121. Published: Students are not the problems, Teachers are

Article published on the national daily The Kathmandu Post, on Jan 18, 2015.

Umes Shrestha

Students are not the problems, teachers are!
Umes Shrestha

I teach teenage students in a couple of undergraduate colleges. And, during breaks my teacher colleagues and I gather in the faculty room, sip milk tea and vent out our frustrations. We complain that our students are ‘ekdam khattam’; they have terrible concentration and just don’t like to study; that ‘student haru testai hun, jati padhaaye pani kaam chaina’; and that they have horrible sense of discipline and manner. ‘The problem is ten times worse in the students of plus two level’, we moan and decry. ‘Class ma ta chhirnai dikka laagcha’, another teacher confesses with a dikka laageko face.

These complain-sessions with my colleagues have made me question my own perception on this issue: are today’s teenage students the real problem? In this reflective article, I argue that they are simply different and we need to rethink on our outdated teaching principles. I also talk about how our students are very active and critical thinkers contrary to our quick assumption of how ‘bad’ they are; and at last I urge on the need to change our perception about students in general.

Teach for the Future, not for the Past:

Things change. With time, the meaning of education has also changed. But what about the teaching method? Has it changed? When I was in school, I had a Math teacher who would not hesitate to slap, punch and kick the students every time we could not blurt out algebra formulas. Our Science teacher believed in giving ‘notes’ and making us cram up every definition word by word. Most of the teachers were utterly mean, scary and forceful; and they made sure that everybody answered in the same pattern during exams.

That was a long time ago and, to quote our politicians, a lot of water has flown under the Bagmati Bridge since then.

However, we are still teaching as if we are the preachers at the center of a grand stage. We expect the students to be obedient and listen through our lecture. Some of us still believe in brandishing sticks and thrashing our students to yield compliance. We share them our glorious feat, “I used to study for eight hours a day when I was your age” but completely misread their faces – they are not going to do that. They don’t want to do that.

We insist on discipline management but the very word ‘management’ reeks off control and authority. They don’t want to be controlled.

The classrooms still resemble a horse stable with desks and chairs fixed to keep the students arranged, assembled and tamed. Schools and colleges look like factories that manufacture standard ‘products’ ready to join the workforce. And what about the curriculum? The pedagogy? The methodology? We tell students to think outside the box but rarely do we step outside the textbook and question patterns of the examination. Our teaching is largely directed by the standardized examination and we still measure our students with the percentage they get in SLC exam.

And here’s the kicker – our students know these all.

Our students are smart thinkers:

Our students are not ‘normal’ teenagers the way we want them to be; they are the screenagers who grew up with television, technology and internet. We ridicule them by calling them facebook generation, cellphone generation, Xbox generation, internet generation, Generation Y, etc. In the contrary, we are the ones who need an upgrade, similar to regular virus updates.

If Darwinism makes sense, we should know that human brain is highly malleable and adaptive. Studies say, because theses younger generations have been massively exposed to technology and digital media since their childhood, their brains have been wired digitally. Their brains have evolved to adapt with this new environment of constant interference and information overload. But that’s why they are the way they are – different from us when we were at their age.

Of course there’s a flip side to this digital evolution. Youngsters these days do want ‘instant gratification’. May be because of Reality TV, they think success and fame can be easily achieved. There are some who display obsessive compulsive behavior and are hooked on to technology and social media sites. Cell phones, for some of my students, are more important than the books. Facebook presence, for some, is more real than their offline lives. But that’s the environment they grew up in and they will eventually adapt to that environment.

Steven Johnson, the writer of the book “Everything Bad is Good for You” argues that today’s movies, television programs, videogames, etc are challenging the young viewers to think like grown up, to analyze complex social networks. There’s too much information out there, and it can be accessed freely. And thus as a result, Johnson suggests, our students have become very sophisticated thinkers who can understand opportunities and risks on their own. And hence, now we are not the traditional ‘pool of knowledge’ teachers anymore. We are just facilitators. We can’t treat our students like they are blank slates lying around in a corner, waiting for us to fill up their minds with our ‘outdated’ knowledge and ‘bookish’ skills.

Change is a must:

Our teaching is linear and one-dimensional, very left-brain approach. Where as the youngsters are more multidimensional and inclined towards right-brain approach. We need to realize this new truth and help our students see the big picture. But sadly our education system doesn’t have a tangible big picture. And as teachers, we are helpless and without vision.

Therefore, in many ways, students are not the problems, but we are. Let’s understand: they are different. Let’s accept: they will be disruptive. Let’s expect: they will not comply, they will not confirm. They simply have a different style and motivation of learning. We need to stop making quick judgment. We need to stop labeling them as jhur students.

We are still driven by the ethos of our past education and the teaching culture we valued so much. We believe in Guru devo bhawa – teacher is god. And with this ‘godlike’ authority and sometimes with abuse of authority, we still set out to make students obedient. Where as, we should be giving them autonomy and collaborative learning opportunities so they can understand and form their own construct.

We also need to step out of our daily classroom routine, defy the irrelevant ‘factory’ model of education and make efforts towards transforming it. I know this is a lot to ask because we might also say that teachers don’t have any authority over education policy, university policies, curriculum and so on. But let’s not wait for someone else to bring about any change in the field we are responsible for. Let’s be critical about everything. Our teaching, our education and our vision of education. There will be a change.

In conclusion:

We still imitate our own school-teachers and their methods. We are consciously or unconsciously becoming the teachers we used to hate. We hated them because they used to dominate us, abuse us and lecture us. Let’s not make our students suffer through our sufferings. Most of us were once the same khattam, manner-less, and hopeless students but let’s not give those labels to our students anymore. Because, what goes around comes around. Imagine our students sipping tea in a nearby shop, complaining and badmouthing us with the same adjectives – khattam teacher, jhur teacher, lecture matra diney teacher.

120. Life is but a presentation!

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On Dec 24, 2014 my friend Prashanta Manandhar and I started a very unique platform for students where they could come, deliver presentations and learn from each other.

We knew that most students hated delivering presentations, for two major reasons. First, they take presentations as extra work. They feel compelled to do it because it is a part of internal assessment. Second, they fear presentations, as they don’t want to be on the spotlight, stand in front of the class and face criticisms.

But we wanted to stab the stigma. We wanted to make our students love and embrace presentations, and deliver with passion and charisma. And we wanted to create a community of vibrant presenters who would learn, share and inspire.

Thus, we started the platform #PresentationStuffs and since Dec 24, we have run four amazing weekly sessions at Edushala, Kupondole. We select four or five presenters for a session and they give it a shot for ten minutes. Then we give them positive feedback and we also let audience members throw in their comments.

We have been quite taken back with sheer enthusiasm of the presenters and the overwhelming participation of the students and professionals. Most importantly, with each sessions, I can feel I’m learning, growing and getting inspired from them (I’m sure Prashanta is also going through the same phase.) Watching the presenters owning the stage, sharing their stories and captivating the audience is truly truly truly motivating.

We started with a clear vision. We want to help students and professionals enhance their presentation skills by incorporating the essence of creative design and the core of public speaking.

We had hoped that our small initiation would make small differences in the lives of the students. Our hope, it seems, is turning into a reality.

(Prashanta Manandhar teaches Marketing to undergrad students. He is also the founder of The Storytellers and runs an ad agency. He is a gifted guitar player as well. We’ve been friends for almost 15 years.)

119. Delivering my first TOT session

On December 30, 2014 I had an amazing opportunity to deliver a master training session for the trainers of English language teachers, held at National Center for Education Development (NCED) Sanothimi. The training was a part of Ministry of Education’s continuous professional development for teachers.

Generally called the TOT, it was a new experience for me. It was more of a sharing session than a training session with these twenty experienced trainers. I can’t thank enough to my mentor Laxman sir for encouragement and the opportunity.

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118. Reflection: Training on Effective Communication for Managers

The more I know, the more I want. I am a self-proclaimed training junkie. I don’t miss training opportunities when one knocks at my door. I love attending training sessions, as much as I love delivering training to teachers. So this time, I took part in a two days training titled “Effective Communication for Management Practitioners”, organized by Lead International Pvt Ltd. 01 Yes, this was for the managers. But wait a minute. Am I not a manager? I manage classroom all the time. I am the supervisor and I give instructions to my students. I am a manager. And for a teacher, just like a manager in a corporate house, the skill of communicating effectively to the students is essential. I can’t underscore it enough. (But, isn’t that a common knowledge?) And, since I teach Business Communication to the undergrad students, this was a perfect chance for me to brush up my own theoretical and practical knowledge on the subject. Our facilitator was Mr. Anand Tuladhar – an entrepreneur, a teacher and many more, a very calm and charismatic person, evidently because of his tons of experience in the real world. The sessions were packed with discussions and activities, tweakable later for my own classroom. I also learnt a few new techniques, especially on giving feedback and problem solving. From a trainer’s perspective, I observed some ‘tricks’ to keep the participants motivated and focused. One was keeping chocolates and cookies on each table. This was a great consideration. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Similarly, asking a participant to hand over the certificate to another friend can be a fun way to end the program. However, the training was interesting for me because I got to meet people from the ‘different’ world. It was different because not all the participants were teachers. Teachers have a very sad life. I’m kidding but it’s not entirely false. Our world revolves around classroom, textbook, checking assignment, exam paper correction and grumbling about students. We have a very boring social life. Not pathetic like so many assume, but definitely boring. Even when we get drunk in parties, we are the most boring bunch of social outcast around. So, it was a welcome change to meet people from different profession – restaurant accountants, business development manager, entrepreneur, client relation managers, interns and students. So, at the end of the day, I learnt something, had lots of fun and made new friends. Totally satisfying. King’s College and Lead International Nepal – please continue your great work! Some more pics: 02 03 04 05

117. Do you want your students to like you?

Originally published on ELT Choutari, December 2014 issue.

Do you ever wonder why you like some teachers and why you absolutely dislike others? Why some teachers inspire you and why some sap your enthusiasm? And now that you are a teacher yourself, do you ever wonder why some students love being around you and why others try to dodge you when they see you coming?

Back in my school days, I remember being fond of my English teacher. He was into rock music and horror movies. I liked my Nepali teacher too. He was ‘haudey’ and friendly. He also told funny jokes. I liked my head-teacher because he had a visible halo of intelligence around him and looked like Morgan Freeman with chubby cheeks.

Students like teachers for various reasons. For a teacher’s absolute authority, command over the subject, confidence, personality, character, even gender, age and background. Or because the teacher does not nag students for grammatical mistakes… doesn’t pressure the students with assignments and deadlines. In college, we liked teachers who gave us notes. A friend liked Sociology ma’am because she was unmarried. My female friends liked a teacher because he had a unique British accent. There could be so many reasons.

So why we end up liking (or disliking) a teacher? There must be some explainable reasons. In this article, I claim that one of the reasons is non-verbal communication between the teacher and the students.

Here’s the complete article !

116. To Sell is Human

Finally, I’ve got my hands on this book. Even though one of my friends was very kind enough to send me an audible book link (I’ve already listened to the audio version twice), getting to read this book, again, is still a lot more thrilling.

I am not into ‘sales’ as in the traditional sales job. I am a teacher. But I feel that Dan Pink has written this book for teachers like me as well… teachers who want to change, serve and move others.

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115. Teacher Beware and Student Beware – Part II

Teacher Beware can be a blessing for Teachers

In the first part of this article, I talked about the new concept of Student Beware and Teacher Beware. Metaphorically. I came up with these after going through Dan Pink’s To Sell is Human where he talks about Seller Beware and Buyer Beware situation.

Laxman Gnawali, one of the few exceptional teachers.

Laxman Gnawali, one of the few exceptional teachers I’ve met.

So, to continue, in a ‘Seller Beware’ situation, a dishonest, manipulative and pushy salesperson won’t survive for long. In order to excel in a long term, the salesperson or companies will have to be exceptional.

Exceptional as in a salesperson who is honest, caring and responsible towards the buyers. Because in this competitive marketing where buyers have too much information and too many choices, sales these days are more about building connection, maintaining personal relationship and building identity than about selling products, making profit and getting richer.

Same goes for the teachers. In this ‘Teacher Beware’ situation, they have to be exceptional if they want students to ‘buy’ their ‘products’.

The ABCs

In To Sell is Human, Pink resoundingly states, “Like it or not, we are all in sales now”. Doctors. Accountants. Lawyers. Designers. Bloggers. Actors. Writers. Singers. Engineers. Journalists. And, teachers. And he stresses that every salesperson (and every human being) must possess three key skills to be exceptional. They are: Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity.

Very briefly, Attunement means to understand another person’s perspective, have emotional/social intelligence and empathy.

Buoyancy is how to keep afloat in a world of constant rejection, criticism and negativity.

And, Clarity is about problem identification and then solving it. It is about making a sense out of the clutter of information.

Exceptional teachers

Now, back to my point: like it or not, teachers are also in sales now. We don’t sell any physical products as such but we try to sell our ideas, information and knowledge. In return, the students pay us with their attention, time and effort. And it will definitely get tougher for teachers in this ‘information parity’ situation where information is easily and freely accessible.

Because students won’t buy from a Math teacher who constantly makes students cram up formulas, steps and methods. They can learn math better by watching Sal Khan’s youtube channel. Students won’t buy from a Psychology teacher who reads from notes and never even looks into their eyes. They can understand better by watching Paul Bloom’s free video lecture series. Students won’t buy from an English language teacher who knows the grammar rules but does not have communicative competence. They can learn English better by listening to BBC podcasts.

Therefore if the ideas, information and knowledge are straight out of the textbook (and are routinized), students won’t be interested in them anymore; because they’re everywhere. However, they will certainly be interested if the ideas, information and knowledge are co-created, shared and owned by the students and the teachers.

And, yes, I am not trying to devalue the importance of professional mastery, practical knowledge and experience in one’s subject area. They really matter a lot. It doesn’t make sense if a teacher is very friendly and positive but doesn’t have sufficient mastery over the subject and methodology.

Who will the students ‘buy’ from?

What students need is a teacher who is more than just a mere information seller. A friend, a guide, a mentor. Someone who understands them, treats them with respect and avoids judgment. Not someone who talks down to them, frowns at them and walks around with a stick in the hand. Researches in Social Science say power reduces tendency to understand how other people see, think, and feel. Students don’t need some bullheaded authoritative teacher who can’t see students’ perspective. They need teachers who would step down from their high horses and get in ‘sync’ with them.

Students need educators, not mere teachers. Teachers who not only make students memorize information, but also motivate students to think, analyze and synthesize the information. Teachers who are open-minded and won’t silence students’ voices with demoralizing ‘chup laag’ or ‘jaaney huney hoina’.

Students need a Math teacher who encourages them to come up with different answers. Students need a Science teacher who can tell stories not just theories. Students need an English teacher who can empathize with their struggles of learning and acquiring foreign language.

Exceptional teachers, just like exceptional salespersons, will have to possess the three skills of attunement, buoyancy and clarity. Exceptional teachers will have to know how to ‘tune-in’ to match with students’ perspectives, remain positive even in the flood of frustration and criticism, and have a clear idea about the problems students and teachers go through.

And one last thing. Exceptional teachers exude the attitude of service and understand that their work can affect the lives of many.

As a student and a teacher, I have been very lucky to have met some exceptional teachers. And I’m sure there are a lot of exceptional teachers out there who are changing lives of students. I want to be that exceptional teacher someday and I’ve already saddled up for that wonderful journey. I hope to meet you somewhere along the way.

(To be continued)

For more readings:

Dan Pink: To sell is Human

How To Be A Good Leader: Power And Perspective-Taking Helps Leaders Make Bigger Impact

Losing Touch