February is the shortest month, with 28 days in a common year and 29 days in a leap year. Yet it is the loveliest of all months, not only because of martyrdom connected to saint Valentine and the romantic celebrations spawned by the event in the centuries that followed, but also, in my case, on account of the multiple associations related to it. February happens to be my birth month. Symbolized by the violet flower denoting love and fertility, it has always been the month of new beginnings and take-offs in career that spurred my growth in newer directions. The name February derives from Latin februum, meaning purification, because the month is considered to be a time for purification.
A quick glance through the pages history reveals that I am in the distinguished company of some of the greatest leaders, scientists, writers, luminaries of cinema and modeling, and pioneering business magnates. The indicative list of Februarians include William Henry Harrison, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan; Nicolaus Copernicus, Thomas Edison, Galileo Galilei, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Thomas More, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Steve Jobs, John Ford, Elizabeth Taylor and Cindy Crawford.
The relatively brief duration of the month finds its commonality in my short stature, physical that is. Whereas February leaps once every four years to denominate a cumulative span of time, my short frame necessitates continual leaps to make myself visible in a world of mostly tall and medium sized figures. Post superannuation since end 2014, I have been living out the past one year following my own routine, free from the trammels of career priorities and work pressures, ensconced in the comfort of my own world of meditative matutinal walks, books and music. Into this relaxed and unhurried pace of life, a new activity suddenly comes calling in the second week of February seeking me out to take up a teaching assignment in the local School of Shipping and Logistics Management. I was at once excited and apprehensive; excited because all I had to do was to dig into my domain experience of nearly thirty-eight years, and apprehensive due to the fact that I did not have any experience of teaching a formal class of university graduates. My only fall-back was the quarterly reviews and annual presentations in a corporate career. The syllabus was forwarded to me in advance. Gratefully remembering all the teachers who enlightened my path starting from preschool to university, and tweaking on my domain knowledge and delving into experience pool, I presented myself for the initial two hour session on the 11th of this month and managed to acquit myself creditably, gaining in confidence with every subsequent session thereafter. It is indeed gratifying to see the keen expressions on the faces of students immersed in the task of knowledge acquisition.
‘The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery’, is an inspired statement by Mark Van Doren. In teaching minds, one propels them with passion to learn more by going above and beyond, into a journey of discovery and exploration into one’s potential. Real learning and advancement takes place at the sparkle of convergence between learner’s curiosity and the teacher’s abiding interest to open vistas of knowledge. Easily the noblest of all occupations, pedagogy continues to be the most chronically underappreciated of all professions. Inadequate pay scales and taunting clichés like ‘those who cannot do anything else, teach’, reinforce the message that the world does not value those great souls who enlighten. Despite the lack of recognition, there is still a steady trickle of dedicated teachers pursuing their tasks with single-minded devotion. The trickle needs to swell into a huge wave if societies have to progress towards frontiers of knowledge and right values, which can happen if the best minds are incentivized into the noblest of all professions. It is high time the academy of Nobel prizes sets up a mega award to reward excellence in teaching. Aristotle rightly observed ages ago rather acerbically that “those who educate children well are more to be honoured than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well”. In other words, parents merely make babies; it is teachers who turn them into responsible citizens. Wherever they are, teachers are doing something that no one else can do as effectively, changing our view of the world and making us into better entities than we were before. What comes readily to mind in the given context is the expression ‘miracle worker’, to mean someone who gets results where others have failed. The phrase was coined by Mark Twain to describe none other than Anne Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller.
A miracle of a different kind was worked by Maria Montessori when she encouraged teachers to stand back and follow the child, allowing children’s natural interests to take the lead, and today those methods of teaching continue to ‘follow the child’ around the world. In an era where children were made to work in factories and treated as adults by the time they turned seven, Friedrich Froebel, a German educator, who discovered that substantial development of the child took place between birth and the age of three, invented what since came to be described as kindergarten. The essential procedures in the kindergarten and preschool stage owe a great deal to his work and vision. John Comenius was a Czech educator who was the discoverer of practical education, which is the most remarkable contribution to the education imparted at that time. He is famous as the “father of modern education”. He was the first educator to discover and implement the usage of pictures in textbooks and also perceived it as a universal concept of education. He believed that education should originate in the earliest days of adolescence and continue entire lifetime. Comenius also believed that every child, boy or girl, rich or poor, skillful or mentally challenged, was entitled to full education.
In India, Dr Radhakrishnan was an eminent educationist and also the country’s second President. A great philosopher and famous teacher whose birthday is celebrated as Teachers’ Day in India, he earned a very high acknowledgement as an interpreter of the most difficult concepts of philosophy. He laid great emphasis on spiritual education, believing education that could not develop spiritual feelings in students was not real. Savitribhai Phule was the first female teacher of the first Girls’ school in India, and is also considered to be the founder of modern Marathi poetry. She is one of the incredible personalities who struggled against the autocracy of castes and other social evils prevailing in an India of over a century ago. With the support of her husband and her profound determination, she initiated the noble act of opening a school for untouchable girls at a time when even talking of untouchables was considered as impure. A highly respected Jesuit teacher from my own undergraduate days was Father T N Sequeira who, then in his seventies and with fifty-five years of teaching behind him, spoke of a dedication that took him away from work for a mere five days of other absolutely unavoidable engagements.
As February of 2016 winds up towards closure and as I complete the sixty first year of my life on the 27th February, I like to dedicate my foray into academia to the memory of all the great souls who kindled in me the flame of knowledge and showed the way forward. As the Vedic prayer goes, “Gurur Brahma, Gurur Vishnu, Gurudevo Maheshwara, Gurur Sakshaat Para Brahma, Tasmai Sri Guruve Namah” (Sanskrit verse meaning, the Guru is Brahma, Guru is Vishnu, Guru is Shiva, the guru is verily the supreme Brahman, salutations to that Guru).