A Current Perspective On Teacher-Student Relationship

An advertisement for 'Raymond Suiting – The Complete Man' – once highlighted the transformational role of a teacher in the lives of his students. A true teacher looks at students as living beings with the right to be curious, bold, enquiring, and values-based.

Sarvepalli Radhkarishnan, India’s second President and a celebrated educationist, believed firmly that a teacher should be a seeker of knowledge and wisdom, a guide and philosopher, a pursuer of peace, love, cooperation, brotherhood and secular culture. A teacher, in order to be truly impactful with his students, must be able to fuse the wisdom of the East with the scientific temper of the West and be eclectic with differing viewpoints. That thought continues to resonate as we rediscover our age-old traditions and merge it with the technological prowess of the world at large to design and deliver world-beating curriculum to our students who have gone onto becoming global corporate leaders.

A ‘student’ is ideally a seeker of knowledge, skills, usefulness to society, and the ability to contribute meaningfully to community, nation and the larger cause of humanity. As an inquirer, a student often was in a symbiotic and synergistic relationship with the teacher or ‘guru’ as the latter was the source of all knowledge, skills and wisdom. The relationship was largely shaped by distance, power, respect and worship. Today, with the advent of freely accessible information, students have begun to move away from the earlier paradigm of dependency on the teacher. When the availability of information has become democratized, and the teacher is no longer the sole locus of expertise, the student-teacher relationship will, but naturally, become tenuous.  

The teacher-student relationship has undergone several changes at all levels of education. From being highly respected and afforded a god-like status, to a disseminator of knowledge and now finally to being a facilitator of learning. The current perspective of the teacher-student relationship emphasizes the need for the teacher to be more learning-centric rather than teaching-focused. In other words, the relationship is now skewed toward ensuring student convenience. As a result, the relationship is becoming a tad transactional in nature. 

In the pre-pandemic world physical proximity allowed familiarity, bonding, debates, discussions, and deliberations between teacher and students. In the pandemic ecosystem, these personal and informal touchpoints have been weakened by the digital medium. There has been a lack of personal connection with students in the pandemic years. And this has affected the relationship with students (and vice versa) which plays out in the form of a sense of detachment. The teacher-student relationship is under strain currently.

Students are grappling with a new medium. Anxieties are many, frustrations are plenty. The onus for learning has dissipated as students find attending classes optional and writing non-proctored online examinations a walk in the park. And there is no teacher to go to in case one wants to confide in or confabulate with. Teachers and teaching institutions will have to work out avenues for ongoing conversations to prevent a sense of alienation deepening across the educational landscape.      

Teachers find their efforts to deliver responsibility teaching falling short of stated objectives. Though institutions in which teachers teach profess professionalism, integrity and merit as their guiding values, the teacher-student relationship today is often vitiated by real-life experiences which exhibit the contrary. The actual ‘hidden curriculum’ often weakens the objectives of responsibility learning which then go on to undermine the respect and faith that one hopes to see in a teacher-student relationship. This chasm could be widening as the personal contact between teachers and students is disappearing in a digital world. There seem to be fewer anchors left for students who face a multitude of challenges in the intellectual, moral and emotional planes.

One of the bulwarks of teacher-student relationships is the opportunity to mentor and coach students. In the current situation where students have not met their teachers in a physical sense for more than a year, mentoring and coaching seem difficult. Most teachers would be unable to recognize their students in the real world. Both teachers and students are struggling. The relationship, therefore, has suffered some damage.

However, there are silver linings in this scenario. The reach of teaching has expanded. Students who would have found it impossible to join a particular course or program due to geographical barriers or supply-side issues have found a saviour in the digital space. Costs are also likely to come down in the future. Students can choose which teachers to learn from. Academic relationships might become increasingly driven by choice, not compulsion. Attendance too might become irrelevant as students access recorded sessions whenever convenient. As relationships are built through engagement, teachers will have to work harder at it as the paradigm shifts from high contact to very low contact.   

Paul Lockhart rightly stated, “Teaching is not about information. It’s about having an honest intellectual relationship with your students”. At the moment that may have become a bit diluted because even if the teacher tries to be honest intellectually, students may not respond in a similar fashion given the pandemic stress and the comfort of digital anonymity.

As educationists the world over aim to redefine their relationship with students, a new normal will be achieved eventually. The highlights of that new normal seem to be the development of new skill sets in the cognitive, interpersonal, digital and leadership domains, according to a recent McKinsey study. Of the 56 skills identified for students in the new world, 14 are focused on relationship building and includes ‘fostering inclusiveness’, ‘collaboration’, ‘empathy’ and inspiring trust’. Both teachers and students would have to find ways to hone these in the new, unfamiliar and virtual pandemic world.       

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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