Wednesday, August 17, 2022

To sir, with love

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Getting good teachers is a life-long gift. this book speaks about learning, education, teachers and most importantly, the student, whom everyone has forgotten

By Shobha John

Have you come across a teacher who has remained in your mind and heart forever? Who lifted you from the boring drone of a classroom lecture and transported you to exciting realms? Who opened the windows of your mind and changed the course of your thinking? Most would be hard put to remember even one such teacher. Sad, considering that teachers are the “channels through which the DNA of human civilization is transferred from one generation to the next”.

Unfortunately, Indian education is mired in mediocrity, leading to students who are Jacks of all trades and masters of none. And yet, true education is about mastery, of being a better student and an even better human being. And that is why Debashis Chatterjee’s book, Can You Teach a Zebra Some Algebra? is an important guide into what makes a good teacher and an even better society.



One of the chapters deals with teachers and says that they should be constantly learning, be vibrant and inquisitive.

While the title of the book itself is catchy and provoking, the cover achieves the same purpose with its brilliant yellow interspersed with zebra stripes. Coming from an established and renowned teacher—Professor Chatterjee taught leadership classes at Harvard University and various Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), and was director at IIM-Kozhikode—his short and pithy chapters of wisdom should be taken seriously. The book, as the preface says, “is about learning, teaching and being”. Learning continues throughout one’s life, and yet, true education is about achieving mastery. And that, says Chatterjee, should be our mission in life.
The book is dedicated to J Krishnamurti and the numerous teachers who taught Chatterjee “how to live”.

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Chattarjee at one of his class


Each chapter is thought-provoking and easy to read. One of them—Ananda is the Core of Learning—tells us that each of us has some genius, but in order to find it, one needs gurus who will impart lessons which have nothing to do with the subject, but has everything to do with the student. Chatterjee remembers the advice of one of his gurus: “Devote your life to matters of consequence,” and “Do not live too much inside your head.” It is so true—we often dissipate our energy on useless things, losing focus. And in learning things, we often forget that ananda (delight) is the core of the learning process. The book tells us that “it is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” This is inspirational, quite a “chicken soup” for the soul. Here is another gem from a chapter on A Learned Teacher…It says there is a difference between a learned man and a man of learning. “A learned man is tied to the knowledge of the past. A man of learning is curious about the present.” And teachers should be constantly learning, be vibrant and inquisitive, not put the whole class to sleep. Lessons can be learnt from illiterates too.

The book also draws a distinction between excellence and expertise. “Where expertise fails, the quest for excellence begins.” And while many of us are in the race for more qualifications and experience, how many of us train ourselves in professional excellence, which is the result of “developing a quality mind through constant awareness”? Excellence is a journey without a finish line. And Chatterjee knows all about it, considering that he has taught numerous students and trained over 11,000 principals and 15,000 managers globally in leadership. He was also awarded the Fulbright Fellowship at Harvard and has written 17 books. This writer attended one of his sessions with teachers in Delhi and found it engrossing and engaging.

Creativity can never be taught. And a good teacher would do well to help students hone this skill by giving them enough unstructured reflection time. But is our education system and the constant rat race geared for that?



The Indian education system comes in for criticism too, as it does little to nurture or kindle creativity. Creativity, the book tells us, is the art and science of bringing forth something out of nothing. Creativity comes from complete absorption in the creative process and therefore, the best managerial decisions come from complete absorption in the decision-making process. Creativity can never be taught. And a good teacher would do well to help students hone this skill by giving them enough unstructured reflection time. But is our education system and the constant rat race geared for that?



There is good advice here for teachers too. A teacher who cannot connect with learners, says Chatterjee, is boring a generation to death. Such a person “is guilty of culpable homicide. If he is not killing them, he is creating permanent learning disabilities”. And while covering the curriculum is a constant obsession with teachers, they also need to see the enchantment inside the learner. Luckily, teachers can be found everywhere. Each person can be a potential teacher. But a qualified teacher may not always be a quality teacher. Teaching, after all, is a craft, rather than a qualification. And learning to be a good teacher is like making vintage wine—it needs time and culture, he says.

But one wonders how these provocative thoughts fit into today’s Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation process. Today’s teachers are an unhappy lot, says Chatterjee, caught as they are between the government, ruthless managements, competitive co-workers and meager salaries. But then, joylessness is a learnt behavior. “Whenever we access the source of joy inside us, we get organized outward to capture it,” the book tells us sagely.

The way out is to have a life of creation, advises the book. When success includes others, the teacher will be compassionate. He tells the story of a teacher who wanted to retire as a farmhouse owner. One of his favorite students bought a farmhouse and told him he could live there as long as he was alive. So didn’t the teacher get his farmhouse eventually? We live through the success of others. Deep thoughts to ponder over.


As for the future of education, it will belong to “imagineers”, those with such spell-binding imagination that they can even merge it with sophisticated engineering. “The world of the future will be an exquisite synthesis of logic and lyric; the ascetic and the aesthetic,” the book says. Meanwhile, the reality of education is that often it is a money-making racket, quite like a real estate business, where swanky buildings, AC classrooms and swimming pools rule the roost. But Chatterjee warns: “Making money out of money without creating anything of intrinsic human value is the by-product of unconscious capitalism.”

So what is the way out? Follow Mother Teresa’s advice: “Small work with great love is the mantra of micro-excellence.” And yes, that goes even for a difficult yogic posture. “Put love into your posture.” And while most of us are takers, seers will tell you that “to give is to live. If we are only for getting, we will be forgotten by the universe”.

And therein lies the beauty of this book. Chatterjee, like a true teacher, has been giving his wisdom, his learning and his compassion to numerous people all over the world. Quite a satisfying life.

Book Review (2)


Can you teach a zebra some Algebra?

By Debashis Chattarjee

Published by Wisdom Trees

Pages: 255; Price: Rs. 245


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