Of Teachers Dead And Gone

Kids in Indian schools often pass out with marks of 96%, and they are depressed, because it is difficult to get into colleges with grades of less than 95%. In my time, if you got 70%, it was considered to be very good, and if you got 80%, you were considered a downright genius. Now, I did mention once somewhere in this blog, that I interviewed kids from a top engineering college, a kid who was at the top of his class in metallurgical engineering. The poor sap could not explain iron-carbon diagrams or the copper-nickel diagram.

Visnu Sarma, who supposedly wrote that brilliant book, “The Panchatantra”, was commissioned by a king to teach his three doltish kids. He was to teach his kids how to thinkbut not what to think. To me, this is a fundamental tenet of teaching. How do you teach people to think? A different sort of philosophical dialogue can be centered on another premise: people are afraid of those who think, and much of what happens today, is to ensure people become semi-robotic followers. But, that is for another time.

One of the things that great teachers do, in my humble opinion, is to teach you the fundamentals of the subject, and to help you allow your brains to run free, so that you know how to apply these fundamental principles. They don’t encourage you to vomit out fact after fact. I hated history as a kid, because all that it was at that time, was a collection of dates and events. In recent years, my interest in history, particularly Indian history, has been rekindled thanks to some really great historians who can write and bring history to life. I thought Sanskrit was a dead subject, and hated it in school. Yet, when I read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in Sanskrit (with, of course, the English translations), the beauty of the language hit me with a force that I could never have imagined.

Great teachers, again in my opinion, bring subjects to life and allow you to get a glimpse into their beauty.

Now, in this blog, I may mention the names of people I admire, but not the people who suck to their core.

Teachers come from all walks of life. They don’t all have to be PhDs or deeply educated in the art and science of education.  I have had some great teachers, and some who were really terrible. The maths teacher who taught us maths during my first year of engineering almost killed calculus for me.

There were two great teachers I came across pretty much at the same time in my life. One was a truck driver called Sheikh, and one was our teacher of Organizational Behaviour-1 (the psychology of the individual) – a gentleman called SK Roy. Sadly, they are both dead and gone.

SKRoy was brilliant. He’d always walk into class with a sly smile on his face, and would challenge our sensibilities. There was one time when I decided to shock him. I walked into class ten minutes late, with a cup of tea in my hand, and wearing a pair of trousers with the most outrageous bottom flair. I walked slowly across the room, expecting an explosion. He stopped in his lecture, smiled as I walked across the front of the class and said, “Interesting!”. Another time, I accidentally answered a question, and he gently encouraged me to go deeper into myself. He peeled me open, layer by layer, right there. That was a difficult period, but I ended up getting some real insights into me. He set us the most difficult exam paper I have ever had to do. It was a two week, open book exam. We were allowed to copy any text in the library, but as he said, the answer was not to be found in a book. It was to be found in ourselves, and how good we were at applying the principles he had taught us during the term.

Sheikh really taught me how to drive a car. I did have a driving license, so I was allowed, legally, to drive on the roads. However, I got the license in a driving school, where the goal was to get us a license, not to teach us how to drive. Pretty similar to many schools, yes? The objective is to get marks, not to learn.

My dad, however, was not convinced of my driving skills. For him, the age old fundamental law, that you must learn the principles of a subject, was critical. Sheikh was one of the clerks in his office, and had been a truck driver for over twenty years. The briefing given to Sheikh was (a) I had to really learn how to drive and (b) during the classes, I was the student, not  my dad’s son. So, Sheikh’s word was law during the lessons.

Sheikh was quite a character. Simply, but well dressed. His beard and hair was immaculate, and he carried himself with an innate dignity that, in my view, reflected the greatness of his soul.

So, we started to drive. For the first few months, I was not allowed to drive above 20 kilometers per hour. For Sheikh, I had to learn how to control the car’s momentum through a gentle pressure on the accelerator, without the engine stalling. Any fool, he said, could drive fast and carelessly. However, very few people can rive slowly. So, I howled and yowled, and bitched and moaned, but he was unrelenting. Drive slowly, control the accelerator, control the steering, defensive driving, hill driving, dirt track driving, driving in a crowded market and, above all, driving with patience were the drills he put me through. Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, he finally said, “I think you can drive now!”

The years have gone, and I now have the odd white hair in my head, and yet, there is not a time when I think of these two gentlemen, that I don’t doff my imaginary hats to them and say, “Thank You”.

A great teacher, and what he, or she, teaches, stay with you, and allow you to impart some of these lessons to others.


  1. A well-written post! I couldn’t agree more – learning the facts of history and nothing else is just not effective teaching. You have to teach students both the content AND the process, and so often we forget that the best way to learn ‘process’ is by allowing students to ‘do’. I think it’s kind of like parenting. When kids first start to walk we want to cover everything so they don’t hurt themselves; but part of learning is exploring, falling down, hurting yourself, and learning. Teaching is the same way – a student has to be allowed to explore and fall down.

  2. Rajeev , well written …. wish i spent time in conversations with you at shanghai ….. Both of us have been too busy …. we miss a lot in life chasing growth in corporates

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