Teaching the teachers

I had an unusual request last week — to lecture a group of about 40 secondary school teachers who were undergoing a government course at the Directorate of Technical Education in South Mumbai.

A number of professionals from different fields had spoken to them, and I was asked to speak on mass media.

I was more than apprehensive. It’s one thing lecturing teenagers, but teachers are a different ball game altogether. Their thoughts are more evolved — teenagers’ opinions are still evolving and they subconsciously know that, which makes them a lot more open to what you’re saying. (Before that remark sets off a storm of protest, let me qualify that — I don’t mean teenagers don’t think hard about things that should matter to them; it’s just that at a younger age your thoughts are more flexible.)

There was another complication. Like my last talk to a group of students and parents, the teachers by and large were not comfortable with English. They came from across Marathi, Hindi, Urdu and some English schools.

So, when I walked into the classroom last Monday (May 25, 2009), I was on tenterhooks. I became even more nervous when the entire group stood up and wished me good morning — yes, just like their students would greet them!

I spoke for about five minutes in broken Hindi and asked them if they had any questions. They had been waiting for the chance.

Most of them were very curious about how we arrived at our news decisions. Many of them admonished me — actually, journalists in general — for publishing “indecent” photographs in the feature sections. “Our students are corrupted by this,” complained one teacher. “Do you apply any standards of morality when you plan such sections,” asked another.

My response was what it has always been down the years: “How many of you’ll have ever bothered to walk into a newspaper office and voice your displeasure? Or written to the editors? A newspaper can be highly interactive, provided you take the trouble of talking to it. It’s pretty obvious, but most readers actually don’t bother.”

There was another point I made: Your opinion is not necessarily the same as everybody else’s.

Also, let’s not forget, a newspaper is an easily-supervised medium. You can simply deny your children or students access to the sections you find offensive. It’s a lot tougher to do that with the internet (parental-supervision software is as vulnerable as child-proof bottle caps).

The teachers seemed pretty satisfied with that answer and moved on to how they could guide their students on careers in the media. Apparently, a lot of students ask them this and they wanted to know everything there was to know — from the qualifications required and the starting salaries to the best mass media institutes in the country.

Many of them were furiously jotting down notes and the very strong vibe I got was that they cared deeply about their students.

The teachers came from places as far away as Raigad district. Alibaug, which is its headquarters, is over 100 km from Mumbai by road. And they had been making this journey every day for several days just so that they could be better teachers in the end.

It was humbling. I know I could never make such a commitment myself.

This July, I start teaching mass media again — at the Mumbai Educational Trust in Bandra. I know that just because I speak English better I will not make a better teacher than the ones I encountered that day. Those guys are a tough act to match.