All the theories will start making sense only after some gruelling days out in the sticks.
Meena Sridharan is a teacher trainer who works extensively on large scale education projects in India. In this interview, we chatted about her experiences on the field and discussed some advice for developing teacher training skills.
1. Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up with a passion for English and history and all my degrees are in English Literature. There was a Linguistics and Phonology component in the course at University which I detested those days. It’s ironic that my work is only to do with English language teaching now.
During my post-graduate years, we had a mandatory social service requirement and I opted to teach English to bus conductors. I enjoyed that a lot, and one day, when I heard a couple of conductors speaking in English on a bus, felt really happy. To my uninformed teenage mind, this seemed to be a matter of course. It never occurred to me then that this was something I could do, and find rewarding, nor did it occur to me that I was actually listening to a demonstration of effective practice.
Many years later, I taught English language and conversation skills in Japan. There again, I just did it for fun, and to make enough money to put me through Japanese language school.
2. How did you get into teacher training?
It was by accident. I had been teaching for over fifteen years all across the country. After I came back from Japan, I diversified into teaching Japanese concurrently with English at some very reputed management schools. I dabbled in some French language teaching very desultorily as well.
A friend was roping in large numbers of teachers and trainers for an assessment activity and I joined the crowd. That is where I interacted with a huge cross-section of ELT teachers and trainers, and was fascinated by the stories they were exchanging. This led to me thinking about revamping my technique, unlearning my previous teaching style, and taking a language teaching qualification.
The next step was a stint training a small bunch of teachers, and almost immediately after, a training program for the first in a series of large scale education projects. I got thrown in at the deep end, and learnt to swim the hard way.
3. What does teacher training involve and who do you generally train?
Teacher training is a very broad term and doesn’t reflect the more complex parameters of the job.
If you look at it superficially, it means delivering modules or specific training materials over a specific period to a group of teachers. This could mean skilling them up in various aspects of language, or customising the course to meet their specific, pre-determined needs. The length could vary from two weeks to two years. This is just the top layer. If you peeled away the veneer, you would find that it involves many more levels of skills and empathy.
I train teachers across levels – primary, secondary, tertiary, of all ages. Though the bulk of my work is with the government sector, I am involved with other organisations and schools where I train smaller cohorts of teachers. I like to keep in touch with classroom teaching, so there are instances where I might take on an assignment to just teach children. This comes as a refreshing break from training.
4. What do you enjoy most about working with government school teachers?
Their enthusiasm and passion, and their humility. They are not jaded. When you see the conditions in which some of them work, they are truly heroes. They are strong on theories about learner centred teaching and can spout Chomsky and Vygotsky at you, but when they find that some techniques can actually be made to work in the classroom, and succeed, there is a child-like wonder and transparency in their response.
There is no gainsaying the fact that some, I would say about 40% of them, are cynical and are in the job just for the financial security it offers. It can get very discouraging while observing such teachers. Nevertheless, the majority are enthusiastic, and handle their students with passion, and sensitivity. Their reactions and responses can be startlingly acute and quite liberal.
The challenges these people face in their classroom environments may seem almost insurmountable when viewed through the lens of an urban educationist. There is no consistent electricity supply in most states, and not very good Internet connectivity. Sometimes, when introducing digital tools and resources, I can feel the resignation emanating from them as I speak. Their technical skills vary from being very competent to not having even an e-mail ID or access to a computer.
I remember some years ago, before smart phones came to rule our lives, how a group of teachers from the far reaches of a rural district formed a motorbike pool and would take turns every weekend travelling about seventy-five kilometres to the nearest town and a cyber parlour to access the internet. They informed me through their very first e-mail sent from that location!
I have a great regard for the Head Teachers I meet. They are really outstanding but embattled men and mostly women, who are beset with problems of every nature and yet manage to sail through the day with ease. They deftly manage teachers, students, irate parents, authorities, and the constant flow of visitors and observers and keep smiling.
I have learnt a lot from just watching them at work.
5. What are the challenges of working in this context?
The challenges are numerous, and as I have said earlier, are outweighed largely by the motivation demonstrated by a majority of the teachers.
The lack of motivation and cynicism displayed by the nay-sayers is a major challenge. One has to keep the energy level up, and get them all involved. There are inherent challenges of mindset and societal norms. We have to work around these with some discernment and not hurt their sensibilities. (Grouping, for example, can be a big hurdle).
Sometimes it takes a couple of days of training to make them even start to rethink their attitudes, beginning with just having to get up off their chairs and stand in a circle for a simple ice-breaking activity. Resistance to change is the greatest roadblock. Convincing them to implement change is the consequent roadblock.
Lack of infrastructure and facilities are a given almost everywhere, but each new situation just adds to the experience and learning. It ceases to be a challenge once you know how to innovate.
6. How would you rate training vis-à-vis teaching?
This could be a topic for a thesis. Anyway, just to talk through the bare bones of the comparison:
- Well, they both require the same basic qualities of energy, passion, motivation and stamina, and of course intensive preparation. However, many trainers tend to blur the lines between training and teaching. They tend to deviate into teaching, while trying to exemplify concepts.
- I think we need to remember, as trainers, that we are teaching adults who come with a set of fossilised practices which you are going to be enhancing, changing or challenging. Their schemata will have to be consolidated by practice in the training room.
- A teacher clarifies content and concepts to the student. She doesn’t need to explain the principles behind her technique, as they are implicit.
- A trainer has to deal with teachers who come with a bank of knowledge and experience. Hence the trainer needs to respect that knowledge, but at the same time consciously articulate the principles of the technique or concepts. The trainer’s task is therefore far more demanding. You become an agent of change and that sets you at a disadvantage to begin with.
7. What professional development advice would you offer to Indian education professionals who aspire to facilitate teacher training in state or institutional contexts?
- Read up on national and state level education policies and the curricula of various states.
- Be familiar with their academic patterns.
- Be prepared to feel frustrated and helpless.
- Be flexible.
- Be prepared to relearn your so-painstakingly acquired academic knowledge and adapt to totally different contexts.
- All the theories will start making sense only after some gruelling days out in the sticks.
Be excited about what you do always and never lose sight of the ultimate outcome. Motivation is contagious. If you have it, you infect your learners.
One of the little perks of doing teacher training on government projects is that you get to see unexplored parts of the country like these 2500 year old Jain Caves in the Samanar Hills, a stone’s throw from a venue that I trained at.
If you have questions for Meena, please put them into the comments section and I’ll pass them on to her.