A Teacher Remembers Fondly What it Means to Teach

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Mr. Arshad Nissar is a Senior Design Engineer atAdvanced Micro Devices in Boston and wrote the following piece in response to one of my discussions on LinkedIn.

Dear Uma these are very inspiring words..!
Having been a teacher myself and having been born to a father who was a great teacher, I can very well understand the noble emotions behind your words. I once did travel the path that you are exhorting. I am still enjoying the tremendous bliss that I found along this path. I want to share some of my own experiences.

I finished my BE from REC Srinagar (now NIT Srinagar) in 1989. That was actually a water-shed year in the history of the valley. Everything changed forever in this year. Insurgency broke out and was at its peak in early 1990's. A meek person like me would have promptly moved out of the valley and pursued higher education or employment elsewhere. However I had an ailing father to care for and he was reluctant to move out of the valley. In addition to this emotional consideration, I found a practical way of contributing to my beloved valley. In retrospect it was time well spent until 1996, when I moved to the United States.

While being a student I almost always had discovered some easier and more interesting way of understanding difficult concepts in Math and Science. I used to make a mental note of what would have been the ideal approach to teach some of those concepts during student days when I was at the receiving end. I would dream-up a whole different way the teacher could have treated the same concept. This helped me to look with introspection into my student’s mind when it was my turn to be a teacher.

Also a teacher MUST challenge the understanding of the students. It is so important. In Indian class rooms, students usually are always found nodding their heads in agreement out of respect for their "revered teacher". Respect for a teacher is in order, but when that becomes too overwhelming it can affect the teaching/learning process. This is mostly culturally driven. Very rarely will you find students who challenge their teachers. Not because the students can’t, but mainly because of cultural mores.

I took a lecturer's job (while still being a BE) at REC

Srinagar

. Having a good a merit and due to the shortage of staff, they let me teach at undergraduate level. I enjoyed it immensely. Since I had been a careful student myself and tried to learn things thoroughly the hard way, teaching was a pleasure. We had to face countless curfews, crack-downs, bandhs and hartals and sometimes simply could not venture out in main parts of the town for fear of my dear life. Against this backdrop, I started a teaching center in my home basement. I taught Physics and Math to high school kids, with emphasis on practical learning. This was something strange at that time as most of the teaching that happened or still happens in Indian schools, colleges and universities emphasizes learning by rote. My approach was to combine the traditional rote method but introduce hands on practical demonstrations and thereby reinforce the theoretical fundamentals.

I had a workshop where I used to devise physics experiments out of wood, wires and other junk that never ceased to surprise my father and my students. Borrowed tuning forks with water level controlled air columns to do experiments on sound, blocks of wood and marbles to do experiments with mechanics, circuits with wires and magnetic needles to do experiments on electricity, medical syringes and tubes to do fluid-mechanics and so on. No experiment was superfluous. Everything was designed to reinforce some concept from course work. I did this work for a short period of about three years.

Eventually I had to leave the valley to pursue my MS at SUNY Buffalo.

This was all about twelve years ago. Some of my students of those days have come quite far. This approach of looking at things beyond the traditional rote method made a difference in the way the graduates of Newton’ Center for Learning (my teaching academy) looked at learning itself. Some may argue there are laboratories in Indian high schools. My argument is, the way these labs are used and how accessible they are to an ordinary student is pathetic. Also the way you could bring the white-board and the lab-desk together presents enormous possibilities. And finally from the brief teaching assignments here in the US and watching my teen-age sons study, doing the experiments hands on has a stronger imprint on the student's mind. Computer simulations as some critics suggested as alternatives to the hands on experiments, do not go far as a learning tool, in my opinion.

My heart yearns to go back and do it all over again, but on a bigger scale.

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About Dr. Gupta

Dr. Uma G. Gupta is the Founder and President of STEM.SMART, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the pipeline of U.S students interested in STEM careers. In addition, she is the CEO of PlanetGPA, an international student recruitment services that serves as an extension to the recruitment offices of U.S. universities.

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