How to be an Effective Teacher?

Prof. Dr. S.V. Raghavan​
Vice-Chancellor, SCSVMV

Introduction and Introspection

Often I am asked to pen my thoughts on various aspects of University Administration. In my opinion, the dominant aspect is the Academic administration, the components of which are Teachers, Students, and the Academic Ambience. Before I proceed further, I would like to caution the readers about a common tendency in writing on matters of general interest. In my case, often I find that I tend to fall back to the tone of “Advice,” while dwelling on a subject matter such as the discourse under scrutiny. An immediate interpretation of my approach could be a weakness to satisfy my ego. A closer view (with a bushel of benevolence) of such behaviour, can throw an interpretation that it is a sign of anxiety of an extremely concerned individual (perhaps arising out of decades of experience and learning) to ensure that a certain element of “Inspiration” coupled with the right mix of “Caution” is communicated. 

However, the interpretation is entirely subjected to the state of mind of the beholder. As Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer once said, “Advices can be ‘taken’ or ‘mistaken’. It depends”. Notwithstanding the interpretation, methinks that the essential purpose of every advice on matters such as teaching must be to help teachers in their actual daily work, so as to assist them in increasing the effectiveness of their classroom lectures. One must remember that the subjects taught, the methodology of teaching, and curricula at all levels of learning have been evolving over a century; it continues to evolve as the awareness about the need for learning constantly expands.

Before we proceed further, it is interesting to note that the questions such as “What is Education?”, “How Education should Be Imparted?”, and “When does Education becomes Effective?” are asked and answered by Great men of the past, spanning several centuries.

Let us begin with some introspection and try to see if we can find some answers. The following questions naturally arise in the minds of not only teachers but also the society around us. 

  • “What is education for?”
  • “What sort of knowledge would good education give?”
  • “What are the objectives of teaching children?”

A Teacher rarely finds satisfactory answers to these questions before entering the classroom. From students’ perspective, the activities that are part of education are; going to school every day, learn literacy and perhaps some aspect(s) of Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, and Mathematics, do some physical exercise, chat with friends, and go home. In other words, Education is perceived as a part of their daily routine; hardly anyone questions it. It is not, however, that everyone in the world thinks this way. Some even oppose education in the form of sending their children to town where they go to school and learn literacy and mathematics. They oppose such form of education as being meaningless. Worse, they fear that sending their children to town exposes them to alien cultures and that the introduced culture will destroy their traditional way of life. Their idea of good education is to pass on the herding skills and the traditional way of life. They regard this as “better” than sending them to school for meaningless lessons in literacy and mathematics, together with inevitable exposure to alien cultures. Essentially, the education as we understand does not translate in their opinion to meaningful livelihood.

Remembering my Teachers

என்னை உருவாக்கியதில்  எனது  அனைத்து ஆசிரிய பெருமக்களுக்கும் பங்கு உண்டு, அதில் முக்கியமானவர் என்று குறிப்பிட வேண்டுமென்றால் எம்ஐடி குரோம்பேட்டில் பயிலும்போது எனது கணித ஆசிரியர் திரு குமாரசாமி அவர்களை இந்நாளில் நினைவு கூறுகிறேன். என்றென்றும் உன் வாழ்க்கையில் தர்மத்தை விட்டு அகலாதே என்று அவர் கூறிய பொன்மொழிகளை கடைப்பிடித்து  இன்று நான் நல்ல நிலையில்  உள்ளேன்.

-முனைவர் S.V. ராகவன்

Purpose of Education

The reason for the disparity in opinion as to what should be learned through education lies in the fundamental question of “What is education for?” or the question can be reframed as “Whether education is for practicality (skill) or for embellishment (knowledge)”. Expanding further, one is tempted to ask, “Should education focus on technical skills that would train a trader, merchant, businessman, craftsman, or a professional as quickly as possible?” We are thus faced with the problem, “Whether education should aim for packing the children’s brains with practical knowledge or giving them intellectual treasures?” The important point here is that the answer to the question “Whether education should be practical,” is “Of course Yes.” However, one should realize that “the Educational Process is a means to an end, and not an end in itself.” The essence of practicality is that it benefits something that is not purely practical. A ‘good’ final result sometimes requires a long series of results! Education should aim for the happiness of each student. One can argue that both types of knowledge should be provided; practical knowledge and intellectual treasure. Students should acquire knowledge for material gain as well as knowledge for intellectual pleasure. Education should have both utility and humanity as components. Knowledge is fundamental in the quest for happiness. Education must not be a way of controlling or directing students for specific purposes. Rather, it must encourage the student’s natural inquisitiveness and help them to solve problems and gain happiness on their own initiative. The moot questions that arise when going to the classroom as a Teacher are, “Can I do it today? Am I doing enough to enable my Students? Are these classroom interactions adding up to make overall sense?” What is left unsaid is that my presence in the life of Students through “handling of a course” is significant in ensuring that the Student is enabled to acquire knowledge for material gain as well as knowledge for intellectual pleasure.

It is time to elaborate on the terms introduced in the beginning of this article in order to reinforce our usage of the taxonomy and to maintain the contextual continuity in the sequel. By Teachers I mean Faculty at SCSVMV. Faculty is an all-encompassing term to refer to Professor all levels, Researchers, Lecturers, and so on. By Students I mean anyone who has joined one of the structured programs at SCSVMV. By Academic Ambience I mean the Classroom, Laboratories, Workshop, Library, Hostels, and other such places and/or activities that help students learn on their own by either observance or participation or practice or all of these. I believe strongly that teaching is the action of the individual called teacher and learning is the experience of an individual called student. Both have an important role in Education, which is a process that executes in an Ambience. In essence, Teachers should love their Students and hence the classroom interaction must be knowledge transfer dominated by love and affection for every Student present. Without affection and sympathy, Students’ character and knowledge cannot be developed.

Role of a Teacher: Living Role Model

Teacher enlivens the material contained in a book or books, by behaving as a living thought, by finding expression inside the class-room. A competent teacher discriminates at once between mere verbal reproductions of text-book methods and strives hard to bring ideas to life. It is therefore hoped that intellectual discourse such as the current one, may be of value to teachers by helping them to become better teachers and not lend itself to unnecessary intellectual polemics. For, to live an idea or walk through a discovery or express an innovation inside the classroom is an art in itself. Art knows no bounds. The Teacher has to be an absolute master of the subject that the teacher is handling. Teacher is expected to be like the schoolmaster, an impression of whom is left by Oliver Goldsmith in his sonnet in his own poetic way, where the onlookers (villagers and students alike) were always left wondering, “That one small head could carry all he knew”. Apart from the mastery in the subject matter, a teacher is expected to be a great orator and a great stage actor; the lecture should be a torrential downpour and the delivery should be immersive. For example, if a teacher of Mathematics is teaching Calculus, the teacher should be an authority in Calculus (of all flavours), have the ability to relate every concept therein to the real world around, lecture in a language of choice with flourish, and take the students up and down a curve, if need be. While the treatment of Mathematics is meant to be theoretical in the sense of setting forth a consistent and co-ordinated body of doctrine; the fact that such theory is involved in all true practice should be unfolding as the class progresses. In this article, I make no attempt to set forth explicit directions how to carry out every small piece of teaching. After all, teaching is dealing with souls, and only mind can really influence another mind. The true and effective way to train oneself as a practical teacher is to imbue oneself with broad and fruitful principles; and in doing so, the teacher becomes a real educative force just in the degree to which, having incorporated those principles in the living texture of one’s own thought, the teacher should bring them to bear on the living problems when lecturing inside the classroom. But the teacher should strive to ensure that the principles and methods identified and set forth should be practical and proven by the successful working of every one of them.

The discourse hitherto naturally leads to the question, “What did our Great Gurus of the Past say about Education and How to Impart Education?”. As our University is named after Maha Periyava, who is a legend of recent times in the lineage of Adi Sankara, we look at their view points and advice, before proceeding further. Adi Sankara, the Founder of Advaita Vedanta speaks about TEN rules as an integral part of methods of Learning that are relevant even today. They are:

Adi Sankara speaks about TEN rules as an integral part of methods of Learning

1. Shravanam Rule

The Art of listening attentively to what the Guru (Teacher in the Classroom) says.

2. Mananam Rule

The Art of meditating over what the Guru has taught; Meditating implies logical thinking for assimilating the essentials.

3. Nididhyasam Rule

The Art of reaching the conclusion correctly by generating or trying to generate counter examples; it may be noted that Shravanam, Mananam and Nididhyasam are not three independent methods, but they are the essentials of one whole method.

4. Prashnottar Rule

The Question-Answer Method to be encouraged to help the students to get their doubts removed by the Guru. We know that this method was followed in the Upanishads. In Bhagwat Gita, Lord Krishna adopted this method for his disciple Arjun

5. Tark Rule

The method of reasoning for removing the doubts of students

6. Vyakhya Rule

The actual Lecture inside the classroom in the modern context

7. Adhyaropa Apavad Rule

This is often referred to as the projection method where the student is guided to see the real into the unreal. Apavad comes after Adhyaropa in the process of determining and reaching a decision. Herein the reasoning is employed. The process develops Perceptual Wisdom.

8. Drishtant Rule

This approach is used for helping the student understand difficult subject matter through illustrations. Drishtant means illustration, including models (static and dynamic), simulations, laboratory experiments

9. Katha-Kathan Rule

The Katha-Kathan is the story telling method for helping the students understand the difficult things

10.Upadesh Rule

This is a lecture method used by an Advaita Vedantist in helping Shishyas (students) to understand reality, virtual reality, and maya. Adi Sankara has used this method in his book Vivek Chudamani and Upadesh Sahasri (meaning Best Wisdom and Thousand Lectures). This rule refers to planning the course and the lectures therein. The two books referred to are examples

Maha Swamigal in his lecture on December 18th, 1932 to the students at Hindu Theological High School situated on Thangasalai Road, Chennai says the following (An extract from Internet):

“This whole world is one big family whose parents are Parvathi and Parameswara. The first verse of Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsam portrays this truth. The teachers and you are living like a small family. As children you have to learn as much as possible in your youth. There are two aspects to learning: one is devotion to the guru and the other is morality and personal discipline. Students should avoid getting angry and not criticize anyone or anybody. Just like we maintain a diet while taking medication, while obtaining education, refrain from talking about freedom or disobeying the instructions of elders. Guru Bhakti, moral righteousness, and humility are essential for a student. Children who are humble in their youth will rise high later in their life. Devotion to mother, father and guru (matrubhakthi, pitru bhakthi and guru bhakthi) are all key for you. You should strive to remove the ego that destroys. Avvaiyar has said that mother and father are the primary gods. The Vedas also say the same thing. When you are studying, do not interfere in worldly activities. You might ask, ‘Isn’t it necessary to do service for the well-being of the world?’ It is definitely necessary to do service. However, first obtain all the knowledge needed in this world to do the service. You have to think that your studying is your contribution to the world and involve yourself in it completely.”

Role of a Student

“The primary role of a student is to study well”, is what one would hear often. I beg to differ. The primary role of a student is to be inquisitive and question with a view to enhance understanding of the subject matter. Simple common place questions such as “Why is it so hot during midday when the Sun gets right above my head?” or “I know my food which consists of rice and vegetables that are grown in the field; actually I have seen it. I wonder how does a plant get its food?”, should bother a student until a satisfactory answer (read as verifiable through experiment) is found. Only effective learning tool is experimentation. This is true of many facts around us irrespective of the classifications such as Arts, Science, Social science, Engineering, Management, etc. However, the expression “educated person” means that certain human qualities are imbibed; discipline, societal behaviour, concomitant coexistence of traditions and cultures, and so on. The role of the student is twofold; learn as well as imbibe. Facts around us are learned and values around our existence are imbibed. While the teachers perform their actions so that students can learn through experience, the academic ambience provides the opportunity to imbibe qualities that matter for harmonious living. In the Vedic tradition, the four phases of learning are enumerated as listening, studying, internalising, and accepting after questioning. These are also enumerated in Adi Sankara’s Ten Rules on Learning and Methods of Learning. In the same Vedic tradition, imbibing qualities are expressed through puranic descriptions that sound like stories and aphorisms and couplets that state facts, commonly known as Subhashitani (meaning well said).

Education is a process that executes in an Ambience.
The primary role of a student is to be inquisitive and question with a view to enhance understanding of the subject matter.

Role of the Academic Ambience

The Academic Ambience relates to the environment created for learning experience as well as imbibing qualities that stand in good stead lifelong. First and foremost is the classroom. Second is the laboratory. The ingenuity of the teacher plays a vital role as the “experience” relates the background of the student. As one learns through experience and prior experience differs from student to student, it becomes the teacher’s responsibility to play the role of “leveller”. Most often the education system starts failing at this point! Mainly because, it is too tedious (read as time and effort consuming) to scale the Experiential Model. Second aspect of academic ambience, viz., the laboratories, aid the teacher in enhancing the student experience. Third aspect is the library where a significant amount of self-learning takes place. Therefore the library should present a dynamic ambience where the student can find the oldest to the latest information in all subject matters as well as matters relating to life, tradition, and culture. Of course, to relax and rejuvenate the student needs a playground, gymnasium, indoor gaming as entertainment (chess for example), and places to quietly meditate and reflect upon oneself.

The Institutional Expectation

Having mentioned at length the three pillars, viz., TeacherStudent, and academic Ambience we move on to see the coexistence and interaction among the three pillars for effective learning experience as well as for imbibing excellent qualities to carry on with one’s life. One must remember that there are many teachers who are experts in various subject matter. But the doctrine of education is just one; Excellence. The tenet, dogma, theory, belief, precept, or what have you in place of doctrine of education should result in Excellence, irrespective of subject matter. If the institution such as SCSVMV should accept full responsibility for the Academic Ambience, the larger role in shaping it rests squarely on the shoulders of faculty – a reference to all teachers irrespective of cadre. The structures such as Board of Studies (BoS), Academic Council (AC), etc. are but mechanisms that are created in an institutional structure for enabling the teachers in achieving the academic goal. Structure follows Strategy. For SCSVMV the Strategy is simple – to Excel in the field of Education. Institutional Leadership will fill in for the Material Deficiencies that impair the General Function of Education.

The Hierarchy And Role Playing

As mentioned earlier, the structure consists of BoS, AC, and Institutional Leadership. Some of the key players in the hierarchy are Heads of Department (HoDs), Deans of Faculty (Deans) whose role is to serve as enablers, so far as the teachers are concerned. Their job is to enable the normal course, identify excellence in terms of ideas and processes and bring it to the attention of academic administration. Unfortunately such key roles are often reduced to administrative functions such as Sanction of Leave, making of Annual Reports, Departmental Budgeting, etc. As an academic activity enabler, the Deans and HoDs are supposed to constantly identify the opportunities in learning activities and present a consolidated resource requirement picture to Institutional Leadership. Like everything else in life, there is always a “time constant” between identification of a requirement and fulfilling that requirement. The responsibility of the Institutional Leadership is strive to reduce the time constant. The responsibility of the subordinate leadership such as Deans and HoDs is to be early in delivering the requirement to the Institutional Leadership. The goal should be timeliness of action.

A discourse such as this one is a great opportunity. One does not want to stop after furnishing little of either stimulus or suggestion. To emerge as an ideal institution, one needs to focus on a practicable ideal. It is true that small and insufficiently staffed institutions cannot attain the full scope of the application of the leading principles suggested here. But the Principles of Curriculum and the Methods of Knowledge can be applied universally, and always it is the Principles that are essential.

A Teacher cannot be really proficient in every subject, and that is why a Department has many Teachers and an Institution has many Departments. The idea is to leave the individual subjects to those Teachers who are more competent to treat their respective subjects than the author of this article can claim to be! As was emphasized earlier, though the Teachers are different, the doctrine is one, and the Institutional Leadership accepts full responsibility for the functioning of the Institution as a whole in the eyes of the Beholder. The few years which have already elapsed in the present century have been marked by a movement towards a wider curriculum and more effective methods of teaching, that too based on the New Education Policy 2020, which is around the corner.

Understanding The Societal Function called Education

Education and Health are the dominant Human Development Indices. One of the most noticeable trends of the last century has been the increased importance attached in the public mind to education. Large sums are expended by the Central and State Governments in creating and maintaining institutions, from school to the university level, and in securing the services of competent teachers. Meanwhile, a growing tendency is observable in the public press and on public platforms to regard education as a panacea for all social and economic ills. It is encouraging to note that public opinion and public action are favourable towards education. But, close on heels, the overreach of the public imagination follows as a bewilderment. It is a ground reality that the current day educators have to contend with. Such social responsibility placed squarely on the shoulders of Teachers inside a classroom are a recent phenomenon. The modern Teacher has the dual responsibility; ensure that the student learns well; while at the same time the student is prepared for a livelihood. Having been a Teacher for decades, I would like to see the dual responsibility as an opportunity to organise oneself in the classroom, so that every nugget of information that is passed on inside the four walls of a classroom falls in to one bucket or the other, preferably both. The challenge that confronts the modern teacher is one of organising oneself in the classroom for teaching. Today we need to scientifically engineer every human activity towards fulfilling that dual ambition the educational institutions are confronted with. But today’s Teacher is not alone; today’s Teacher has the technology to support the action inside and outside the classroom. The learning process elastically expands in time, often with the fullest cooperation of the students themselves. The best way out of all this is to faithfully follow the Sagacious Advice of Maha Periyava while at the same time Designing the Courses and Planning their Delivery (including interaction with Students) following the Ten Rules laid down by Adi Sankara. Follow the Dharma as enshrined in their messages; because it is always true that Dharmo Rakshathi Rakshitaha irrespective of one’s role; be it Teacher, Student, or the Society at large.

Good Luck to Students; All the Best to my fellow Teachers; Three Cheers to the Contemporary Society. May God Bless Everyone to perform their respective roles with aplomb and alacrity.

© Professor S V Raghavan