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Monday, November 09, 2015

Private tuitions, anyone?

My daughter has written after ages, a review of Go Set a Watchman. These days I often don’t have to do things because she can do them well enough for me.

One of the many ironies of my life is that, despite having been a private tutor all through my working life, I have been very ambivalent about private tuitions at best and a strident critic at worst – as thousands of my current and ex-students can vouch. I made a (modest-) living giving tuition to school and college students all through my own years in college and university; then came the long stint at school. In all those years I sent hundreds of parents away, unwilling to take their wards into my private classes because either I was emphatic that they didn’t need it if they were already attending my classes in school, or because I wouldn’t take in beyond a certain number (though alas, under ceaseless pressure over decades, especially since I left the school, that number has gone up much beyond my liking, and I still annoy a lot of people every year by turning their children away). I justified my own ideas to myself through my own daughter, who had a single tutor during the last two years of secondary school and none at all at the higher secondary level, and still managed to do perfectly well by just being somewhat more than average intelligent and studying by a routine every year. And my greatest sorrow is that I have been able to do virtually nothing to stem the tide, though the practice has kept me in gravy all these years. And today’s parents are the children of the generation I taught thirty years ago!

In the days when my father was young, teachers gave private tuition – mostly to very weak students, especially whose parents couldn’t coach them at home – to supplement pathetically meagre incomes. Already when I was leaving high school, the average quality of school education had taken a sharp nose dive, so lots of pupils were relying increasingly on private tutors, many of whom had begun to make significant money, especially in the metros. Medical and engineering college aspirants were signing up with coaching classes like Brilliant and Aggarwal’s in droves. Depending on whose point of view you adopt, things have grown much better/worse over the last three decades.

Contrary to common perceptions, it is not only the children of the affluent urban population who attend private tuitions; it is very widespread among the indigent and rural folks, too. Plainly, nobody trusts schools (or even colleges) to deliver the goods any more. Instead, a vast and vicious cycle has been created: a) the (very few) good and sincere teachers in school are roundly ignored, because the pupils are all attending private tuitions already, b) most schoolteachers don’t care to teach (or even to find out how to teach) because they know that nobody bothers, all the real studying is done at tuitions, c) the competent and ambitious among them take up jobs only to build up large private practices, after which they quit, d) parents are having to pay through their noses, though, at least in public schools, education is supposedly free, e) children waste many hours every day in school, and much of the rest of their time is eaten up running from one tuition to another (millions attend five or six regularly), so they have neither time nor energy left for rest and relaxation, leave alone reading outside the syllabus, with highly imaginable consequences, f) private tutors are now seriously rich, especially those who run statewide or countrywide coaching institutes (in West Bengal, it has been a dry joke for decades that no business really works here except for real estate and private tuitions!)

So if I happen to be one of those who have been able to take advantage of the situation, why am I complaining? It is because I wanted to become a good teacher and not just make some money; I also wanted to contribute to making teaching a respectable and aspirational profession again. And I don’t think I can boast of very much success with regard to either. I have got too little feedback in this lifetime about how deeply, lastingly and positively I have influenced my students’ lives – so much for knowing whether I have been a good teacher or not. So far as hard facts are concerned, I believe people come to me in droves to enroll their children for very mundane, immediate, temporary reasons, which I have listed in an earlier blogpost. And though they together pay me enough not to make me envious of the average doctor or engineer or government official, I never managed to get rich, partly because teaching is (still-) not highly paid in this country (consider for comparison’s sake how much a doctor charges for a service as basic as putting a leg in plaster, to cite just one example), and partly because I have always been too lazy to work round the clock, and had moral issues about running sausage factories (there are countless tutors who run classes of hundreds at a time, and so can easily afford BMWs – not that I ever wanted one!). As for the other ambition, virtually none of my good students have opted to become teachers, especially at the school level (with Vivekananda and Tagore and Russell, I have always believed that that is where most of our vital education takes place: afterwards it’s just imbibing facts, technical details and sales tricks), despite knowing full well that competent and hard-working teachers are minting money these days. Part of the reason I know – that teaching still does not assure that precious combination of security and social status that is so dear to the middle class (which is where the vast majority of teachers come from) – but somehow that seems to be neither adequate nor satisfactory.

In the few years left to me, I can’t do much more to become a good teacher, or to enthuse my pupils to follow in my footsteps. Should I then shed all inhibitions and focus on making money?


Deyasini Ganguly said...

I remember you saying in our class once that as we grow older, we shall meet teachers who will just transfer their knowledge to us, who will make no attachment with us as students, who will just take the money at the beginning of the month and then not care about whether we come to the tuitions or not. Honestly speaking, at that time, I thought it was too much of an exaggeration but as i got up to Class 11, I am finding all your words to be true. I have been able to realize this that I shall most probably never find another teacher like you. It felt really sad at first when I did expect all teachers to be equally kind and benevolent as you but now, I have dropped my expectations as i have come to understand that the best way of not getting hurt is not to trust.
Deyasini Ganguly
ICSE 2015 batch

Noodle said...

There are people who have never met Suvro Chatterjee, and they will probably never meet him in their lifetime, but they still know who he is. They know about all the legendary stories he used to narrate in his classes, the diction lessons he gave, the essays, the way he introduced Shylock, Portia, Estella and Pip, the impromptu astronomy class about black holes, time lapses and the rubber-band theory (all of which resonated years later, while watching Interstellar) He has been quoted multiple times to multiple people; people who are complete strangers to him. They also know about his 'Natalia Darling' which he wrote as a teenager. And they think that he is, pardon the language - "Quite a Cat, this man! What an amazing teacher to have." His students have kept his classes alive, years after they have passed out. And some of us may be stupid enough to not mention this to him, but he is mentioned in almost all intellectually stimulating conversations. So from where I see it, Suvro Chatterjee's life is enviable.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

That was kind and sweet, one from a 17-year old and another from someone past 30. Both girls too, wonder of wonders! Thank you, Deyasini and Chitra.

Baisakhi Ghosh said...

Well, I quite agree with you, Deyasini. As you must remember, almost a year has passed since we had our last class with Sir, and since then not one day has passed when we have not pulled into our activities something of what Sir had said! And the best parts are when we quote his jokes and words to one another and get the reply, "I know where this has been taken from!" Unlike you, however, I never had much expectations from anyone after his classes got over, for I was sure that there are very few people like him whom we can meet. And even fewer who can influence our lives so remarkably. Thank you Sir, that's all I can say.