Teacher-student relationships as a factor of socialization – Some ruminations from a small school

V. Arun

Schools perhaps play the most significant role in the process of socializing a young person in their formative years. The other key players are obviously the family and society itself. As a teacher I am wondering about the role of socialization in schools. Within school too there are different players—teachers, peers, the culture of the space—all of which play important roles. In this article I am reflecting on my role as a teacher in our small alternative spaces and comparing it with my own experience as a student.

As I grew up, I went to a lot of government and large private schools, where there were more than 40 to 50 students in a classroom. In these sorts of spaces, while some teachers may be accessible to students based on their ability to connect to students and a passion for teaching, across the spectrum there really isn’t a very close teacher-student bond in which the teachers have a deep understanding of their students. At least this is not very likely. I must hasten to add here that, in my experience, most schools perhaps have one or two teachers who are accessible to students.

As for me, most of my teachers were not aware of my state of wellbeing or lack of it and did not concern themselves with such matters. I was never once asked how I am feeling or coping with my life. I was actually switched from a small city to a village school in class four, and from English to Tamil medium, in which I struggled. Then I was back to English medium from the village to another large city in class 11, where I struggled again. This was not my only struggle. As my father was in a transferable job, I switched schools ten times. I was almost always the new student, having to find my footing in a new context. I was left to cope or not cope with my struggles. My teachers, who were by and large sincere, focused on finishing the syllabus and if they were warm and friendly, it was in a vague impersonal way.

I contrast this with my experience as a teacher. I have known each of my students well—their relationship with their parents, their areas of confidence, their inadequacies, their many challenges and possibilities. In other words, I have been quite in touch with their inner world and have felt that it is my responsibility to guide them towards a place of strength and well-being. In fact, as a teacher, I have felt that the sense of well-being is the most significant factor affecting a student’s life. Of course, this is true for all ages. When a student is carrying a deep hurt from a broken friendship or relationship, I engage with the student and provide counsel to help the student tide over the pain and gain a perspective on such experiences. Isn’t this a part of our mandate in our schools?

I have often wondered about the lack of such engagement in the large private and government schools, where it is not possible to engage in such a manner due to the sheer numbers and lack of time, even if there were such an inclination and the teacher had the mental space for such engagement. Engaging with the inner world of each student is not seen as the mandate of teachers. In such spaces, students must either rely on their own resourcefulness or find support for themselves.

In our schools, where we do engage with each person, with care and the intention of bringing about a sense of well-being, I am trying to look at the possible consequences:
1. Is there a danger of making the students teacher dependent? If yes, how do we avoid creating this dependency?
2. Are we not giving enough room to build their own resourcefulness
and the required emotional and psychological muscle to tackle adversity and challenging situations?
3. Most importantly are we subtly and not so subtly creating a mould for students to fit into?

I see that in our small schools, we play a significant personal role in the lives of our students. The fact that we have warm, caring, loving relationships is a significant factor in their lives. But with it also comes a responsibility, right? If we want to see our students as sensitive, responsible, caring, tempered, rational, intelligent beings there is nothing wrong in such a desire and aim, is there? And if we use our resources and the tools that we have acquired to bring about such qualities, surely it is commendable, isn’t it? But I am wondering, if in the process of doing so, are we making copies of ourselves and shaping them to be either in our own mould or in some ideal mould (according to us)? When put like that, it sounds scary to me.

I have been accused of being too strong an influence on students or, in less sophisticated terms, brainwashing them through my passion for nature and love for animals. It is true that many of my students have become nature lovers and protectors and have strong relationships with animals. Can this be called ‘being a positive influence’ or is it ‘brainwashing’? Being teachers and adults in our students’ lives, there is no doubt that we are an influence on them, and I think it is futile to deny that, and irresponsible too. If we are passionate human beings, acting from that sense of passion, aren’t we likely to be strong influences in their lives? Of course, there could be adverse reactions too.

But does being influential foreclose the option of students thinking for themselves? Does the fact that there is a passionate adult whom they look up to, come in the way of engaging with life and arriving at their own conclusions? In this instance does the fact that the teacher, that is me, having a love for the environment come in the way of them understanding the state of the environment and, as a response to that, forming their own course of action? And if doing so, they take to conservation or choose a path of working with and nurturing nature, can one dismiss them as brainwashed people?

Another area which has regularly landed me in conflict is the action of students questioning their parents and house customs, values, practices. This invariably happens when we encourage questioning. When questioning hits close to home in areas like patriarchy, caste systems and practices, it causes a lot of upset responses. I have noticed that as a teacher, I have been subtly messaged not to enter into such conflicting areas.

But then I would ask, is there any escape from being influential? And is influence necessarily a bad thing? Does it interfere with free thinking? I believe that in each person there is a vitality of being, an alive being, with its own inclinations, personality type, possible passions, etc. wonder though whether this inner being is that easily accessible, even to the child, as there is the whole process of conditioning from early childhood and the process of corruption starts right there, doesn’t it? Is there such a thing as a pure response, as a living human to the world outside, without the multifarious influences that one has imbibed through growing up? Other than inviting them to reflect on the conditioning, do we have enough tools to free them from this burden? I personally feel that conversation classes, circle time or culture classes, the different names which we use to describe the collective looking at conditioning, are among the best tools.

Returning to the main theme, I am asking: do we end up moulding our students in certain established ways? If they turn out to be reasonable, rational, intelligent beings, does it make it okay? Is education good moulding? Or, as I would like to think, is education the process of freeing the being within and allowing the being to find space and unfold their wings in this world? If we agree with the latter description, then what would be the process of enabling this to happen? How can we help each child to find the fountain of life within? How do we help them free themselves of the layers of conditioning, while we free ourselves from ours? And also, not add new layers of our own to them. Can we help them come in touch with that alive, vibrant being inside without shaping them with our own influences and perspectives?

Tentatively, I suggest that part of the answer lies in leaving the student alone. As much as there is a need to engage more with students in large schools, I think there is a case for engaging less with students in our small schools. I feel they must be given the space to fall, to make mistakes, be silly, hurt themselves a bit and learn from all that. I feel they shouldn’t have adults eyes on them all the time, even if they are caring eyes. For young children to develop a sense of independence and a sense of agency for themselves, they need space. When they seek help from us and bring us their problems, while it is tempting to offer solutions or perspectives, I think it is perhaps more valuable to turn them back on their own resourcefulness to engage with the problem. Of course, after giving it a patient and empathetic hearing.

Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind attributes the success of a mother in bringing up her child to ‘loving neglect’. I think there is something to that. As we have moved from large joint families to nuclear families, and from villages to cities, the amount of attention our children receive from adults has increased tremendously. While it may be a result of care and wanting to be there for them, it can have a very stifling effect on them. It seems to make them more dependent and less resilient. Is this correct? Or are there contrary views to this?

How do we create care and nurturance without it being restrictive and prescriptive? I think it is important for teachers, both individually and as a group, to dwell on this. One of my friends had recently written a piece reflecting on his time as a teacher for around a decade. I was deeply moved by his honest and vulnerable sharing. I was struck by two things that he brought up. One was the sense of inadequacy that he had imbibed as an ‘average’ student, the message that he was ‘not good enough’ and ‘could do better’. What a burden it was on a young mind to aspire for some vague sense of a ‘better self’, and the feeling that he was not good enough as he was. I found it scary, thinking how debilitating it could be and sadly how very common it is in its occurrence. The second was how he was sort of drummed into shape by the subtle messaging that he received even as a teacher, of what was expected behaviour. That struck a chord with me too.

In our small schools, we tend to very refined in our approach. Not for us the loss of temper, shouting at students, and so on. I can say for myself that, in my 25 years as a teacher, I can count on my fingers the number of times I have lost my temper and shouted. But I have a far more deadly weapon—the withdrawal of affection and warmth. Just a reproachful look is enough. It is both far more effective and far more cruel. I don’t even do it consciously and deliberately. But when a child behaves in ways that doesn’t meet my approval, my stream of warmth seems to dwindle or dry up. I am trying to be more conscious of this and the awful impact it has on vulnerable children. There is a tremendous responsibility here. I don’t think the answer lies in masking or projecting warmth where it doesn’t exist, but in a deeper looking at our judgments, expectations, and ways of gaining conformity.

We recently watched the old miniseries of Ingmar Bergman, Scenes from a Marriage. It is very insightful and thought provoking. I was struck by the honest lens that he uses to explore the concept of marriage as a social construct. The main female character has a reflective look at her own childhood and that of her partner and the impact of this. I watched the scenes a few times and shared it with my class children. It strongly touched upon the role of adults in conditioning children in a certain mould.

I would like to end by posing a few questions in addition to the ones raised earlier.
1. How can we have a warm and caring relationship with students without fostering dependency?
2. How do we bring about a deep engagement without influencing our students’ own inner thought processes?
3. How can we foster the flowering of the inner being while unfolding the same for ourselves?
4. How can we validate and value each person for who they are while at the same time enabling the process of understanding and shedding conditioning?
5. How do we facilitate growth of resilience and emotional muscle from real life experiences without the students going through harmful or hurtful experiences?

My hope in sharing these reflections is the wish that it will lead to further engagement and dialogue.

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