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Why I Became A Teacher

 An educator remembers her mentors with transformative superpowers

By Urmila Chowdhury  

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I decided at 10 years of age that I was going to be a teacher, because I wanted superpowers. There! I've said it. It's true. When I was in primary school I could clearly see that some of my teachers had extraordinary powers. My classmates went about their day with joyful abandon. Not me. I was the quietly observant one, noticing things.

There was our English-language teacher in fifth grade who could magically transport us to different worlds every day, simply by telling us stories and reading to us from books we would otherwise never pick up. This was our secret, because fifth graders were considered too old to have stories read out to them.

Then there was the founder-principal of the school, a teacher as well, who knew everything about every child, knew not just their parents but even their grandparents. You couldn't escape her superpowered laser-like eyes that could see right into you---through flesh, bones and all. That was a scary superpower. Her hawk-eyed scrutiny often left us feeling like there was no escape.

But, our class teacher in fourth standard could see the invisible. I was one of those who remained invisible, being rather quiet and shy as a child. Yet my teacher would notice me, even when I was unnoticeable. The unspoken message in her superpowered eyes told me: "I see you, I know you, I understand you." She knew, without needing to be told, the days I felt sad and lost and needed that extra pat. Being a dreamer, I found school a bit trying at times. She clearly had a superpower if, after four decades, I can still vividly remember her lessons about the great masters of art, expanding our horizons and kindling, at least in me, a lifelong interest in the subject. She did this even though her area of specialization wasn't art; it was geography. I don't remember much of the geography now, but I do remember how she made me feel. The lessons went beyond the textbook. As I learnt from her, the role of a primary school educator is to teach children, not subjects.

I knew I wanted to be such a teacher, one of those all-seeing ones with superpowers that made children feel safe and valued.

What seems amazing to me is that all those extraordinary men and women went about their business, calmly creating daily magic in their ordinary classrooms. No one noticed, no one gave them medals for bravery or Nobel prizes for creativity, although they were being the most creative anyone could be, in shaping and moulding young human beings.

Then there were the others ... the Muggles of the teaching profession: People without X-ray vision, no sense of humour and no insight into a child's secret world. They were the kind who should never have been allowed to become teachers. I vowed never to become anything like them.

The thing is, being a teacher isn't the easiest or the most financially rewarding of jobs. And there are occupational hazards that no one tells you about---your knees become worn out from years of carrying piles of notebooks up and down the school staircase, your voice gives in from too much talking and all that chalk dust. But despite all that there are those who choose to teach. I'm not talking about the ones who wandered into this job accidentally, and are just going through the motions. For them it's just a job. Those are the Muggles, remember? I'm talking about the ones who chose teaching as the only possible career.

Teaching is not just a job---it is a science, an art and a craft, and it demands emotional labour and investment. Once you taste fulfilment as a teacher, there is no going back. All my life, for three decades now, I've gone to work at 7 a.m. each day with a spring in my step. When I look back, what gives me joy is remembering the children who felt happier in school because I was their teacher. Occasionally I meet my students from years ago. Their obvious love for me and fond memories of our time together are my rewards.

It wasn't until I was past 40 that I started to realize that there was so much more to being a teacher than I had imagined. Twenty-five years ago my mother started teaching a group of scruffy out-of-school children under a tree on the outskirts of Kolkata. The numbers grew steadily, from eight to 40 to 80. Now there are 400 children and a full school. An entire village has hope because of the work my mother did. The first batch of students has taken their board examinations, the first in their family to do so. Magic happens when you believe in something with a single-minded passion. Other people, attracted by that superpower, come forward to help. I learnt from my mother that education is not a privilege, it is a right. And every child deserves to have that right.

When I meet others who aspire to acquire superpowers, like the brand-new teacher struggling to perfect her skills with a brave face on, or the one in a remote, rural school travelling 70 kilometres each way just for his pupils, I feel proud to belong to the same tribe.

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