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Dear Meek Dictators, we wish you a happy teachers’ day!

Why did we greet you a ‘meek dictator’ on a day as special as Teachers’ Day?

Today, schools across India celebrate Teachers’ Day. Indian school teachers receive handmade greeting cards and freshly picked flowers from their genuinely loving students. In many schools, senior children play the role of teachers for a day, often imitating their teachers and sometimes outdoing them. They teach their junior friends in primary school. Online socialites shower teachers with endearing messages of gratitude, affection, and respect, trending #HappyTeachersDay throughout the day. Today, we fondly remember our past teachers and generously applaud the present ones. Education Companies and NGOs organize online contests for school teachers on teachers and teaching, offering cash prizes, goody hampers, and gift vouchers. It is a day when India sets aside its grouses against the school teacher fraternity and glorifies them. Today, unlike other days, even the most vehement critic of Indian school teachers might write a few feel-good lines about this eternally 'noble' profession you are engaged in. It is in this context we called you a meek dictator; not because we are arrogantly disrespectful, but because we deeply care.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was not a school teacher!

We are sure you know how we came about celebrating 5 September as Teachers' Day in India. For the uninitiated among us, we started celebrating a National Teachers' Day in India, following up on a promise a few of his students had made to Dr. Radhakrishnan.

When Dr. Radhakrishnan took office as the second President of India in 1962, some of his students wanted to celebrate his birthday in a big way, to show their respect to one of the most beloved Indian teachers ever. However, he requested them to spend the day recognizing the contributions of Indian teachers in general instead of reducing the day to a mere birthday celebration. They obeyed their teacher.

His students adored Dr. Radhakrishnan. Legend has it that they took him to the railway station on a decorated bullock cart when he left Mysore University to join the University of Calcutta. All of us, Indian teachers, aspire to make the kind of difference Dr. Radhakrishnan had managed to make in the lives of his students.

Now, here is what we find interesting in his story. Though schools in India celebrate Teachers' Day louder than our Colleges and Universities do, and most of us remember and wish our school teachers on 5 September more than our college professors, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was not a school teacher. He always taught in postgraduate colleges and universities. Given a choice between the two, would he have opted to become a school teacher in either colonial or postcolonial India? We think he would not have and we have valid reasons to believe so.

Indian school teachers are meek dictators!

In 1991, Prof. Krishna Kumar, former NCERT Director, published the Political Agenda of Education. He republished a revised edition in 2014 as Politics of Education in Colonial India. The book explores the impact of the dynamics of colonialism and freedom struggle on our schooling system. He calls the average Indian school teacher a meek dictator in this book and explains what made him think so.

The British launched common schools across India by the mid-nineteenth century. Prof. Krishna Kumar highlights two fundamental differences between the British common schools and Indian village schools. First, village school teachers had unquestioned autonomy in selecting the knowledge they wanted to teach. The needs of the village economy and their personal beliefs about what to teach were the only two factors that influenced curriculum design in village schools. Second, the village teacher enjoyed enormous power as they did not have to consult anyone about the pacing and nuances of their pedagogy. All of a sudden, in the middle of 19th Century, the British common schools ensured that Indian school teachers could no longer decide what to teach (curriculum) and how to teach (pedagogy).

Prof Krishna Kumar captures this sudden shift in power as follows:

Tradition lost its hold when prescribed syllabi and textbooks came into being. The syllabus and textbooks determined not only what had to be taught, but also the time within which the teaching had to be completed. This meant that the teacher could no longer pace his pedagogy to suit his pupils. Yet another aspect of the change was the concept of impersonal examinations. The teacher’s satisfaction was no longer the criterion for termination of studentship; the new criterion was the student’s performance at a test taken or designed by someone other than the teacher. It could be an inspector, or in the case of senior classes, a teacher from another institution who was appointed as an ‘examiner’. The material basis and status of the vocation of teaching went through a drastic change with the establishment of the colonial system. Whereas earlier the teacher was supported by the local community, he now became a functionary of the state, working for a salary. Teaching became part of government service, and a teaching job now carried with it considerable clerical work, such as maintaining records of admission, attendance, examination and expenditure. On top of these routine responsibilities, a teacher could be assigned other kinds of duties, such as acting as a dispenser of postal material, assisting in census work, distributing textbooks, and so on.

Colonial rule subverted the once-powerful Indian village teacher into a 'meek subordinate' of administrative officers. The system worked round the clock to ensure that everyone perceived school teaching as a non-specialized job - anyone could do it. Yet, the British taught Indian trainee teachers in their Normal Schools (The colonial version of modern B Ed Colleges!) to behave like dictators in the classroom, to keep the class in order and force their students to obey. As Prof. Krishna Kumar states, “A training without intellectual context, combined with low salary and status resulted in a perception of teaching as a weak and vulnerable vocation.”

Prof. Krishna Kumar points out how the teacher education system in our country copied the approach of Normal Schools and helped establish the pattern of rote learning as we see in our classrooms even today. Krishna Kumar captures this in the chapter on teachers:

The focus of the training programme continues to be the craft of lesson planning and orderly delivery of the planned lesson. A good lesson delivery is one in which the trainee starts with a dramatic opening question, which is supposed to prepare children to get into the right frame of ideas related to the lesson, and then proceeds to present the content of the lesson, using techniques appropriate to the subject he is teaching. The next step is to take children towards a ‘generalized’ or abstract understanding of the content under study. Such understanding can be defined differently in different subject areas, but the main idea is always to arrive at a correct verbal recitation of a definition or theme. Finally comes the ‘application’ of an assigned task which may be given as homework. The entire process is centred around the concept of a passive learner who needs to be fed with facts in a ‘correct’ sequence.

It is tough to overwrite established patterns of teaching once you pick them up. In India, we still use the precious months of initial teacher education to tutor our trainee teachers to become masters of routines such as blackboard writing, questioning, and classroom control. We force them to write lesson plans where all questions they ask must elicit a specific student response, exactly how they wrote them down in their plan. Unlike their counterparts in schools, college teachers do not come to the classroom with the burden of this training weighing them down. Moreover, we view them as professionals who engage in research and thinking when they are not in their classrooms. We do not send them to run errands when they are not teaching, like we do with school teachers in India. As a result, postcolonial India celebrated its college teachers like Dr. Radhakrishnan as intellectuals and philosophers. However, it never valued or respected its school teachers like Dr. Padumlal Punnalal Bakshi. Dr. Bakshi captures his experience as an Indian school teacher in one of his essays:

One day when I was talking about my life as a (school) teacher with a friend and colleague, he sharply revealed the pettiness of this part of my life. He said that an ass who dies carrying others’ burden and munching dry grass becomes a teacher in his next life. All sorts of people manage to gain some respect, but even his own students do not hesitate to insult a teacher.

60 Teachers' Days later, what has changed about the status of Indian school teachers?

Today, we are celebrating the 60th Teacher's Day in India. What has changed about the status of an Indian school teacher after Dr. Radhakrishnan's students started recognizing the contributions of teachers from 1962? We looked at UNESCO's State of the Education Report for India 2021 to understand if the status of Indian school teachers has moved from that of meek dictators to respected professionals. Here is what we found:

The teaching profession has average status in India. Private school teachers and early childhood education teachers are highly vulnerable groups, with many working without contracts at low salaries, with no health or maternity leave benefits. Teacher workload is high – contrary to public perception – although invisible, and a source of stress. Teachers value being given professional autonomy, and disregard of this is demotivating.

Varkey Foundation's Global Teacher Status Index 2018 brings clarity to the abovementioned report, capturing the status of Indian school teachers metaphorically. Across the world, people rank doctors the highest while considering the social standing of various jobs. Lawyers get the second rank, and engineers get the third. The Index claims, "Here, the stark fact is that Headteacher is ranked in the top 4 of our graduate occupations and professions, but that Secondary and Primary teachers are near the bottom, only above, Librarian, Social Worker, and Web Designer."

Varkey Foundation’s Index gets interesting from here. People from the thirty-five countries who participated in the survey rated the social standing of doctors at 11.6, lawyers at 9.5, engineers at 9.1, and head teachers at 8.1. They also rated secondary school teachers at 7.0 and primary school teachers at 6.4. People rated the social standing of librarians the lowest, at 4.6. The Index then gives us a country-wise breakup. The Chinese rated school teachers at 11.6, equal to doctors. In India, we rated our school teachers at 4.6, equal to librarians. Now we hope that rating settles why we greeted you as a meek dictator on a very special occasion like this.

Is there any #hope left for Indian school teachers?

In the run-up to this Teachers' Day, we asked a few Indian school teachers who positively impact the lives of their students what they think of their role and what motivates them to be the exceptional teachers they are. We thank everyone who responded to our questions in connection with Teachers’ Day 2022. We could not include all the responses here. We picked the following vignettes from three of the amazingly passionate and connected educators from our online social network community:

Ragini Siva
Sir J Krishnamoorthy’s writings inspired me to move into the education sector from a freelance investor. I strongly believe as an Educator and a parent, we need to leave the world as a better place to live for the upcoming generations. That motivates me to act upon Sustainable Development Goals, to bring a shift in thinking for each aspect of life. Education is one of those things! Be the change of what you believe. Teachers need to see and apply their own thinking on what is transferred and what are we modelling to the children we teach. Believing in learning is a two-way process as we teach, we learn, learners are our teachers. That makes my experiences more authentic and fulfilled. Teaching is a noble task and there cannot be a better compensation than fulfilment. “Teachers affect eternity. No one can tell where their influence stops”. One needs to believe this to motivate oneself. Also, there should be better recognition for the profession itself!

Richa Prakash Ghosh
Children are the greatest inspiration for me to be a professional practitioner. First, we can impact them for life through teaching them the competency and commitment that is needed for them to grow up as future global citizens. Second, I believe that a child is impacted by the complete personality of the teacher and thus a teacher cannot but only be a professional but a professional with an empathetic mind. It  may sound trite but teaching is more than a profession as it involves an interface with the minds of children from toddlers to adolescents. It is through our practices we can help them to evolve, learn and foster new learning pathways. Having said that, I think at the outset teaching should be measured with the same yardstick as any other profession and thus it is pertinent to maintain work ethics which are anticipated from it. When we become conscious of what we think, hear and speak we will be more judicious in our choice of words. Speak words which uplift others always as words can become a game changer in motivating and inspiring others to always expect better from themselves than before. In other words, 'be the change you wish to see in others.'

Priyanka Tiwari
Teaching is the most satisfying job where one gets to experience pure love of students. I am extremely passionate about my profession and it is my true calling.  A teacher can affect eternity so only committed individuals should take up this profession. Any teacher who gets demotivated by the systemic constraints should remember that the interest of students is his/her sole purpose and that they are looking up to him/her. This will instill in them the confidence to rise above the system and rekindle their passion. I would like to conclude with a summary of my learnings from my journey as a teacher through a self-composed prose: When you truly understand different emotions behind those little glances and curious stares, when you draw out on your experiences and strengths to provide safe and joyful learning environment, you have become a teacher. When you confidently switch and play roles of a tutor, a counsellor, a mentor, a guide, a friend or a nurse for your student, when you can ignite in the student the flame of scientific temperament as brightly as empathetic attitude, you have become a teacher. When you instill that hope and self-belief in an individual which inspires him to chase his/her dream with vigor and positivity, you have become a teacher. 

As you read these vignettes, did you notice the common thread that runs through their worldview as teachers? They are not passionate and committed as teachers because of the system and the society but despite them.

From our collective experience as school teachers, school leaders, and teacher educators at Innerkern, we have come to realize that thousands of Indian school teachers transcend a system that is constantly trying to pull them down and continuously exceed the expectations of a society that blames them whenever possible, except on Teachers’ Day. They do that because they are self-driven and passionate about their profession. For each Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in our Universities and Colleges, there is an equally capable, passionate, and intellectual Dr. Padumlal Punnalal Bakshi in Indian schools. Yet, in a schooling system where 52% of educators draw an average monthly salary between INR 8,984 and INR 16,656, and in a society that rates their professional status at 4.6, how can we support an average Indian school teacher who is struggling to rise above the system?

Join us to inspire hope about learning from this Teachers’ Day on!

Today, as India celebrates the 60th Teachers' Day, we want to push the envelope in favour of improving the professional status of Indian school teachers beyond exciting online contests for teachers and feel-good social media posts on teachers. Various national and international reports on school education have already reiterated how critical teacher autonomy and status are to India's efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4.

The Global Mission is to "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all." India has agreed to achieve this by 2030. We must pursue that goal by inspiring hope in Indian school teachers about learning, about their professional autonomy and status. Innerkern, as an applied education research and learning solutions company, wants to affirm our commitment to this mission. We have launched two projects to advance this cause.

Project One

#TeachWithInnerkern is our open social learning initiative to enable Indian school teachers to engage with each other on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram for their continuing professional development. When we designed #TeachWithInnerkern interventions, we consciously resisted the temptation to organize webinars and post video content. While video content is a great way to reach more people online since social network algorithms these days surface videos quicker than any other medium, we did not design #TeachWithInnerkern around webinars and video content for two reasons. First, our purpose is not to give Indian school teachers information about teaching. We do #TeachwithInnerkern to encourage Indian school teachers to talk about their practice. We found that image prompts work better when you want to engage in debates and discussions on education practice and philosophy. Second, we want to be inclusive. Indian school teachers are on social networks. However, some cannot afford to pay for the data they need to buy to play and replay videos and respond to them. And then there are bandwidth issues. We can consider #TeachwithInnerkern successful only when our 9,430,839 school teachers use it as a safe space to initiate conversations about their practice. If you are reading this and have not yet shared your views about your practice on what we post on social networks in connection with #TeachwithInnerkern, do it today. Your engagement around #TeachwithInnerkern on social networks will encourage your colleagues to join the conversation. Here is an example of a #TeachWithInnerkern intervention.

Project Two

UNESCO’s State of the Education Report for India 2021 recommends ten actions to improve the professional status and autonomy of Indian school teachers. One of the recommendations is that schools support communities of practice to encourage pedagogical shifts in all curricular areas. We designed Classroom Shapeshift to enable individual schools to establish vibrant internal communities of practice. However, we have noticed two problems in how schools in India currently go about implementing internal communities of practice. First, they make teachers conduct workshops and make presentations instead of hiring external educational consultants to do them. The workshops and presentations do not change practice, no matter who does them. Second, how schools currently design communities of practice helps propagate existing bad practices as much as good ones. Schools must carefully structure Communities of Practice to remove bad practices with surgical precision and embed good ones. We designed Classroom Shapeshift to help schools achieve this. If you are reading this and you are a school leader who wants to implement UNESCO's recommendation about communities of practice, let us collaborate and implement Classroom Shapeshift in your school.


Would you like to support #TeachwithInnerkern interventions to bring 9,430,839 Indian school teachers together online and make it the largest open social learning initiative ever?


Are you a school leader? Would you like to collaborate with us to install internal communities of practice in your school through Classroom Shapeshift?


Which of the following do you think are the best ways to improve the professional status of school teachers in India?

  • 0%Improve the terms of employment & work conditions

  • 0%Recognize the professional autonomy of teachers

  • 0%Encourage communities of practice & restructure PD.

  • 0%Consult teachers on teaching governance & education policies

You can vote for more than one answer.

Note: We picked the choices above for this poll from UNESCO's list of 10 recommendations to improve the status of Indian school teachers, as mentioned in the State of the Education Report 2021.


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