different. You are not just a teacher there. You are also a mentor, a friend and in many ways you get aligned to many things that may not be directly correlated to the subject you teach. This has given me a very interesting and valuable experience in teaching. Recently I took a group of students to the National University of Singapore to attend a Science camp. When we travel, we get to see those aspects of students that we miss in a school environment.
I would also say that more than the content, there are amazing skills that we inculcate – social awareness in children. We talk to them about the current issues, current development in Biology to help them think, have intelligent arguments, to understand logic better.
I also have a lesson plan – a flexible one. I am of the opinion that spontaneity plays a very important role in my teaching methodology. For example, today I was teaching about nutrition. For some students this may seem repetitive because they do it in junior schools as well. So, we decided to do note making activity. I helped them write all the keywords using different colours. I use a lot of voice modulation also.
In a residential school, these children wake up at 5 o’clock. Also, they would have an hour of games before they are in your class. And so, you may lose their attention if you have a monotonous tone; give them the same old mundane examples, if your class is a one-way conversation, etc. You get your instant feedback when you see 3-4 sleeping heads. So, the trick here is to make your lesson very interesting.
In the present times, it is very important to catch hold of a child’s attention span when they have a lot of screen time, amazing animation and high class teaching available on the internet. A teacher cannot risk being boring. If you do that it will prove to be a huge disadvantage and you will sooner or later be obsolete.
Did you have any role models in your early years who have influenced your teaching methodologies?
It has not been any one person. I remember some good teachers. I remember one teacher during my graduation. I also remember some bad experiences I have had with some teachers. When I became a teacher myself, I have it in my head what I should not do. I strive not to be sarcastic to children because I feel that children are unable to handle it, especially in Middle School.
In India because of the fact that we venerate teachers we see it as a hierarchical relationship. When you are sarcastic with children, although that child may be wittier than you she may freeze and not respond. So, it is very rude and damaging for a teacher to be sarcastic. A teacher may scold and reprimand but do it directly rather than being sarcastic.
Sarcasm has left me with very bad experiences in my early days. Given that I have been part of different schools; I had to really over perform to gain attention of teachers and make new friends. I also think empathy plays a very important role in bonding with children especially when you spend long hours with them.
I believe Khan Academy also has helped me a lot. I am very impressed with Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy – the way he brought teaching to the doorstep. He made a huge difference to so many different people living in poor households. His natural take to teaching is amazing. He even admits when he makes a mistake. Given that it is a video on the internet, he can always redo the video and make it perfect. But he chooses to leave the human factor in there. I think those videos also have had a huge influence on me.
You mentioned that institutions should give freedom to teachers. What prompted you to mention that?
I think I am lucky to be part of a school where teachers decide a lot on how they can go about their class. When I read about a lot of things, when there are coordination meetings for paper corrections etc., I understand that many schools have a lot of paper work expected out of teachers.
Another thing is similar to we not telling a doctor what he needs to be doing, or any other profession for that matter, we should give that space for teachers as well. I see people who do not teach taking workshops for teachers. Besides being humiliating, I think it is a huge waste of time. I think authorities have the right to sit in a class to understand the effectiveness of a person’s teaching methodology but other than that there should be some amount of trust invested in the person you have selected to be part of your institution.
I think institutions should take feedback from teachers as well. Feedback can go to teachers as well. But not trusting her intuition can be very damaging and guiding her all the time until she retires is pushing down the confidence level.
In private organisations, considering job security a teacher just tends to keep quiet and not voice such discomfort. But, in turn she will lose motivation because she is asked to only listen and do what the higher authorities ask of her. It seems as if her written plan is more important than what she teaches in class. I mean, let’s take Salman Khan’s Khan Academy for instance; what lesson plan does he have?
The big schools with huge infrastructure have a tendency to protect what the school looks from the outside. I see continuous tweets from some schools on what they have been doing. When you are bothered about advertising what you do all the time, it will definitely take a toll on what you actually do in the class and this indirectly affects the students.
Assuming you were part of a rural environment school where children do not have electricity at their homes, how do you think you would handle those students? Private schools are only bothered about results.
I have, honestly, never taught in a rural set up. But I feel that in our country, there is always this pressure to complete the syllabus. I have taught over the internet as well. Currently, I teach in an ICSE school. But, my understanding is that in other curriculum and in schools abroad, the stress is more on application.
I feel that in a rural set up the teacher may not be able to teach everything she knows. Even if she inspires and instills hope that those children can do it, considering that children may not be on an equal social set up, is an achievement. Even if a child is not doing very well at some point in time, there can be progress.
There is one child in my class who barely gets her passing grade. Out of 5 subjects, she will fail in at least 2. But I know she is an amazing event manager. Each time there is a function, she swings to action. She does so much of running around and arranging things without even being told. I am sure she has the ability to pass in her public exams. You never know how successful she would be in life – she may open her own event management company someday. I think as teachers the most important factor is we don’t let hope die.
Even if they don’t make passing grades, we should as teachers, keep reiterating that they will still do well. It is important to tell them to improve grades but it is more crucial to make them strong human beings.
Refrain from clichéd sentences and speak genuinely. Give them examples of people who have excelled in spite of not doing well in exams. I think this is extremely important especially in a rural set up. They can be children coming from homes that may not be attentive to them or their folks may be the kind who doesn’t know or doesn’t have the time to encourage them. I also think it takes a lot of hard work to give customized tests to children to understand what they are really good at, but it helps. Choose to give customized tests instead of giving a standard test to them all.
I feel, rather than, giving a recipe for this scenario, it is best if the teacher in that situation is really empathetic and into making a difference for these children, they will find a way out. It is a surety.
There seems to be a lot of concern based on syllabus – completion of syllabus, teaching for exams etc. So, what else can a teacher do in such situations because the teacher is also under a lot of pressure because at the end of the day, the whole society – parents, school community etc. focus on grades. As a teacher, is it pressuring for you? How much of freedom do you get to teach with innovation?
Definitely! I feel there is a lot of pressure. There are two things. What I tell my children is that there is a way to get marks. Getting marks is not difficult. I am a Biology teacher and an examiner too. So, I know how they can get marks and I tell them that. I say it is okay to work for marks. When they are in class X and XII, we gear them to work towards marks. But, whilst they are in classes up to Std. IX, we can get them to explore to experiment and read. They can do scientific reading like how DNA was discovered, etc. May be in one class for 20 minutes teachers could read a passage and inspire them.
Completing syllabus and getting marks is definitely an important thing. These days tuition has become an inevitable part and we cannot deny the hype that tuition have and parents enroll their students for tuition. I also get a lot of requests from students who want me to teach them.
When I teach them in a tuition class, it is a totally different approach. I, along with my students split a paragraph into points. We make points. When you split a huge paragraph – a huge concept – into points it becomes very easy.
In India, as far as CBSE and ICSE are concerned, you seldom get an application based question. They can score marks. But in every class there will be two or three children who will definitely go beyond books. They are wired that way. They don’t care much for marks. They are the ones who will ask you more questions. You have to be patient in answering them. You should advise them with more readings that they can do. I have seen that whenever we have practical classes, at the end of the class there will be one or two of them who will come up and ask if they can check out something under the microscope. I let them do it. After all no teacher teaches everything! We are not even equipped to teach everything. If you ignite a spark and leave an impression, we can teach them how they can learn themselves – with the internet, with the computer. They have the right to satisfy their curiosity.
It is not that getting marks is not a worthy goal. It is important to get them into good colleges. But then, I tell my students who don’t make it to the best colleges that it is not the end of the world. Graduation in a lesser college is also okay.
I know a boy who did not do well at all in Class XII. He was very good at coding. He learned C++ when he was in Class VII and he did his graduation from a private college. Just after graduation, he is now in a start-up organisation. So, you will get through at some college or the other. Good colleges matter – they give you good exposure. But what also matters is what you read – what the library can teach you, what your experiences can teach you. That also means a lot. So, one should have an integrated approach.
I have also known students who have done well in every subject – got around 98-99 percentage in Class X and they have no clue what to do after that. They are in doubt whether to do Commerce because their mother says so.
So, when you are simply pushing them towards marks without any other kind of motivation to arouse their curiosity, they will be awarded with marks and nothing else.
Motivation is one thing. Now, when there are children with different intelligence level in one class and there are different approaches that suit different children, how can we get the attention of all students in the class at the same time?
This aspect exists everywhere. There are students who learn better by looking at a diagram. I understand that it is difficult to cater to every child. But at the same time, it is essential to understand that multiple intelligence doesn’t mean that a child who grasps concepts fast with diagrams will only learn through diagrams. Predominantly, diagrams help that child understand faster. It doesn’t mean he needs to be kept alien to the things written on the board. I think, once you have a rapport with the child; once the child sees you as a safe person to ask questions, he will open up. Like I said before, it is impossible to teach everything. Just arouse curiosity.
There are children who like to go outside – have classes outdoors. The moment I enter the class, there are some students who ask if I can teach outdoors. There are times when I agree to that and there are times when I don’t because at times I need the board and chalk.
I think it is up to the teacher to make the classroom a safe place for students. If children feel scared to ask a question for avoiding a mocking statement; not offend the teacher and avoid belittling statements, people who do these things, should not become teachers.
You should understand that you are dealing with up to 17 year olds and biologically speaking the brain is still developing. If you want children to be disciplined, like stand as soon as you come etc., I think teaching them manners is yes, important. But, humiliating them for something they haven’t done and starting a 15 min lecture then and there is not what a teacher should do.
Teachers should understand that learning is gradual and should exhibit patience. Sometimes, they will make mistakes. Multiple intelligence is important. But, more than anything else it is an ability to understand them and give them a safe place to learn.