Teachers as Agents for Social Change

My research assistant has been nudging me to write as I had not written anything for the last two months. The goal to write at least one post every fortnight was becoming increasingly difficult given how challenging the economic front has been: in particular, the time has been in short supply. For me, the trigger to write or speak is often the result of a defining experience, and that trigger happened over the course of the last few days as I watched two movies and read a book. It was an overwhelming experience.

The first movie, the 2016 Australian production Lion, chronicled the adoption of a lost Indian kid by an Australian couple and his subsequent reconciliation with his biological Indian mother. Nicole Kidman gives a natural portrayal of the role of Sue Breily, a loving adoptive mother who helps her son cope with emotional distress. The movie had some intensely emotional moments. The second movie, the award-winning Malaysian production of 2017— Adiwiraku (My Super Hero), narrates the role of a Malaysian teacher in a disadvantaged school. Sangeetha plays the role of Cheryl Ann Fernando, a teacher with a social mission. Overriding class, race, ethnicity and religion, she connects with children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The last trigger, the book To Teach by controversial Professor Ayers, formerly with the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a story of a teacher’s journey on achieving the basics of a teacher’s goal: a heart, a brain, the nerve and a home. While critics have labelled the films ‘melodramatic,’ ‘motivational hype’ and ‘documentary type,’ I could certainly relate to many of the thoughts in them, and I started to recall many related experiences from my own school life.

There are many rising challenges given the current trend towards identity politics and unfortunate polarisation. These challenges create problems for the economy of a country and lead to social strife. Bringing about social change and shaping inclusivity have to start early at the school level. Education is a powerful instrument for youth empowerment as empowered youth are active participants in a vibrant democratic process, and they help uplift society. Social change is often seen as shaping a society – as a process of shifting attitudes, values, and actions to address social problems in a positive way. However, talking about the need for change, but at the same time demonstrating an irrational stand, harms change and becomes regressive. Social change in schools has the potential to override the narrow political objectives unleashed by some for personal gain.

There has much research and debate if the teacher is the right instrument, facilitator, or agent for social change. Perceptions of teachers and their roles and contributions vary from country to country. The perception of a teacher as a role model might have largely disappeared over the years in most societies, but the importance of their role cannot be discounted by any means. It is true that there are very few countries that can take pride in their education systems and be assured that their investments in education have given decent returns. With the pandemic crisis changing how we teach and how learners learn, the need for teachers to become role models is obvious. This will only happen when we can attract the best into the teaching profession and the teachers themselves are well cared for with both monetary and non-monetary incentives.

In my own life, I have had teachers who made me fall in love with a subject. The passion and commitment of these teachers far exceeded their job descriptions. They demonstrated a moral purpose in approaching change in units of one, believing in the potential of every human being. As Sir Ken Robinson says in his book Element, they facilitated connecting passion to natural talent. As Fullan (1993) says, “Scratch a good teacher, and you will find a moral purpose.” Teachers as agents of social change empower youth. Watching the two movies and reading the book gave me faith that all is not lost in a dismal world affected by the pandemic crisis.

While Lion demonstrates how the adoptive Australian mother helps her two adopted Indian children cope with individual emotional challenges, Adiwiraku validates the fact that a teacher is more powerful than textbooks. The young teacher binds the community with the school and the classroom in several powerful ways. To Teach shows us that teaching is not the pre-scripted delivery of a pre-planned curriculum: it is a wholesome process.

Research evidence indicates that if a pedagogical approach is taken with regard to the role of teachers within the process of learning, there are three changes that teachers can bring about as change agents: 1) changes within the classroom, 2) changes in the wider school and 3) changes in the society at large. Change agents promote transformative learning. Transformative learning is defined as the process by which we transform ourselves by questioning taken-for-granted frames of reference such as perspectives, habits of mind and mindsets (Mezirow, 2008). This enables the students to be emotionally capable of change and reflect upon things, empowering them to think and generate beliefs and opinions that are more relevant in a changing world. Transformational changes take place in three dimensions: psychological, convictional and behavioural. The importance of emotions and sharing thoughts is deemed important.

In a polarised world that is being played out by identity politics, teachers as social agents can help to bring about inclusivity and diversity by recognising their roles as agents of social change. We saw in an earlier post, Education & Tackling Inequality, the need for us to develop Einsteins. Chetty’s work on Lost Einsteins is an important piece of work on innovation and inequality. The influence of good kindergarten classrooms and good teachers; the role of location; the gender gaps in opportunity and disparities in life expectancy are all highlighted with datasets in their work. Each nation has a responsibility to ensure that it does not deny its people the opportunity to become scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs. Denying opportunities and not enabling social mobility will have serious consequences for society as a whole.

The teacher is a powerful influence on young minds and the possible conversations teachers can have with the students are many, provided they are well-informed and able to remain objective. As Henry Brook Adams said, “Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.” This came out clearly in Lion and Adiwiraku. The mother as the teacher in Lion never stops supporting her adopted son in facing emotional challenges and is always willing to share her thoughts. The teacher in Adiwiraku champions choral speaking with a group of disadvantaged children from a rural school. The fact that she does this with a personal commitment shows her moral purpose. The willingness to go beyond the classroom to explore personal problems results in transformational learning purely as a result of psychological, convictional and behavioural changes.

In my own case, as a young kid, I was unable to cope with the pressures of schooling, particularly when I had to go to a boarding school. I hated boarding school; I resented being sent away from home. The one thing that took me through the day was the caring smile of my class teacher, Mrs Paul Smith. I can remember Mrs Paul Smith’s sense of empathy. Over the course of a year, she taught me to enjoy the wonders of life rather than frown and grumble about the adversities of life. I was not the brightest in the classroom; I took my time to complete my arithmetic lessons. Her legendary patience meant that one was never pressured or made to feel not good enough. She made me enjoy learning. The change within the classroom was evident in her leadership. The gentle motherly voice was soothing to a disgruntled child. The feeling that I could share with her any problem enhanced my self-esteem.

Another favourite teacher who stands out in my mind is Professor Dr M.T. Paul, who made teaching psychology an art. He interspersed the teaching of theories with daily examples from life. The ‘aha’ experience was astounding, resulting in dramatic paradigm shifts in the wider school. The learning experiences were fun. His experiential exercises were stimulating for the mind. They made me think differently. I am fond of saying that I learned social justice in the corridors of the university.

Professor Dr T. K. Nair demonstrated that learning when not applied to society at large was an intellectual exercise in futility. To him, empowering youth through education was a vital necessity for social change. He had the students participate in social causes actively. Kahlil Gibran’s words ‘I want an opportunity, not charity’ echoed within me for years after I left school. Each of these outstanding teachers shaped my life uniquely. They never saw their jobs as one of imparting knowledge and skills. They viewed their role as shapers of the future citizens of the world. They were outstanding role models.

After all, did not Malala Yousafzai, who fought for the right to education and is the youngest ever Nobel Laureate, say: “Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world”?

Posted in Education, Thoughts
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