Transforming student-teacher relationship amid COVID times

For long there has been a sustained advocacy campaign going on around the world to transform student-teacher engagement into a mentor-mentee relationship. Coronavirus pandemic has made these voices and demands even shriller.  A teacher just teaches and delivers content whereas a mentor’s role is to guide and to inspire; to give advice and to support the mentee. A mentor can help his student improve his or her abilities and skills through observation, continuous assessment, monitoring and counseling. Online teaching amid lockdown has thrown enormous challenges before teachers in terms of retaining interest and attention span of students and getting them fully involved in the teaching-learning process in absence of a real classroom situation that allows physical interaction and live one-to-one exchanges between teachers and their students. It has also posed several challenges to the online examination system in terms of bridging the trust deficit and ensuring a credible student evaluation sans any copying or mutual consultation. It has turned out to be truly a herculean task to ensure full presence as well as involvement of all the students in almost six hour long online sessions on daily basis. While initially out of sheer excitement and enthusiasm for the new system students were quite curious to attend their classes online, with the passage of time exhaustion and fatigue appears to have gradually set in forcing the teachers to look for novel, innovative and creative means to sustain this exercise and retain student interest and involvement in their classes.

David Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching defines good teaching as the one during which “students are visible, engaged, attentive, involved and participating”. He further adds that “good teaching is passionate and it induces an emotional response among the students”. Good mentorship evokes and engages practical and analytical thinking, critical evaluation, constructive mindset and problem‐solving skills that can be applied in a variety of settings and perspectives. It leaves a positive impact upon students’ values, commitments, ideals and mindsets. In times of coronavirus pandemic when most of the conventional practices have been disrupted and age-old stereotypes have been shaken up we need to introspect whether we have assimilated these basic principles of good teaching and mentorship and accordingly improvised our teaching methods or we have continued with our redundant and obsolete methods even in our online teaching. As per Morgan and Reinhart, “empathy is critical to good teaching, especially to teaching emotionally disturbed/stressed/conflict-affected/behaviorally disordered students. Empathy provides the ability to know the students’ world in the way that they live it, to interpret that understanding back to the pupil, and then provide boundaries of reality so that they may function more competently”. The question is, do we harness and exhibit empathy in our day-to-day teaching or does it fail to inspire awe or for that matter even touch the hearts and minds of our students in a manner that is essential to foster a positive change.

In the present day context, teachers have to play an enabling role in the holistic development of the students. This involves not only imparting knowledge and skills, but also developing critical and innovative thinking, engaging them in research and extension activities, furnishing instructional material with the aid of information technology tools and above all counseling them for their personalized educational needs. Modern day teacher has to be a friend, a philosopher, a guide, a counselor, a mentor and sometimes a caregiver too. Last one might in all likelihood surprise you a bit. Teachers as caregivers can serve as rich and powerful resources for those students who feel frustrated, helpless, rebellious and agitated amid stressful times. As suggested by Deiro (1996), “Students value adults who value them”. Thus, students who are living in seemingly intolerable situations but have a pro-social adult outside their home environs who cares about them will adjust their behavior to carefully safeguard that relationship. Noddings (1984) articulates that student–teacher relationships provide a rich arena in which students are transformed by an ethic of care. Care translates into interventions that are in the best educational, emotional and psychological interests of the students (Morgan, 1987). When students fail to receive care within their classroom, they are often reduced to a ‘case’ or a mere ‘Roll Number.’

Martin Heidegger says, “What is most thought-provoking in these thought-provoking times is that we are still not thinking”. It is high time when we should think how best we can reach out to our students during these stressful times of lockdown and social distancing and provide the best possible learning solutions to them in a very comfortable and acceptable manner. Merely completing the formality of holding an online class and covering some portion of the prescribed syllabus might not suffice anymore. We may have to go an extra mile in making our online teaching experience more refreshing, motivating, inspiring and interesting. This can be made possible by making our content as applied as possible, by citing more and more examples from real life situations, by involving students in an open discourse with full freedom to express their viewpoints, by using case studies embedded with cartoons, animations, illustrations and similar stuff to draw our point home, by keeping the atmosphere light with a bit of decent and dignified humour, by engaging students in lucrative and healthy mutual competitions, by bringing the best out of non-responsive and reclusive students, by helping the students explore their potential and by acting more like one of them than the one on top of them. By innovative and creative thinking teachers can turn their online classes into the most sought after hangouts for their students.

‘Thinking’ includes a set of cognitive activities that we use to process information, make connections, solve problems, take decisions and create new ideas. It will be prudent to take a pledge on the teachers’ day today to transform our students into thinkers – creative and analytical thinkers. Only when they become good thinkers, they can be creative innovators and credible nation builders. Creative thinking refers to the ability to conceive new and innovative ideas by breaking from established thoughts, theories, norms and procedures. It involves putting things together in new and imaginative ways. It is often referred to as “thinking out-of-the-box.” Analytical thinking on the other hand refers to the ability to separate a whole into its basic parts in order to examine the parts and their mutual relationships. It involves thinking in a logical, stepwise manner to break down a larger system of information into its contiguous parts. By way of analytical and creative thinking we actually need to promote critical thinking among our students that refers to the ability to exercise careful evaluation or judgment in order to determine the authenticity, accuracy, worth, validity or value of something. In addition to precise, objective analysis, critical thinking involves synthesis, evaluation, reflection, and reconstruction. Rather than strictly breaking down the information, critical thinking explores other elements that could have an influence on the conclusions. Once we succeed in our mission of evoking creative, analytical and critical thinking among our students goals of our education will be met in their real sense. Positive, constructive, sequential, convergent as well as divergent thinking will automatically fall into the place. At present we are not allowing thinking of any kind, we are only spoon feeding and storing information in their brains without allowing them to process it.

Teachers’ Day celebration should mark the beginning of an irrevocable transformation of student-teacher relationship into the one that encourages questioning and critical analysis, that fosters creative thinking and helps build constructive insights; one that dwells into different perspectives on every topic of discussion, that explores new possibilities and evokes innovative solutions to our intriguing problems; one that is based on empathy and compassion, care and companionship rather than being a whip-wielding master. Let students be the masters of their own choices and destiny. Let masters be the torch-bearers and path-finders of their bright and magnificent future. Let us transform students’ yearning for marks and grades into their quest for knowledge and learning. On this day let us think about ways and means how to break the shackles of syllabi and marks and make our students effective contributors of the knowledge society who can contribute significantly towards nation building. A minor shake-up will be of no avail, a massive restructuring is needed for the same.