What makes a teacher great? Will a teacher be still great in a classroom if s/he doesn't spur someone to be good, bring the best out of her/his students, praise them when appropriate or discipline them if necessary, and above all, become a role model? Is it possible to create the same teacher/student interface that we find in a physical classroom? Or will a teacher be judged by her/his technological knowhow of creating multimodal platforms in very mechanically pre-conceived lesson plans that do not grow organically inside a classroom through teacher student interactions, but through research based simulations and anticipations based on data analysis?
"Give a break after every 15 minutes by arranging breakout sessions, holding pop quizzes, giving instant polls, showing short video clips," education experts will tell you based on their research on making online classroom teaching effective. It's not the teacher who reads the confused faces before digressing to lived experiences; studies the bored faces and yawns before sharing jokes; or observes the curious faces before challenging them with some additional information. The online teachers watch the watch, and partition their lectures as prescribed. In an online class, everything is pre-programmed, canned, and measured.
In my 27 years of teaching, I have graduated from blackboards with chalks and dusters to whiteboards with markers, transitioned from transparency-sheets with OHPs to floppy disks or pen drives with power-point documents to Wi-Fi based smart-boards. During my graduate studies in the UK and the US, as teaching assistant I had to attend micro-teaching workshops to learn the art of not showing my back while writing on the board or not throwing my shadow on the screens. I learned the art of voice projections, class engagement, assessment and feedback. And here I am, staring at the black mirror waiting for my students to populate the screen, hoping my virtual interactions will retain some human flavours. I guess there are ways of knowing what the students are doing and not doing on the other side of the screen. However, can I be the same me while being sucked into the black hole of binary digits of 0 and 1?
The replacement of my blackboard by a black mirror is making me uncomfortable. I am borrowing the term "black mirror" from the futuristic Netflix anthology on human technology interactions. The creator of the series is satirist Charlie Brooker who explained the title saying, "Any TV, any LCD, any iPhone, any iPad—something like that—if you just stare at it, it looks like a 'Black Mirror,' and there's something cold and horrifying about that!" As a traditional teacher, I am dreading to teach online. Fear of change is normal, and given the urgency we have no other option but to roll with it. Then again, it is important for any teacher to understand the task at hand.
Geert Kelchtermans, a Belgian scholar who has written extensively on pedagogy, writes, "Teaching implies, not only a technical agenda of applying concepts that have been found to be beneficial to learning, but also maintenance of an ongoing complex relationship with students, including moral responsibilities and emotional experiences."
Online teaching, at its best, can create a learning environment to ensure transference of knowledge. However, I am not sure if technology and innovations have reached that point to replace the tribal needs of human interactions that define the complex teacher-student relationship in a physical classroom.
The reality is most educational institutions are migrating online to protect their members from the onslaught of COVID-19. Cambridge University, for instance, has decided to suspend its campus activities for one year. The list of online transition is long, but the concerns are the same. Many student-clients are asking the question why they should pay the same when the campus facilities are not made available for them. For instance, the Ivy League Wharton Business School at UPenn charges USD 150,000 for its MBA programme. The best part of the programme is networking that students do on campus; online teaching is likely to compromise those experiences.
Our local students are aiming for a rather basic argument. I heard students citing the reduction in Operational Expenditure in arguing for a corresponding reduction of their fees. Some of the private universities have decided not to pay their teachers during this crisis, exposing the skeletons of the university closets. Students are suddenly viewing themselves as the patrons of their teachers. They are told that if they do not pay, their teachers will become unemployed. Students are using this new found logic to bargain, arguing, if I can find better materials online, why should I pay local teachers with their makeshift technologies?
As a teacher, this is completely new type of "moral responsibilities and emotional experiences" that I have to negotiate with. As a student, we looked up to great teachers; tried to emulate them. I had the good fortune of sitting in the classroom of professor Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, and learning composure and poise from him. I was lucky to learn human empathy from professor Nurul Islam, professor Shaheen Kabir, professor Tom Holm (University of Arizona), and Anne Mellor (UCLA). I was lucky to learn professionalism from my PhD supervisor professor William Rowe (Birkbeck College, University of London), professor Nancy Parezo (UoA), Ursula Heise (UCLA). Professor Heise would bike 15 miles a day to come to class. My passion for thinking out of the box was generated by poet Mohammad Rafiq, Dr Azfar Hussain and professor Gary Nabham (UoA). Rafiq sir and Azfar sir would offer kaleidoscopic view of world literature never bothering to finish their texts. And Gary is probably the strangest teacher I have ever had. He would come to the class wearing shorts, bring in a medicine woman to perform in class, or make us engage with the texts "out-there". I took an independent study with him to do a field trip in Baja California, Mexico. My assignment was to find out why the local Seri Indians were scared of the salamanders more than their toxic cousins iguanas and Gila monsters (a research that led me to fiddle with the field-notes of DH Lawrence when he was in Mexico). We had to catch the reptiles and measure them. Now how do you substitute these experiences with online teaching? Watching National Geography and being out there aren't the same thing.
I am trying to think of all the great teachers I had who shaped me as a teacher. Back in the days, we did not have any centre for teaching and learning. We consciously or unconsciously emulated the styles of our great teachers: we picked up their passion for learning, their professionalism, their sense of humour, their power to engage and inspire. And to think of a teacher being weighed in terms of the money that s/he is being paid for was unheard of.
The neoliberal economy and commodification of education managed to package the harsh truth for some time. The online transition among other things is exposing the human equation. Now how do we make an avatar of a teacher look great—online? Does s/he have to become like a TED speaker with a 15-minute likeability, like a motivational speaker with millions of followers, or like a celebrity with prior reputations to attract students?
The students who will be joining our universities are all born in or around the millennium. Their exposure to digital technology is way more than the teachers. To impress these kids with our newly learned art is going to be a tough act. In the process, we may end up losing face to our students. As an administrator, I can already see signs of such debacle.
Of course, teachers must constantly update and upgrade themselves. But the abruptness of the transition has caught many of us off-guard. The challenge for the teachers is to reinvent themselves as educators. They need to have a self-understanding, including their self-esteem, job motivation, and task perception.
Let me point out some other challenges teachers today must embrace in order to be great. First, they need to pitch the difficulty level of their lessons according to the efficiency of the students. How do you take the students' preparation for a class in a system where students are not visible? You need to take the time to arrange diagnostic tests and customise your reading materials. Second, the stress factors resulting in from the pressures of online teaching without the physical proximity of teachers and peers can cause some psychological concerns. A good teacher must have the sixth-sense to detect those red flags in her/his students. Third, maintaining a positive relation with all students, keeping them enthused over the course materials, and not leaving anyone out while teaching online is one if the major challenges that a teacher faces today. And finally, a teacher must constantly negotiate with the external expectations from her/his class and the limitations under which s/he has to perform.
The challenges to make teaching great again are known. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: email@example.com.