Teachers' Day is the day for showering our usual platitude on teachers:
"Teaching is a noble profession."
"Teachers are building the future of the nation."
"Teachers deserve the highest respect among all the profession."
But truly, how much respect do we really accord to the teaching profession? In economic terms, there is a way to quantify respect - it is called salary. In terms of that concrete measure, our teachers are one of the lowest paid white-collar employees - far behind corporate leaders, investment bankers, management consultants, venture capitalists, software engineers and FMCG marketers.
The same lack of respect is evidenced by the low expectations we have of our teachers. Once a group of principals came to visit the school I run in rural Bengal.
One of the biggest elements of surprise for them was that teachers in my school taught all subjects.
"How is that possible?" they asked. "How can the same teacher specialise in History, English and Science?"
I said, "You expect a student to learn all these subjects, right?"
Students of any board, till at least the end of middle school, do not specialise. They are expected to learn all subjects well. So why should we expect any less from our teachers?
Our real life does not come packaged in narrow subject boundaries. History is often influenced by Geography (border disputes) and Economics (poverty, tax, et al). English Literature could be a great vehicle to teach Social Science. Given how smartphones and internet have transformed our society, it will be foolish to argue that Science is divorced from Sociology. If we have teachers who know only one subject, how can they give students a holistic understanding of how things work?
How can they connect issues and make sense of the world?
Contrary to what most people think, teaching is not a job that everyone can do. In the days of yore, the best minds of the society became educators. Rabindranath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and David Hare set up schools and colleges. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi did not teach in schools, but they ceaselessly educated the society about non-violence, cleanliness and equality.
Many of our social reformers, politicians and scientists were educators par excellence. If you have any doubt, read Nehru's letters to Indira - a great example of how to teach History.
We must get truly talented people who can interpret the ever-changing world for the students, and prepare them for it.
Such educators themselves were successful in real life. They offered insights, they connected issues. They were not restricted by subject boundaries and narrow confines of syllabus. Our current crop of specialised subject teachers, on the other hand, can be very easily replaced by technology.
The narrower a field is, the easier it is for algorithms to take it over. We can easily imagine artificial intelligence doing a better job in teaching Mathematics, Science and languages. In fact, there are already programmes which are doing it more successfully than most teachers.
So we must get over our obsession with specialist teachers whose abilities are limited to teaching one narrow area - repeatedly, year after year. We must get truly talented people who can interpret the ever-changing world for the students, and prepare them for it.
However, to get successful, insightful, passionate people to teach, we must change the way the teaching profession is seen. It cannot be a supposed "noble" profession anyone can join.
It must be a career for the most competent members of the society. And that must reflect in the pay. We must have teachers who are paid Rs 25 lakh per year, not Rs 25,000 per month!
We must cast our net wide and invite successful corporate leaders, bankers, doctors, lawyers and engineers to take up teaching as a full-time profession.
This Teacher's Day, let's envisage a future where teaching becomes a glamorous profession coveted by the most talented, the most successful members of the society.