Teacher motivation in Bhutan (by Amina Gurung on KOL)

The once elevated lopen (king of knowledge) has now fallen below the radar of societal respect

Ask a first-year teacher candidate, who is selected to be a teacher, and you might find about one or two, who will say with vigour that he is inspired to be a teacher, and that she came out of her passion for teaching and learning.  I am scared nine out of ten might say, “I came because I had nowhere to go”!

Generally, one can observe three types of graduates, who enter the teaching profession.  One, a genuinely interested, motivated and adequately skilled graduate; another, a mediocre, who hoped to be a doctor or an engineer, or a savvy civil servant but could not and thinks now that he has to compromise his self-esteem, skills and aptitude to his present not so “respectable” job.  This is a category that is dragging their feet into the classrooms, and therefore is unsure and uninterested about the personal and professional demands of this highly volatile profession.  Interestingly, in Bhutan and in many other countries, there is a third category, who has neither the interest nor the propensity, neither motivation nor personality to be a teacher, and who has entered the teaching field because the system assumed “more” teachers should be physically present in the classrooms, and thus the interview panel consisted of panelists, who were eating walnuts and doma while conducting teacher interviews!

So then let us look at our system and the way we have designed it.  We have a system that is philosophically based on equality and quantity, and hence we recruit whoever comes to attend the teacher interviews.  Of course, they have the minimum requirements demanded, but is that all that makes a “teacher”?  What about the individual’s attitude, habits, character, values, commitment and even physical appearance?  Why shouldn’t these criteria play an equal, if not upper, hand than academic marks?  I don’t know what happens in teacher interviews, for I have never attended one, but some of the selected individuals, who come in the first years in the teaching colleges, are shocking.  The educators in the colleges then have two very important challenges – to change this person into a ‘teacher’, and then to feed him/her with all the knowledge and inspiration about teaching.

In contrast, if we look at some of the most successful systems around the world, aspiring teachers have to go through a rigorous process and scrutiny to be a teacher and stay a teacher.  Finland, for example, has a system where the minimum qualification for a primary teacher is a master’s, and only 10% of the 5000 applicants each year are accepted to the faculties of education in Finnish universities (Sahlberg, 2009).  This implies that university teacher education departments can select some of the nation’s best students from among top scorers on university entrance examinations.  The most common misconception we ought to be careful about is that quantity justifies quality, and a belief that just because a teacher is in the classroom, students get ‘education’.  Our teacher recruitment system thus needs critical reflection and very mindful actions from our policy designers if we want quality.  Gandhi said, “Teachers can be had through an advertisement … how can we get through advertisements to teachers, who are seekers after self-realisation? And education without such enlightenment is like a wall without a foundation, or to employ an English saying, like a whited sepulchre. Inside it there is only a corpse eaten up or being eaten by insects.”

All these three categories of teachers mentioned in the first paragraph enter into the profession and start their professional journeys.  A few years later, everyone looks the same and becomes the same.  Whether you had been an extremely talented, ultra interested teacher or a non-interested mediocre talent, you get the same recognition and benefits.  The “not so good” teachers are happy with this system, because just your physical presence in the class can earn you a good amount, and other perks, if there are any.  It doesn’t matter, if you have been drinking with your students the previous evening, then gambled at a roadside hotel, went home to beat your wife and children, rushed to the morning assembly stinking of alcohol, taught not even half the syllabus of the day, missed a couple of classes and went home to repeat the previous cycle.  Who will even notice?

On the part of the once highly motivated and talented teachers, now frustrated and helpless, in a confused and ungrateful system, a silent retaliation ignites a purposeful journey of stagnation.  Creativity is maimed and routine follows!  Here is the making of our regular teacher!

In this light, how can the system promote the recognition and motivation of its teachers?  One might argue that both respect and recognition are something that a system cannot give to teachers, but are to be earned through personal discipline, efficiency and effectiveness by individual teachers.  The debate between personal and system contribution on teacher motivation is very much the egg and the hen story.  However, what is at stake here is the quality of knowledge a teacher shares, and therefore the quality of students he produces.

In Bhutan, as elsewhere, we have connected teacher motivation with money and financial benefits.  I would argue this is not the sole or an important reason for low teacher motivation.  Rather respect and recognition, in terms of how the system and the society view this profession, plays an important role.  It makes you feel like what Jamyang Khentse Rimpoche said in one of the interviews – “I like my job but I don’t like my profession”.  In my ten years of teaching career, I have grumbled and have heard my colleagues grumble.  But, interestingly, my observation has been that the grumbling was not so much about money or number of periods or the amount of extra work we had to do without money or recognition.  The grumblings came when the system treated us unfair, and the society was ungrateful, when all our hard work was nullified and our conscience threatened.

To cite an example, a colleague of mine in the previous school I served had to take her whole class to witness one of the National Assembly sessions.  So she went with her class of 30-35 year nine students.  They were made to sit in the last rows, the first rows booked for the higher and the mightier in the social strata.  Before the session started, a man came distributing the assembly agenda.  When he reached the group of students and the teacher, he just stopped and went to the other rows, though it was evident that he had enough to spare.  A simple action of this sort makes you think about where you are.  It made her think and ‘feel’ her place and position in the society.  As she shared with me “what was the harm in giving the agenda to us, when he had enough to spare?”

Events of this sort sometimes violently shake teacher motivation. One might ask what would have made that man to not give the agenda.  There could be many reasons, but the loudest one is that he did not consider the teacher or the students important enough to give a copy.  The stereotypical image of a teacher our society holds is one of a helpless, half-baked mediocrity, no matter how qualified or committed one might be.  As rightly put by Barzun, “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition”.  And whoever and whatever is responsible for making teachers and teaching to this have created a paradox and irony, in that teachers, instead of drawing out the best, have sometimes killed the best of human potential.

The influence of a good, a mediocre or a bad teacher can never be justified or even identified instantly.  The real and the breathing curriculum and pedagogy are the teachers.  One might put in place the best of curriculum and best pedagogical arrangement.  However, it is the teacher, who glorifies or aborts them in the classrooms.

There is extensive evidence that a teacher’s ability and effectiveness, genuineness and passion are the most influential determinants of students’ achievement and good education.  Hence, if we genuinely believe that education plays an important role in drawing forth the human potential, then teachers should be given all they deserve that will empower them to give ‘that’ education.

Contributed by  Amina Gurung
The author is a lecturer with Paro College of Education

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