Thirty one outstanding teachers were invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan for a first-ever in-residence programme. Rashme Sehgal reports for Rediff.com
In an effort to lend a more interactive and democratic character to Rashtrapati Bhavan, President Pranab Mukherjee invited 31 outstanding university-level teachers for a first-ever 'in-residence programme' in New Delhi.
The teachers came and spent a week at the President's Estate.
These teachers, given the nomenclature of 'Inspired Teachers' were provided an opportunity to meet senior government officials, Human Resource Minister Smriti Irani, the vice chairman of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI-Aayog), the chairman, Securities and Exchange Board of India and the chairperson of the University Grants Commission.
The highlight of the stay was an invitation to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the Central Vigilance Commissioner and Chief Information Commissioner, followed by an elaborate banquet (in honour of the CVC and CIC), where under glittering chandeliers, sparkling cutlery against the backdrop of the Mughal Gardens, the teachers had a chance to see Rashtrapati Bhavan at its best.
The teachers, nominated by their respective universities, were overwhelmed by their experience in getting a chance to interact with the movers and shakers of India, made more memorable by the fact that the President's staff left no stone unturned to ensure their stay was a memorable one.
Marine biologist Felix Bast from the Central University of Punjab described his delight at finding a concierge waiting for him at the New Delhi railway station and how he was driven to the Presidential estate in a Toyota Land Cruiser.
"What I found amazing was that even before we had arrived, invitations for official functions had been sent to us. I have stayed in luxury hotels, but was never prepared for Rashtrapati Bhavan," he said.
"I would give this place 100 stars," Dr Bast said.
Environmentalist Palatty Sinu from the Central University of Kerala praised the President's initiative as it would motivate more talented young people to enter the teaching profession.
"At present, the bottom of the class chooses to become teachers," Sinu said. "This programme will motivate more young people to come to teaching. We need to get the brightest and the best."
Sinu helps edit Puthumazha, a nature magazine for Kerala University. The magazine helps to focus on saving India's ecology and forests by getting both students and faculty to contribute to it.
The in-residence programme had a special significance for Bilal Ahmad Ganai from the University of Kashmir, primarily because the people of his state continue to suffer from a sense of being excluded from the Indian mainstream.
Ganai, a teacher of political science, felt it was important to spread a scientific discourse in the country across all subjects in order that the public develop a scientific and rational temperament.
Professor Aurelius Kyrham Nongkynrih, who teaches sociology at the North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, said by opening up Rashtrapati Bhavan to people from all sections of society, President Mukherjee had taken an important initiative to demystify his palace.
"I was very impressed with the care being taken for elders and the young children including kids with special needs at Rashtrapati Bhavan," Professor Nongkynrih said.
He also expressed admiration at the different green initiatives being taken within the Presidential estate including rain water harvesting and the use of solar technology.
Interacting with the teachers, the President drove hard the point that an inspired teacher was one who was value-oriented, mission-driven, self-motivated and result-oriented, determined as he was to impact the environment in a positive manner through his own actions as well as by imparting knowledge among students in order that they achieve their potential.
An inspired teacher had the ability to link the individual goals of students to the societal and national goals, the President said, quoting Greek novelist and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis who had said, 'True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.'
The President also spoke about the need to accord greater dignity and recognition to quality teachers. 'It was essential that such inspired teachers be recognised so that they have motivation and drive,' he said.
The President believed that a major challenge facing the nation was the need to improve the quality of teaching and learning in India's higher academic institutions.
'Without upgrading the skill and knowledge quotient of a vast majority of the teachers, it would not be possible to improve standards of education in our country. India today needs many more competent teachers willing to dedicate themselves to improving the quality of education,' he said.
'If we look into our past, we were leaders of higher education and could find seats of higher learning such as Nalanda, Takshashila, Vikramashila, Valabhi, Somapura and Odantapuri which dominated the world for a long period of time. However today, we lose meritorious Indian students who go abroad to pursue higher studies,' the President added.
'Nobel Laureates such as Har Gobind Khorana, Subrahmanyam Chandrasekhar and Dr Amartya Sen did their graduate or post-graduate studies in Indian universities but went abroad for higher learning. We are capable of producing world-class scholars but lose them to foreign universities. We need to change this position through our collective efforts,' he declared.
While providing their feedback, many teachers felt that higher education needed to become more focussed. There was a need to align syllabi with the needs of society and the economy. Education also needed to become more focused on issues dealing with present day living.
The teachers also had a special interaction with matinee idol Amitabh Bachchan when he came to Rashtrapati Bhavan for a special screening of Piku and classical singer Parveen Sultana who performed there.
Summing up the feelings of all 31 teachers, Imtiaz Hasnain, a professor of linguistics from Aligarh Muslim University said that meetings with bankers and corporates added an entirely new dimension to his stay.
"I was aware of the government schemes for minorities, but I did not know about the schemes from private banks. This was an eye-opener. Also meetings with IBM, FICCI and ASSOCHAM officials provided me with an idea about the kind of work being done which I can go back and share with my colleagues in Aligarh, he said.
Arbind Kumar Jha of the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Wardha, spoke about how he had helped create a pedagogic model of education in a community set up to be used by his students who worked at sevagrams and villages located around that area.
The most interesting perspective was provided by Dr Tiatoshi Jamir of Nagaland University who maintained that a programme like this would help the process of integration especially for people living in the North-Eastern states.
Dr Jamir, an archaeologist, is involved with the key process of the 'decolonisation of historical knowledge with new empirical evidences showing that there have been waves of migration in the North-East region from both west to east as was popularly believed but also and from eastern regions to the west.'
The inspired teachers were unanimous in maintaining that their stay had proved a once-in-a-life time experience. It had left them more empowered and motivated to excel in their role as teachers.
The in-residence programme for inspired teachers was announced by the President at the annual conference of vice-chancellors of central universities on February 5.
Similar programmes already exist for writers, artists, grassroot innovators and NIT students.
Image: President Pranab Mukherjee interacts with the Inspired Teachers' at Rashtrapati Bhavan.