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Published in The Hindu online on 11th October 2015 at http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/rohit-dhankar-on-why-the-teacher-is-central-to-teaching/article7742620.ece

Rohit Dhankar

[This is a slightly edited version.]

A “very successful and dynamic” school principal in conversation with a government school principal once used an interesting metaphor to describe her role. The conversation was about teachers’ salaries. She claimed: teachers in private schools are paid much lower salaries than their government counterparts. But a principal is paid much higher compared to a government school principal. In her opinion, this was the reason why the quality of education in private schools was better.

Her justification was powerfully conveyed through the metaphor of a school as a chariot which has to be driven as fast as possible in the competitive market of education. She saw the principal as the charioteer (or the driver), the teachers as horses, and the school as a fast-moving chariot. Even if one horse slackened its pace, the school’s progress would be hampered. Her recommendation: get rid of such a horse. The leadership’s skills lay in managing all the horses, ensuring that they galloped at top speed, enhancing their capability to maintain or increase speed, spotting the stragglers and getting rid of them; and thus keeping the chariot in a winning position.

One could dismiss this metaphor as the result of the flawed imagination of a principal and, therefore, as being of no consequence to the system of education. Alas! One is not allowed this luxury given the way school leadership development and the emphasis on leadership for quality improvement are today.

Metaphors are powerful ways of communication and have a certain persuasive force. But metaphors can mislead and obscure clear thinking; they often hide contradiction. Therefore, it is worth analysing the idea of school leadership and the use of the chariot metaphor in conveying this.

Common sense understanding of leadership is one that is of a role or a capability to give direction to something to be done, to set the pace and to direct others’ energies in a manner that best helps achieve set objectives. This emphasises the role of a “leader” who chooses what is to be done, how it is to be done, and then coordinates efforts to achieve these objectives. But the problems in this understanding of school leadership are easily spotted: teachers are reduced to just resources to be used by the leader. Since education necessarily involves the very serious engagement of the minds of teachers and students, the idea of the teacher as being just a resource to be used by the leader does not fit in the vision for education. Therefore, there are various ways of characterising educational leadership — as a process, as a role disassociated from any particular individual but which could be taken up by a different member of the group at various times, or even as distributed leadership, where many members may share leadership depending on the task or the occasion. Another variety of distributed leadership is supposed to involve collaborative engagement, interpersonal synergies and relationships within institutional structures.

These are supposed to be more sophisticated forms of leadership but they also have their problems. They become so diffused that one does not understand why the term “leadership” is retained; as the leader as an individual is passé. They become impossible to practise and there is no one to initiate and guide people. Thus, they become impossible to develop, jeopardising the very rationale of teaching leadership or preparing people for leadership roles as distinct from being good workers.

But the emphasis on developing the leadership capability of school principals remains an all-consuming preoccupation. That leads people in action — especially principals — into facing deep contradiction between the “talk of leadership” and the “practice of leadership” in actual situations. In theory, distributed or holistic leadership becomes privileged; while in practice, it remains the good old, person-centric leadership hidden under jargon. That is precisely where metaphors like “the school as a chariot” become important and worth analysing in order to bring out the hidden aspects.

The Katha Upanishad and Plato’s Phaedrus are two famous allegories of chariots in philosophical discussion which can help us understand this metaphor. In the Katha Upanishad, the self is seen as the master of the chariot, which is the human body. The buddhi (intellect) is the driver, manah (translated as mind, different from budhhi) serves as the reins while the horses are the five senses. In Phaedrus, the soul itself is seen as being composite in nature, made up of a charioteer and a pair of winged horses. The charioteer here is reason; one of the two horses represents a spiritedness, boldness, etc. seen as positive qualities of the soul; while the other, indicates desires and is seen as dragging the soul down if not controlled.

In the Katha Upanishad, the only conscious part is the soul; the rest including the buddhi and the manah are material and mechanical in nature. The senses are seen as the source of energy for motion but can lead to the right or the wrong direction depending on the judgment of the soul conjoined with the buddhi, and its capability to control the manah. In Phaedrus, it is reason which is supposed to decide which direction to take; the horses are devoid of reason and judgment. In both cases, reason and the power of judgment rest with the soul. In the Katha Upanishad, these are in conjunction with the buddhi, while in Phaedrus, these are with the rational part of the soul.

For long, the teacher in India has been seen as an employee who occupies the lowest rung. She is seen as someone who shirks work, is incapable and irresponsible. Therefore, talk of motivating and making her accountable through interventions become important. It is just a small step from here to see her as a horse that is niggardly, inefficient and in need of control through commands. In addition, the horse metaphor emphasises the point that either her judgment is irrelevant or that she is devoid of conscious reason and judgment. Her autonomy as an educator is either absent or is seen as being of no value. What she is supposed to do is to obey the commands of the chariot driver as precisely as possible and with a sense of willingness. Her capabilities and attitudes are supposed to be well developed so that her contribution to the goals of the school can be maximised.

The model directly leads to standard operating procedures for her functioning, faithfully following the “latest trends” in pedagogy and to be committed to giving her best. If not, her fate is like that of the horse which slows down the pace of the chariot.

This also leads one to examine the vision for teacher education institutions hinted at in the first paragraph by the principal. Teacher education institutions become “stables”. It is obvious that these must meet the needs of charioteers. Teacher education becomes horse-training. Therefore, skills of various kinds such as 21st century communication and classroom management become the predominant part of the curriculum of teacher education; understanding, knowledge, educational judgment and development of reason would be useless if not a hindrance in controlling the horses. Who would want a horse with independent mind!

At present, many government initiatives and plans seem to be formulated under the idea of the better functioning of private schools, and done so in an economical way. Various public-private partnership models and frequent references to the better quality of education in private schools are examples of this. Since private schools are thought to impart better and quality education, society appreciates this. Therefore, the practices that are current in private schools are seen as the ultimate solution. These practices are premised on having low-paid, highly controlled and insecure teachers. These assumptions are hidden under talk of responsibility, accountability and performance measuring frameworks.

If done in an intelligent and respectful manner, there is nothing wrong in emphasising responsibility, accountability and performance per se. But the ideas hidden behind such theories and practices are not those of educators working for good education but of workers who submit themselves unquestioningly to the school’s leaders.

To begin with, this unhealthy view must be got rid of. In this, we have to re-examine research which claims that quality in private schools is better. Here, the concept of quality is about “customer satisfaction”, and “customer satisfaction” is derived from the result of high academic marks. This notion of quality is fundamentally flawed if one examines it from the angles of personal development and social justice. The second thing is to re-examine the concept of school leadership. We have to lay emphasis on the principal being an educator with social and educational vision, rather than her being a chariot driver competing in a rat race. Her capabilities of shouldering responsibility, respecting teachers as autonomous educators of equal worth, and creating an atmosphere of collaborative, decision-making need to be emphasised. Teachers have to be seen as educators who are capable of independent judgment and meaningful collaboration simultaneously. The school has to be seen as the conscience-keeper of society which is continuously striving to take humanity to the next higher level of moral, intellectual and aesthetic development and through its serious engagement with children. The system has to develop its own capabilities to allow the autonomous functioning of the school along with the collective guidance of its teacher community. Of course, all this must be within the framework of the curriculum and facilitative institutional arrangements. We have to leave the chariots, horses and races behind and think of small communities of educators greatly inspired by their vision of society, education and pedagogy.

The moot question is: do we have the intellectual and moral capacity in the society to walk this path?

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