Coaching, teaching, or mentoring are skills, either inborn or acquired. We have grown up attending schools or colleges where education was imparted to us using the traditional chalk and talk method. Some of our teachers were not too impactful, and we find it rather difficult to remember what they taught us. And we had some excellent teachers who have had a significant and lasting impact in shaping our lives. We fondly remember these teachers and even now able to recollect much of what they taught us. This article reveals the qualities of these excellent and impactful educators – based on a real story from my life, of a teacher who not only infused interest in my learning but also left a permanent imprint on my life by changing the course of my thinking process, self-belief, and perception.
1 My story:
My first school was Tashi Namgyal Academy (or TNA), located in Gangtok, Sikkim. I had joined the school in class-I when the picturesque, mountainous state of Sikkim was still an independent country and not a part of the Indian Union. Widely regarded as one of the best English medium public schools in the eastern sector, the school’s patron was the Chogyal or the monarch of Sikkim. It was here where children of all Indian expatriates used to study. Sikkim was later integrated into the Indian Union as its twenty-second state in May 1975, during my fifth year in school. I left TNA in the year 1977 to join St. Edmund’s School, another prestigious institution in Shillong Meghalaya, from where I completed my secondary education.
Hindi was my second language at the TN Academy till I was in the sixth grade. Being a boy whose mother tongue was Bengali and not Hindi, I was terrible at it. Somehow, I couldn’t get either the grammar or the spelling correct. Till class V, I barely managed to scrape through the examinations in this subject. However, I was pretty good in the other papers like Mathematics, English, Science, History, Geography, etc., because of which I managed to top the class. But Hindi used to be a blur always, on my otherwise, blemishless report card.
I realise now that although my weakness in the subject stemmed from my not being a native speaker of the language, a good part of my poor understanding of Hindi grammar had to do with the teachers that I had in school and their teaching style. All of them were from the Hindi heartland of North India – their mother tongue was Hindi, and they used to speak, think, breathe and live in Hindi. And their tacit and rather misplaced assumption was that all the students they were imparting education were also from a similar native Hindi-speaking background. Which was far away from the reality – almost seventy percent of our class comprised students whose mother tongue was not Hindi. Like many others in my class, I could not just understand their lectures. And due to this, I developed a dislike for the subject and never really put much effort, thinking that no matter what I did or how much I tried, I would never get better at it.
Until, of course, Mrs. Bamzai started teaching Hindi to our class. She was an immensely fair and beautiful lady who had joined our school in 1976 after her husband, an officer in the Indian army, had come to serve in Gangtok. Mrs. Bamzai was a class apart from all the other teachers in our school. A petite and a very graceful lady, she had a perfect, simple sense of dressing and used to be always impeccably adorned in heavy silk-sarees. She was unlike the shabbily attired teachers before her. I vividly recall that her favourite colour was sky blue. Her ears had piercings in two places: one for a gold ear-stud and the other where she wore a golden ear chain. It was the first time that I had noticed a double ear-piercing on a woman; I later came to learn that this is a style traditionally associated with Kashmiri women and the women from the mountainous regions of Northern India. But Mrs. Bamzai was different from all her predecessors - she was humble, kind, and demonstrated a maternal approach towards the students. She was soft-spoken and yet could be very stern without being harsh or rude. And she was a great teacher!
Mrs. Bamzai took me under her wings. Under her tutelage, my Hindi improved by leaps and bounds almost daily. Unlike the Hindi teachers before her, she provided a personal touch to my tuition and took it upon herself to correct each mistake that I was making. I clearly remember the first time that she summoned me to her table and then showed me the errors that I had made in my homework assignment of the previous day. She began by telling me that I was a good student, and in fact, all my answers were correct, but then the issue was in the grammar – the gender usage and the errors in spelling. She explained - unlike English and Bengali, where the neutral gender prevails, in Hindi, every noun or pronoun has a gender. And with the gender change, the verb form also changes in Hindi. I remember informing her that I found it difficult to fix the gender of an inanimate object, say a fan, a table, or for that matter, a ball or a car. She then told me a golden rule (subject to exceptions, of course) that any noun or pronoun ending with the suffix “I” or “y” is considered of the feminine gender, while words with the suffix “a” would generally be of masculine gender. She also told me another rule that in a phrase like “Peter’s sister”, the possessive adjective would depend on the object and not the subject – something that I would never forget for years to follow.
Then to put me at ease, she beckoned Ruth Pinto, the best student of Hindi in the class, and asked her to help me. He requested Ruth to share her notes, her essays, and answers with me. This gesture gave me some comfort immediately, as I felt awkward approaching the teacher for every clarification that I needed. Also, Ruth was from Goa and not a native Hindi speaker, just like me. However, she had mastered the language and was very good at it. She could very easily relate to my discomfort or conflict in learning the language. And given our similar non-Hindi native backgrounds, I could also identify with her with ease. I thought to myself that if she could have learned the language so well, even I could get fluent in it. From then onward, I started carefully observing and following Ruth - how she wrote and communicated in Hindi. Ruth, on her part, went out of the way to talk to me in Hindi. She started correcting my mistakes, both oral and written, daily and continually. I also worked hard on the subject. I made a promise to myself that one day I would not only excel in Hindi but also surpass her scores in the language.
Mrs. Bamzai’s genuine interest in my betterment had a truly motivational impact on me. I started working harder on the subject. And in a matter of months, it reflected on my improved scores. Soon enough, I started topping the grades in class, a total change from the ‘just pass’ marks that I had been getting earlier. And Mrs. Bamzai used to gift the best student some chocolates – a rarity those days – after every class assignment or test. It was an added incentive! And, I must admit that I was lucky to earn quite a few of those chocolates as I started improving my grades. I even recall that one day she had even shared some food with me from her lunch box when I had forgotten to carry mine from home. Such was her love and kindness for her students. All this inspired me immensely and instilled in me the belief that there is no obstacle very tough to conquer, provided one overcame the basic fears and worked hard towards the end goal.
I can quite easily say today that Mrs. Bamzai had been my first person of influence. It was her encouragement that motivated me to work hard on a subject that I used to hate. She also enhanced my mental strength and provided me with the fortitude to overcome many more hurdles in the future. I regret that I never kept in touch with her, but I wish to humbly acknowledge that she is one teacher and mentor whose memory I will cherish forever and for whom I will have the highest regards always.
So, what did Mrs. Bamzai do correctly where the other teachers had earlier gone wrong? Here are the essential traits of a great teacher that Mrs. Bamzai embodied.
2 Qualities of a Great Teacher:
- Relate to your student, empathize with them, be compassionate – Since I was an average student of Hindi, my teacher could have easily ignored me like her predecessors. However, she showed great understanding of my problem, pointed out my potential, and stepped into my realm with a desire of making it better and improving my self-esteem. With just a small gesture, she overcame virtually all the resistance I may have in accepting her as my mentor.
- Be humble, speak their language, make a personal connection – Mrs. Bamzai was very simple, soft-spoken, easy to approach, and never unnecessarily reprimanded her students. I was truly emotionally overwhelmed just because she should single me out that day for improvement.
- Walk the talk – She demonstrated care and empathy in her actions. Her sharing of her lunch with me and many others at different times amply displayed her maternal instincts for her protégés; this earned her immense love and respect from her students. She was always immaculately attired, and she expected her wards to strive to achieve perfection in their outcomes.
- Create associations through teams – By getting Ruth to help me, she ensured that I felt relaxed and safe. She also found a competent good associate and friend from whom I could readily learn. She had therefore facilitated a learning environment for me.
- Praise what is good and suggest how to correct the wrongs – Mrs. Bamzai could have easily ignored me or have only pointed out my mistakes and reprimanded me when she had called me over to her table. Instead, the first thing that she chose to tell me what I was doing right, thereby shattering any possible opposition that I may have had at that point. It was only later that she showed me my mistakes and then asked me what was causing my errors. As a result, my guard was down, and I became receptive to what she was saying. Then she told me the two golden rules of basic Hindi grammar and demonstrated that she understood the exact nature of my apprehensions. It also shows how skillful she was as a mentor.
- Encourage, Motivate and show the path – Akin to a true leader, she not only motivated me to try harder but imparted a life lesson also – to learn from the best. Ruth was best at Hindi in our class, and Mrs. Bamzai encouraged me to associate and learn from her. That made it easier for me to reinforce my learning.
- Demonstrate clarity on the subject – Mrs. Bamzai empathized with me and demonstrated a deep understanding of my problem. She set an example of a student (Ruth) with a similar background as mine to follow. She did this to ensure that I could relate to and get inspired by the fact that Ruth was also not a native Hindi speaker but had excelled in the subject. And instead of narrating just the abstruse rules of grammar, she provided me with two precious tips – practical suggestions that served as golden nuggets to ease and reinforce my learning.
- Continuously assess and provide constructive feedback – The school provided feedback to the students, usually after every class test or examination. It was a formal process, very routine, and quite impersonal. But Mrs. Bamzai was different; she monitored her students’ progress and provided them constructive feedback continuously. Like me, whom she had summoned to help during a regular class day, she used to single out many weak students and encourage them to improve and praise their progress almost daily.
- Provide an incentive to learn – Apart from the regular report cards, my school had a card system of differentiating between the better and average students based on their overall performance. However, there were no rewards for faring well in individual subjects. Mrs. Bamzai, however, had her way of recognizing and rewarding good performance. Her gifting of chocolates – an occasion that students looked up to with glee provided them with a great incentive to learn and excel.
During my student days, I must say that I encountered many great teachers, but Mrs. Bamzai was the first among them. She left her unique imprint on me, changed how I perceived the learning process, and imbibed the correct attitude to surmount difficulties in my path. For this, I will always cherish her memories and be ever grateful to her for being instrumental, in her unique way, in making me the person who I am now.
In this age of digital learning, there are other tools and techniques that educators and coaches employ to tutor their pupils. However, the essential qualities or the soft skills that every great teacher should have, which I have outlined above, will never change as human-to-human interaction will still prevail – no matter what the mode of teaching is.