“The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.”
As I read this line, I smiled a slow smile of knowing. It took me back to that cold November evening, to a conversation I was having with one of my favourite teachers. Zahoor Saab and I laughed over a cup of tea as we both blurted out, “I never wanted to be a teacher!”
There never is a right answer to this. Rarely do we meet people who enthusiastically proclaim these ambitious dreams of becoming a teacher. Because, who wants to be a teacher anyway? It pays less, does not lead to any career ladder climbing, doesn’t require exceptional qualifications- and well, anyone can become a teacher. And a government school teacher? Never. Those kids are far too gone from the day they are born for any education, to ever be able to help them.
These thoughts sound oddly familiar.
Let ’s go back to what Zahoor Saab had to say, shall we?
“So how did you end up being a teacher Zahoor Saab?”
The kind soul that he is, he smiled at me and said:
Wah tah izzu mantasha wah tah zillu mantasha
My knowledge of languages being restricted to English, Bengali and Bangla tainted Hindi, I just looked at him quizzically.
“Anushka”, he says, “because I wanted to do good work and I didn’t know how.”
Paradoxically, he resonates a popular philosophy. Teaching is almost considered social work. Over the past three years, every person who has asked me what I do, to which I say, “I teach”, has looked at me with awe and a misdirected sense of gratitude. “Really you’re so young! Why do you teach?”
That brings me to the reason I’m writing this. Having spent three years in the education sector with experiences ranging from the slums of Bombay to villages in rural Kashmir and Uttarakhand, I always wanted to know what motivates people to teach. No, I don’t mean sitting in a classroom and dictating spellings. I mean, really teach. To be able to pour their heart and soul into each lesson, each day, for each kid. In this quest to know, I ended up documenting the journeys of some incredible teachers I had the good fortune to work with in Kashmir. Here is one such great teacher’s story.
Zahoor Saab was born an artist. He finished his schooling and attended college where he studied art. Not the most lucrative profession you must be thinking. And you’re not too far from the truth, because that is the challenge he suddenly found himself confronted with. Sure, he loved art. But then what?
At the same time, he was informed of an opening in a nearby school where the position of an art teacher was open. Thrilled by the prospect of being able to nurture a passion as well as begin a career, he took it up right away.
It’s been over 20 years and he’s still teaching. This is the same person who “never wanted to be a teacher”.
Itching to know why, I kept persisting. “But Zahoor Saab, why did you stay on?”
“Oh, because I loved those kids.”
There is a pattern that all great teachers exhibit. Sure, they know how to plan an inspiring lesson and push for academic excellence. But they also inspire the best relationships. Think back to a teacher you loved while growing up. A teacher whose class you would always be excited to attend and would never want to disappoint. The first thing that will most definitely come up while you reminisce is not the content they taught or the marks you scored (you probably won’t even be able to remember these things) but how they made you FEEL.
And that’s what great teachers do. They make their kids feel amazing. Great teachers thrive on the relationships they build. And that’s why they always teach, because teaching makes them feel good.
“So what has been your best moments in your career in the past 20 years Zahoor Saab?”
He sits and reminisces about this student of his who made it to a really good job, fulfilled all her dreams and is happy as hell. But I asked him what his best moment has been? What has been his biggest achievement?
“Well, that’s simple. My biggest achievement was that I was able to help someone achieve their biggest achievement.”
“So you have spent your entire life measuring your success through the success of others? Does that make you happy Zahoor Saab?”
I didn’t need an answer. He was already dialing that student’s number. He was eager to make me speak to her. “She’s also in Calcutta! You both should meet,” he says, smiling the biggest smile.
We spent the next two hours talking about how the most difficult kids in class make for the best stories of inspiration, that can shared over endless cups of tea.
A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the concept of ‘Seva’, as a way of life. Living for each other. And it came back into my life in this beautiful moment with Zahoorsaab, on a cold November evening when the rest of Kashmir was torn yet again, with violence and rage.
Outside our training building, the region was simmering with angry protests. But here as I looked around, I saw a roomful of humans representing that spirit of ‘Seva’. They had risked a lot to be present there, to learn about how to be better teachers. Although we left them with the knowledge of a new style of pedagogy, they left us with an even more enduring learning. Of unbroken persistence and faith.
And it was at that moment that I realised why I teach- I teach because human beings are capable of immense beauty. All they need is the right inspiration to discover this power. Just like Sheikh Zahoor Ahmed from Srinagar.