Okay fine, I’m not a professor, nor am I even in academia, but I like the sound of the term. In my less than three decades on this rock, I’ve had no more than 2 steady, paying jobs, one of which I still have. The other was a stint in teaching. I was a tutor for the same organization where I had taken tutorials for the CLAT (Common Law Admission Test — the national entrance exam for the National Law Universities). I taught the subject legal principles, which was not so much about the law, but about how to use it.
To this day, I maintain this to be the most fulfilling and satisfying activity I’ve ever done and would love to go back to it at some point.
It’s in the genes
I do come from a line of teachers. My maternal great-grandfather was a renowned professor of commerce (in fact his books are still in use today); my maternal grandfather worked briefly as a lecturer while working on his masters in architecture abroad; my maternal grandmother had a side gig teaching and translating to Hindi while her husband was working on his thesis; my paternal grandmother was a professor of zoology (who actually was my bio teacher’s professor) and my mother herself worked as an early childhood educator (focusing on special needs kids).
Of course, while none of the 23 chromosomal pairs really carries a marker called “good at teaching” I’m quite certain some sort of traits possibly distilled in me as well. I took up the job because to me it was an added source of income (and perhaps an excuse to get out of campus too).
Just like me, some of my seniors from law school had also taught at the centre and I felt a small sense of poetry in being able to continue being there, albeit at the other side of the lectern (metaphorical, we didn’t have one there).
I am a person who takes comfort in rules, so I did establish some for my class as well — not all at once, but over time.
- Absolutely no ‘sir’ — I did not sign up to being called old by kids who were barely 3 years younger than I. Everytime someone referred to me as sir, I’d either willfully ignore them or point at my name, spelt out, on the blackboard. It took forever to get them to break that habit
- Names? What are those? —My smooth brain can only remember either one’s face or one’s name. Not the two together. I can, however, in addition to one of those parameters, remember a trait. Therefore, kids in class were usually referred to as, “arts kid” or “VNS girl” or “tall kid” and the like. I did remember names, by the end of the year, but well, until then, they were just faces to me
- You will participate — I was taught by the Socratic method and firmly believe that it is the most effective. (It’s also really easy, just keep asking “Why?” over and over and that’s basically it.) This does, however, rest upon the class being interactive and therefore no one was permitted to be hush during it. Random calling was the norm. “Arts kid, what did you answer for #12? Explain.” “Okay, tall kid, please explain to your sleeping neighbour why this constitutes the tort of nuisance.”
- I have no chill — I walked while teaching. For some reason, I could never just stand in a place and explain concepts. I had to jump around, especially when I taught fun things such as contracts and torts. I also made use of visual aids. Fine, some of the kids would term them as “poorly drawn stick figures” but you know what they say about seeing things over hearing them
- Time is relative — My classes would frequently overshoot the two scheduled hours and my kids knew they could just walk out without me needing to know. (Yes, I got paid by the hour. No, it was restricted to the scheduled two hours per session.)
Class is in session
Classes were a blast, if I say so myself! I’d typically begin a session with a smaller explanation of the topic at hand and its history and how one would use it in everyday life. But because I needed everyone to participate, I’d quickly delve into an exercise. Think of it as an episode of “Whose Line is It Anyway” where I’d take suggestions for events, entities and names from the class and then draw out an elaborate scenario. The class was divided into two columns and I’d make each side argue for one.
And then I just sat back with my popcorn. Them kids would get savage! I know for a fact that I’d have to intervene every now and then to prevent folks from going ad hominem. Free entertainment notwithstanding, this exercise helped me understand whether I’d been able to explain the concept well enough. If hands shot up to make arguments without me calling out kids, then I’d succeeded.
One of my favourite activities was to make kids justify their answers. Whenever we solved multiple choice questions, there would inevitably be a difference of opinion. Now, in cases where this would be between similar sounding answers, it was quite acceptable; but every now and then there’d be one lone hand that responds to the most inane and nonsensical choice and instead of just telling them it’s wrong, I’d make the kid explain themselves. More often than not, I’d get an explanation of a series of thought that ended with “Ohhhh right yeah, no option A it is. No clue why I didn’t pick that.” I swear, most of the learning was self-induced.
The year itself would culminate in the CLAT and every year since I began, I’d meet my kids outside college. Partly to just reassure them about the test, but mostly to ward off annoying first years who got some perverse pleasure in walking about with big legal text books acting like they were taking the exam too. I’d give them a stern look and shoo ’em off to pull off their stunts elsewhere.
I’d do my best to pack away my own nervousness and after the two hours of the exam, I’d meet them once again to congratulate them on taking the test, finishing it, and reminded them to delete everything I’d taught them because here on they’d learn from professionals, regardless of their results.
What I learnt
In the four years that I taught, from 2012 to 2016, Professor T would be a misnomer. As cliched as it sounds, the real learning was done by me. I learnt a lot from the 200ish students that attended my classes in that time period, and regardless of whether I recalled their names, they all left a mark on me.
Here are some of the lessons I took away:
- Not caring — I am a fairly curious individual myself, but more often than not, my questions are asked in private usually because I feel they aren’t smart or would invite ridicule. My kids were the opposite. They didn’t care. I might have rolled my eyes a few times at some absurd questions, but soon learn to admire their focus on getting an answer and nothing else
- Persistence — I did have a rule initially, where I’d only entertain doubts at the end of class and if there were too many, then in the next class. Because of this, often there’d be kids who couldn’t get their doubts cleared. I began by leaving my email ID. Boy oh boy did they make good use of this. I was inundated with mails all throughout. My lifelong habit of keeping in touch via emails credits its origins here.
Some industrious kids also got a hold of my phone number and didn’t leave me there either! While it annoyed me a bit initially, I quickly learnt to be accessible there too when I realised that the exam is to them as big a deal as it was to me
- Dedication — I did begin this activity of teaching thinking of it no more than a source of pocket money and therefore tried to limit its importance in my life. But about halfway through teaching the first batch, and then reinforced every year, I learnt that if I were not dedicated to the cause with the same veracity as the kids were, I wouldn’t be giving them my best. The earnestness with which these kids would approach classes and learning is something that I still admire and seek to instill even today
- Compassion — I was teaching while attending classes full time and writing projects and doing my extra curricular activities. Obviously that meant that I was often under stress and unfortunately, I suppose, this would show in class, typically as less fun sessions or ones where I’d sit on one of the unused desks and teach. Now, if I were on the receiving end of this, I’d think nothing of it and just leave at the end of class. But these kids were different. They’d either stay back or send me mails/messages and ask if I were okay. Some even offered to listen. The fact that they extended this sort of compassion to a random chap who they see barely once a week spoke volumes of their character
My biggest takeaway from all of this was that the money, which was my biggest motivator at the start, was actually the least important component of this journey for I lived for the update notes I got after the test results and the periodic hellos that I received as I learnt more about my kids’ law school journeys.
With each year that I taught, I’d get a bit (teeny tiny bit only) attached to the batch and at the end of the year it’d be rather bittersweet seeing them off after the CLAT. I suppose I felt a bit like a mother bird pushing her fledglings to fly and leave the nest. But of course, this is the twenty first century and I do keep in touch with these kids fairly often, in fact I’ve been lucky to forge some of the strongest bonds I have thanks to these classes I took.
I may have been standing in front of the class, conducting sessions, but in reality, the real teachers were sitting bright eyed and attentive before me.
[Special shout out to the first batch I taught — the batch of 2018 across law schools — you know who you are.]