Columns Education

Teachers weigh in…

Reeteka Sud

In an education landscape where syllabus reigns supreme, some teachers/educators go the extra mile for their students, and constantly strive to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms.

Sangeeta Shetty (left), Komal Kamra (right)
Sangeeta Shetty (left), Komal Kamra (right)   (Photo: Sangeeta Shetty, Komal Kamra)

Komal Kamra is an Associate Professor in Zoology at SGTB Khalsa College, New Delhi. She has been teaching for over 40 years.

Sangeeta Shetty is an Asst. Professor at the Dept. of Life Sciences & Biochemistry in St. Xavier’s college. She is currently teaching courses in Microbiology, Biotechnology, Immunology and Bioinformatics, at both UG&PG levels.

Q. How did you come to choose teaching as your profession?

KK: As long as I can remember, I always needed to teach. Even the games I played were always related to teaching somehow. When I got a little older I would get the maids’ children together and teach during vacation time. It was but natural for me to opt for teaching as a career.

SS: I never really thought about teaching as a career choice. It was rather serendipitous! I taught a course as a substitute for a friend for one semester. I was amazed at the response I got from students. I have grown and gained so much from all these wonderful lives I have been able to touch. I am so glad teaching “happened” to me.

Q. How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

KK: To impart knowledge in the best possible way. I believe in taking a holistic approach; I don’t want to limit to curriculum only. A wholesome education is what the students should be getting when they come to college, otherwise they could have just done a correspondence course.

SS: Every batch of students is different, so I don’t believe in a “one size fits all” teaching philosophy. Mine is a very student-centered approach to teaching; the specifics of techniques I use in class varies depending on the batch of students, what their needs are.

Q. How do you see your role in the classroom?

KK: My classes have, over a period of time, become more interactive. Often, it’s the students who bring more information and enrich me.  So I become a part of them and am enjoying this role.

SS: I tell my students I am not here to “cover the syllabus”; rather, my job is to “uncover the syllabus” — to make them curious about things. I don’t give “notes”, only references and lecture outlines. Our college uses the online learning platform Moodle. There’s additional e-resources we make available to students, as and when needed.

Q.  What are main teaching methods you rely on?

KK: Chalk-and-board remains the mainstay. Of late, I have started giving typed material ahead of the teaching schedule and asking students to read before class. That allows for in-class discussions. These discussions give an opportunity to throw the floor open for lateral discussions too; which often prove to be far more interesting and exciting than traditional methods. I do use power point presentations but rarely.

SS: Visuals are a far better way of teaching. Plus, the present generation of students are highly tech-savvy. So I rely on copious use of technology— animation is my preferred method, also YouTube videos, PowerPoints, games etc.

Q. How do you assess your students?

KK: I like to assess students not by comparison among them but by measuring how a particular student was before a course began and at the end of it. This makes them compete with themselves not with each other.

SS: Our college requires two internal and one final exam each semester. For one of these exams, teachers have a free hand at how they want to assess students. For instance, in the literature department, students had to watch a video, and discuss questions based on that. Some of my colleagues use the clicker system but I haven’t tried it yet. I have asked my students’ practical exams, to develop research proposals with all relevant parts — research plan, budget, proposed experiments. This was followed by research work done, presentation and finally ability to write a research paper of their work done. On another occasion, students had to propose business development plans for Biotech Entrepreneurship.

Q. Do you agree or disagree with the statement —  “today’s students are lazier, or less prepared, or less motivated than my generation.”

KK: I have found motivating students is not an issue —  whether it is  staying late on a weekday or getting together to work on a sunday, they are generally willing. When they can’t, it is because of practical concerns — as in they live far away so commuting is an issue, especially for girls. Higher education centres should be residential. That can make a big difference.

SS: I don’t believe they are lazy or unmotivated. They do seem to be confusing “information” for “knowledge”. There is no question that students today are different. And this difference does create friction at times. For instance, we depend on them to do background reading before class. That is needed for classrooms to be more interactive but more frequently, students fail to follow-up. That is very problematic. So, what we do is- we send that student to the library- their task is to read given topic for 40 minutes, come back to class and present to the class. And we’ve had success with that.

Q. What are some myths you think are around regarding teaching profession?

KK: The teaching profession is looked down upon as compared to the more lucrative administrative services or jobs at MNCs. Myth. I have never felt I am lesser. The teachers are paid less. Myth. I think we get good salaries and what we get from children as love and respect are far beyond any compensation.

SS: That teaching is a part-time job, and teachers don’t have much work to do. The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that you are a teacher only when you are in front of the class; when in reality that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Q. What are your views on research experience as being part of students’ undergraduate training?

KK: College curriculum is rather restrictive, for both teachers and students. There is no room for students to question, to explore. This is true even for science labs. Students have so much energy. And all we are offering is book knowledge. Education is much, much more than just exams. Frequently, I’ll offer students, who are willing, a chance to do projects over their semester breaks. This may or may not be related to Zoology. But mainly, it is a chance for students to explore on their own. And it can yield big returns!

Three years ago, we did an ‘innovation project’ in collaboration with one of the faculty in Forensics department in our college, and we got a patent out of it! Last year, we participated in a NASA-led worldwide challenge. From India, there are several schools that participate but in the 18-21 age category, there has never been any representation from our country. So, we took that up as a challenge. The students set up a group, and they would come to my house every sunday, 9am. We did make it to the international challenge, but unfortunately were not able to secure funds to go to America for the finals.

On another occasion, out of discussion with students came the idea of a mobile app for spine injury— a community-based rehabilitation project. I was able to bring my own experience with spine injury to the project. This project culminated in the development of an app called “SpineVeda” (trademarked in our name), being translated now in 16 Indian languages. Out of 250 projects funded by University of Delhi that year, SpineVeda bagged the best innovation award.

Presently, we are also wrapping up a project on epilepsy, EpiReach, also funded by the University of Delhi. For this project, students go to jhuggi clusters to reach out to individuals with epilepsy who remain stigmatized. One Sunday a month, we hold epilepsy camps where a team of AIIMS doctors give free prescriptions and we give medicines free of cost. Recently, we met the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare to launch a National Epilepsy Control Programme with very positive output.

SS: Research experience provides students with different kind of training, and they start to think very analytically. It of course puts departmental infrastructure and finance in stress, specifically at  undergraduate level where class sizes are larger. It is also quite challenging for the teachers, but it has been a rewarding experience. Few months ago, I attended a workshop on research-based pedagogical tools, at IISER Pune, which gave more structure to my teaching. So, incorporating elements of research benefits not only students, but teachers stand to gain too.

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