The first thing I tell anyone about myself is that I am an English teacher. There is a certain level of pride, which I cannot help but feel with exuberance, over having fulfilled this childhood dream of mine. To be candid, my childhood dream was actually to become a doctor and practice medicine. Quaintly enough, this delusional fantasy of mine started dying away the day I learned that to become a doctor, I would need to cut open dead bodies. So perhaps English was really my second love. As a teenager, the poems and novels I would read in class spoke to me; they took me into a fictional world where there was beauty and hope. I would walk with Michael Henchard, weep with Elizabeth-Jane, laugh with the Bennet sisters, and hunt with Crusoe, because as I always say, ‘When has reality been kinder?’
Once when I attended a workshop meant for researchers in the American Consulate, Kolkata, a man diligently asked me what my subject was. When I said ‘English’, he was of the opinion that it must be a very easy subject to teach since there is no right or wrong, that poems can be interpreted in as many ways possible, and most importantly, the presence of notes online. I frowned but did not want to engage in a pointless debate with a man who was so firmly rooted in his beliefs. Later as I reflected on his views, I realized he had been wrong. Teaching Englishto graduate students in Nagaland has not been a bed of roses. In fact, there is no bed at all, metaphorically speaking of course. There are a number of challenges which an English teacher faces here which would be actually unheard of in other parts of India.
The biggest problem faced by English teachers in Nagaland is the reluctance of students to read the texts prescribed to them. When I started teaching, I tried to force the first batch of students I taught, to read the work by themselves so that we could discuss the larger themes and aspects of the novel in class. No one could go beyond the first chapter. Eventually, I had to resort to discussing the summaries of these novels and dramas in class first so the students would be able to make any sense of the discussions which would follow. The result is that many classes are simply devoted to giving out the summaries of the prescribed works. It is a necessary evil.
There are several problems with this method of teaching. First of all, the student does not actually read the texts, hence grasps the teacher’s interpretation of the particular piece. Novels are meant to be read, never narrated. I have often come across two or three students each year who would actually read the novels, but would feel embarrassed to admit it in front of their classmates. This makes me feel old, for in my college days, the one who would feel embarrassed were the ones who had not read the novels beforehand. Trends are changing. Another reason cited by students for not reading is, they say, their inability to comprehend the text fully. I always tell them, read with a dictionary on the side. This will drastically improve their vocabulary as well. Reading improves language skills as well as a person’s imaginative power.
In the end, however,it is the duty of the teacher to complete the syllabus on time. Under the pressure of meeting deadlines, conducting and evaluating tests and assignments, perhaps it becomes easier to just give the summary rather than risk losing time and waiting for the students to read the novel. More effort is thus put into teaching, but what is the end result? Are we creating students who will always rely on someone else to know what’s happening in a novel? Isn’t this method of teaching defeating the very purpose of studying novels as a text? Perhaps I am an idealist, but these are questions which often haunt my mind.
Another problem rampant in Nagaland in relation to teaching English is the heavy reliance of the students on guidebooks and online notes. I am never ashamed to admit that I too used guide books and online notes during my graduation; but guide books were only used as guides, and online notes like a lighthouse to passing ships (forgive the usage of this odd metaphor, what else can you expect of an English teacher?). When an entire state uses the same guidebook, the answers become suspiciously similar and may be incorrectly branded as ‘copied’ answers. Guidebooks should be used by students to see the kind of questions that can be framed, and the basic structure of corresponding answers. Most students, unfortunately, end up memorizing the answers. I do not think examiners anywhere would appreciate mugged up answers. A creative personal interpretation of the subject matter is what is expected.
Poor vocabulary creates precarious situations in studying English. The reluctance to work on one’s vocabulary and improve it proves toxic to studying English. As a language, English is very potent and is growing in terms of new words and phrases each year. Many students in Nagaland have poor vocabulary and language skills. Perhaps over exposure to Korean movies is to blame? Or is it because students don’t read anymore? Students need to expand their vocabulary so as to avoid times when a question in an examination had not been attempted simply because the meaning of the statement wasn’t understood. This is only part of the reason. For this matter even reading Tinkle can help. Having a good vocabulary will go a long way; after all, won’t it be beneficial to be well versed in one of the most important languages of the world?
How can these issues be tackled? Here are some of my own solutions. To polish their language skills, I make my 4th Semester Honours students maintain a 30-day journal which is basically the first novel they end up writing in first person narrative. The results are always good and show a gradual improvement in writing style as the days go by, much like Anne Frank’s Diary. As they become writers themselves, a sense of appreciation towards novelists and novels evolves. To encourage reading novels, I make my 5th Semester Honours students attempt a critical analysis of novels. The previous batch studied Easterine Kire’s Mari. This year I plan to recommend her award winning novel When the River Sleeps. This enables students to develop a sense of original critical thinking and appreciation for novels, and inculcates a spirit of research, without hindering the progress of the syllabus. My 3rd Semester students for the General English paper always make presentations analyzing various short stories by writers from Nagaland, thus improving their vocabulary and familiarity with Naga authors.
A joke I once heard said that teachers would always get direct entry to heaven because of the hard work they put up during their lifetime. I do not know if carrying the tagline of‘teacher’ alone can be enough. One needs to be updated with latest developments in their field and relay the information to the students, and also use modern means of teaching, thus creating tech-savvy citizens. As teachers, we need to come up with creative solutions for the best interests of our students. Our focus is to ensure our students develop and equip themselves to take on this modern world of cutthroat competition. The teaching methodology which works for one batch may not be equally effective for the next. Each student is unique. A teacher must make an effort to teach in a way which benefits all. We expect students to excel, but we must be the ones to inspire them. Having great expectations alone won’t work. Thus, the life of an English teacher can be summed up in these lines by Robert Frost- “Miles to go before I sleep”.
“Degree of Thought is a weekly community column initiated by Tetso College in partnership with The Morung Express. Degree of Thought will delve into the social, cultural, political and educational issues around us. The views expressed here do not reflect the opinion of the institution. For feedback or comments please email: [email protected]”.