My teacher, my friend?

Amrita Prasad
Saturday, 1 September 2018

A lot of time, teachers try to be cool and act like buddies. While having a friendly attitude is good, getting too friendly can spoil the relationship. Prior to Teachers’ Day, Amrita Prasad talks to learners and the learned to know what works best for both.

There was a time when schools were all about harsh discipline and authoritarian teachers. Today, classrooms are becoming less intimidating and there is a lot of ease, flexibility and openness in the student-teacher relationship. More and more gurus are discovering interesting and smart ways to impart lessons, and shishyas too are enjoying the whole process. Ahead of Teacher’s Day (September 5), we find out how to create a perfect balance between discipline and fun,  and make the journey interesting for both.        

Buddy vs Friend 

Arpita Chakrabarty, West Bengal-based English professor, is loved by her students. Explaining her bond with them, she says, “It is one of mutual love, respect and understanding which, I feel, is the basis of all good relationships. I emphasise the word ‘mutual’ here because a teacher too gains a lot through this bond.” 

Students ‘like’ teachers who act like buddies, however, Chakrabarty says one must realise the difference between a friend and a buddy.  “A teacher is a friend whom you can confide in and look up to in times of distress but buddies are cool to hang out with and have fun. It is not that you cannot spend fun times with teachers but it is not the kind of fun you have with buddies,” she explains. 
Recently Chakrabarty, along with her students, collected relief funds for Kerala flood victims. The relief work was planned with students not only to help Kerala but to instill in the young minds an empathy for people in need. “That was my purpose in organising this drive and all such programmes which promote teamwork and selfless love for humanity. This awareness keeps them disciplined, in class and the outside world,” she adds.
Terence Lewis, renowned choreographer and TV personality, who runs Terence Lewis Professional Training Institute (TLPTI) in Mumbai, suggests that while teachers can have a friendly attitude, they can’t be friends. “The objective is not to let them become your friends. But your attitude should be friendly. That allows students to open up and ask questions. Openness and an atmosphere of congeniality should be encouraged. However, you need to keep a decorum and a clear boundary, otherwise there will be no difference between you and their best friend,” points out Lewis.  

Pune-based musician Anupam Joshi, who plays the sarod and teaches Japanese, says that he shares an extremely friendly bond with his students. “I am approachable for anything, at any point of time. I always like my students to be happy around me. I am lucky to be a language teacher, so I get a lot of opportunities to talk to my students during class,” he says. 

As a student, Joshi says he is blessed to have not one but more than two gurus in music. “While values like discipline, strictness, respect and guru-shishya parampara are always existent, the relationship I share with my gurus is a bit different. My senior most guru Pt Rajeev Taranath is not only a sarod maestro but also a linguist like me. So, while I learn the deepest intricacies of music from him, we also discuss literature and Urdu shayari. My relationship with my guru Pt Tejendra Narayan Mazumdar, who is from Kolkata, is a little more open and we often discuss technology and current affairs including politics etc. I am comfortable asking him any kind of questions and can openly disagree with some of his ideas and opinions,” Joshi adds.

Don't cross the line

A lot of time, teachers act ‘cool’ to be ‘liked’ by students. But getting too casual or informal in your interactions with students could spell trouble. “Students have to value, respect and appreciate what is being taught. They need to be attentive and disciplined,” says Lewis who believes that friendship between a teacher and a student may evolve over a course of time, say 5-10 years, but not in the initial stages of learning. 

So how do you manage to not cross the line? Answers Joshi, “You can’t allow a lot of casualness to creep into the relationship. A certain protocol needs to be followed.” 

A balancing act 

Lewis says that although he prefers the traditional gurukul system, he doesn’t agree with the exercise of absolute power. “It’s give and take with your students. As teachers, it is essential to not get arrogant or abuse power. There’s something in between being too casual and too authoritative — it has to be democratic which makes students think rationally,” he says suggesting that teachers can use cool lingo and crack jokes without being sarcastic or look down upon students. “Charmingly involving some tricks of the trade and building a bond with your students can be of great help. You should be humble, but you should maintain the line and follow a code of conduct,” Lewis advises.  

Having a cool but disciplined teacher helps as the process of learning then becomes a two-way exchange of ideas. “Earlier, students’ participation was limited,” says Joshi adding that now things have changed for the better. While watching a cricket match with his guru, he often has arguments about what should be the right strategy for the game. It’s a healthy debate they both engage in. “Students, especially in the classroom, feed off the energy of the teacher. A taskmaster may get the job done but can never make the learning process enjoyable. The classroom should be a happy place. If the teacher can’t connect with the students at their level, s/he can’t make them like the subject/ discipline,” says Joshi who has been a Japanese language teacher for more than 15 years now.

Mutual respect 

Kolkata-based footballer and a 12th grader, Shawn D’Cruz, who aspires to take India to FIFA World Cup, says the reason why he is good at attacking on the field is because of his coach Daniel Toppo. “Everyone calls me a ‘lethal’ footballer and that one day, I will make the country proud but I want to make Daniel sir proud. I have been training under him since I was eight-years-old and he has been my best friend. He knows my strengths and weaknesses more than I know myself. He is extremely friendly with me and that makes it easier for me to share things with him. There was a time when I was injured while playing and he carried me on his shoulders and rushed me to the hospital without worrying about the distance he had covered on foot. This can only happen if the person is genuinely attached with you emotionally and cares for you. Our relationship transcends beyond the football field,” says the youngster.  

D’Cruz, who shares everything from academics to friends to crushes with his coach, says that his teacher is well aware of things happening in his life so he is able to channelise his energy better. “Daniel sir knows when I’m being mischievous or pretending to be unwell. He never scolds or gets angry but cracks jokes or takes me out and very affectionately explains to me why is it important to work hard. A lot of my friends who are training under other coaches complain that they are too strict and envy that my coach is my best friend!” he says. 
Lewis specifies that a teacher must know that s/he is not looking for a physical or romantic relationship with the student, and vice versa. “It is important for the relationship to stay sanctimonious. If a physical relationship is established between a student and a teacher, a certain kind of bias can creep into the class. So the best thing is to maintain a distance if you want to be absolutely professional. I know a lot of teachers who mess up things and I really don’t think that is the right way to go about it,” he says.  

For Lewis, even hanging out with students is not okay with him. “When the lines get blurred, students start taking things casually and expect certain kind of privileges which is not appreciated between a student and a teacher. It is not very encouraging to take your students on coffee dates or socialise with them or be overly friendly,” he adds.  

Two-way process

Despite advanced teaching techniques and technology transforming classrooms, situations may arise when a student is unable to grasp a lesson. So then should teachers extend a friendly hand to students?   

Lewis thinks that when a student is unable to grasp certain things, more often than not they must be undergoing some kind of mental/ emotional stress. “So then I take them aside and ask if everything is okay and what is troubling or bothering them because I believe when people become difficult, it comes from an emotional space. It is best not to ostracise him/ her from class. If you feel they are disruptive, you can ask them to meet you after class and spend some time with them in a holistic way and mentor them. Teachers are like parents and they have to mentor them. But you can’t be authoritative or abuse your power. You can be amicable, funny and social as opposed to being sarcastic,” he quips.  

Chakrabarty says a teacher’s job is to make the class interesting. “History of Literature is usually considered a boring discipline, but it is wonderful to see when my students enjoy lectures on History. I prefer interactions to the lecture method. It is the students who come up with deductions. I just lead them to it. In this way, you too can make novel experiences every year. They cease to be students and become co-partners, especially when working on a thing together, and I love this,” explains the 30 something professor.  

Joshi says that as a teacher you must anticipate when things can get out of control. “The most important thing is that the process of learning should not get hampered in any way. Communication is the key. If a teacher feels that s/he is losing control of the situation, they should openly communicate with the students,” he says.  

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