The Layers of Teaching

Random uncle: So, now that you have completed your degree, where are you going to work?
Me: I'm joining the Teach For India fellowship in Pune. I'll be teaching a set of children studying in low-income schools for two years.
Random aunt (joining in the conversation with an expression that simultaneously showed consternation and condescension): Teach? Why? Did your campus placements not go well?
Me: No, aunty. It's not like that. I want to teach and work with children.
Random uncle (struggling to digest this):  Why did you work so hard all these years just to become a teacher? Your parents didn't spend on your education for you to do this!

Back in 2013, conversations that resembled this one were quite the norm. Once I decided to explore teaching and the education sector as a serious career option, I was met with looks of sympathy tinged with the implicit assumption that I had settled for something 'less' due to my inability to secure a 'better' job. While I could understand their confusion regarding me switching to education from engineering, what irked me were the patronising looks and words that conveyed what they felt about teachers and, more broadly, the lack of respect that they held for teaching as a profession. In this essay, I will peel back some of the layers and complexity involved in teaching with the firm belief that teachers and teaching deserve respect. The aspects covered here are by no means exhaustive as I do not think the gamut of what goes into teaching can be done justice to in a single piece of writing.


I acknowledge that my relatives (grandparents, uncles/aunts and parents) and, to an extent, even I went to school at a time when the traditional view of education was the dominant narrative. Education consisted of transmitting static information/skills that had been established by prior generations to the next generation (Dewey, 1958). This is in contrast with the progressive view that is starting to arise from discontent with traditional systems and encourages thinking and learning through activities with a view that children should be productive and equipped for a dynamic world. This gradual paradigm shift in the way education is imparted has significantly changed the roles and responsibilities of the teacher. I have experienced this first-hand when contrasting my experiences in school as a student with those I had as a teacher.

As a student at school, my classes consisted of teachers explaining the main points pertaining to the lesson/concept from the textbook. Notes were dictated (or written on the blackboard) and I copied them into my notebooks/workbooks. Laboratory classes in physics, chemistry, biology and computer science were a break from the classroom routine and spaces where I got to see what I was learning come to life in a tangible way. My teachers were expected to stick to the textbook and evaluation was  primarily through end-term written examinations. Technology was non-existent in the classroom and restricted to the work we did in the computer laboratory (programming in Java).

Fast forward a decade or so and the attention being given to educating the 350+ million children in India is rapidly increasing. Curriculum is continuously evolving, textbooks are being updated, pedagogy is getting enhanced, technology is slowly being integrated into classrooms, modes of evaluating student learning are diversifying - all these place demands on the shoulders of teachers and schools. Teaching is not simply a matter of standing in front of a class followed by correcting notebooks and tests. A teacher wears many hats over the course of a school year and carries out as many, if not more, responsibilities as people in conventionally respected professions such as medicine, engineering and law.

Teaching as a profession

A profession is a field that has specialised knowledge bases and shared standards of practice that are adopted by its members (Johnson, 2005). Historically, teaching was seen as an itinerant profession with a high turnover rate and few considered it to have a specialised body of knowledge. However, this view is changing with the realisation of the role played by pedagogy and the importance of the teacher having strong content knowledge in the learning process. The subjective nature of what 'good teaching' is and the wide range of contexts in which teaching takes place has made coming to an agreement about shared standards of practice difficult. This, coupled with low autonomy for teachers (who are paid with taxpayer money in public school systems) and a flat career structure with less formal opportunities for growth, has contributed to a devaluation of the profession (Johnson, 2005)

In the chapter Beyond Rationalization: Inverting the Pyramid, Remaking the Educational Sector, Dr. Mehta writes about two types of strategies used to solve problems: control-oriented strategies and commitment-oriented strategies. Control-oriented strategies are adopted when work is routine and is based in bureaucracy; commitment-oriented strategies are used when work is complex and needs skills/discretion and is based in autonomy (Mehta, 2013). He goes on to say that, in education, there is a tendency to try to solve professional problems of practices by bureaucratic means. A separation of knowledge creation, policy formulation and on-ground implementation exacerbates the problem of low autonomy with teachers not being actively involved in resolving issues that they encounter on a daily basis. They perceive that policies and directives are issued 'to' them rather than carried out 'with' them and this affects how teachers view their role in the big picture of education.

So, what have some of the high performing educational systems in the world done to ensure that teaching is a well-regarded profession? They have replaced bureaucratic administrative systems with professional norms that respect teachers and give them accountability (Schleicher, 2012). In an article published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), systems and practices adopted by Singapore and Finland (among others) were highlighted. For instance, in Singapore, recruitment of teachers is from the top third of the college class with competitive salary packages. Teachers are provided with pre-service training and in-service professional development and annual performance appraisals that drive growth. The option of three different career paths (master teacher, curriculum specialist and school leader) allows teachers to specialise while deepening their expertise in an area of interest (Schleicher, 2012). School-community linkages were a focus that further enhanced the public perception of teaching. On similar lines, teaching in Finland holds a high status and is a much sought after career path. Entry into the profession is through a rigorous process with the number of applicants far exceeding the number of positions available. Accountability starts from the bottom-up and teachers are given autonomy in practice.

The layers of teaching

During my first few months in the classroom, I focused on understanding how to plan and execute a lesson while not losing control of my easily-distracted-sometimes-violent fourth grade students! Often, I felt that I was learning much more about teaching than my kids were learning about their subjects. At graduate school, I read an article on how one could determine the quality of teaching. The authors wrote about two senses of teaching - the task sense and the achievement sense (Fenstermacher and Richardson, 2005). The task sense of teaching was where the teacher made a sincere effort to bring about student learning - this was equivalent to 'good teaching'. The achievement sense of teaching had students effectively learning what the teacher was teaching - this was equivalent to 'successful teaching'. The combination of good teaching and successful teaching is what leads to high quality teaching.

It would be convenient and incorrect to solely link high quality teaching with students' grasp of academic content and their test scores. There are three core dimensions to high quality teaching (Fenstermacher and Richardson, 2005):

  • logical acts (such as defining, demonstrating, explaining etc.)
  • psychological acts (such as motivating, encouraging, rewarding etc.)
  • moral acts (fostering honesty, courage, tolerance, compassion, respect etc.)

Balancing these three acts in classrooms with young children is key to their holistic development. In all honesty, it was easy for me to fall into the trap of engaging in predominantly logical acts with vast amounts of content to teach and children multiple grade levels behind where they needed to be. It took conscious effort and deliberate planning from my side to try to integrate the other two acts into my teaching. Let me illustrate this point with concrete examples from my classroom.

At the beginning of my second year, my students and I came up with four words/values that we believed were integral to our classroom culture. They were Respect, Honesty, Non-Violence and Choice. As our classroom was divided into 4 rows of about 10 students each, these words became our team names to make them continuously visible (through charts) and audible (through references) to my children. Thereafter, if a child was caught copying or cheating on a test, I encouraged him/her to question whether he/she was showing 'honesty'. Or, if two or more children chose to resolve differences by physically fighting and/or verbally abusing, were they exhibiting 'non-violence'? If they littered their class or the school field, were they 'respecting' their surroundings? I brought these words and made them a part of our classroom conversation on a daily basis - these were conscious moral acts from my side that were important to developing character and values in my children. I encouraged them to write about how they demonstrated (or failed to demonstrate) these values in their reflection journals (for more on our reflection journals, check out this post). These values were also stressed upon during classroom activities that involved teamwork and peer interactions. To embody the concept of 'choice', a lot of our classroom activities were decided through voting - for instance, our weekly Saturday activities were chosen from a list that included puzzles, origami, show and tell, movies (among others) based on anonymous student votes. These essence of this was to have my children see that they had a choice about what they wanted to do with some of their time at school. Having been used to teachers making decisions and dictating how the day would look, this structure was novel in that it empowered them to take ownership of their learning.

With two of my three extra class batches (you can read more about my extra classes here), we worked on reading a lengthy novel over the school year. I purchased these novels using the class funds I had raised and my children wrote their names in pencil on the front page of the book. I stored them in our classroom cupboard during the school year and brought them out for the extra classes. At the end of the year, we had a small celebration in the extra class where I called each child up to the front and had them write their name in pen that signified complete ownership of a book they had earned through their hard work and regularity with extra classes. This was a psychological act from my side to both motivate my children to continue reading and reward them for a job well done! The joy and pride on their faces was truly heartwarming!

We also had a 'Wall of Champions' chart in the class which I updated each week with achievements such as 'English Champion', "Math Master', 'Best Partners' etc. A passport size photograph of the child was pasted onto the chart to make the achievement tangible and visible to everyone. This was a  planned psychological act to recognise exemplary work - both academic and behavioural.

Besides these actions inside the classroom, a teacher is very likely to play the following roles:
  • A mentor or adult who children can trust and come to for advice on academics, school and life. At my second school, our teaching team decided against having designated class teachers for the four classrooms. Instead, each teacher was a mentor to 16-18 students across grades 8 and 9. We had a weekly slot in the timetable where we conducted sessions with students of our mentorship group on issues such as bullying, compassion, relationships etc. During distribution of report cards, students had to come with their parents, collect their report cards and discuss their performance with their mentors. If a child was frequently absent or falling behind academically, it was the duty of the mentor to either call the parents or visit the home of the child to resolve the problem. Students trusted their mentors and confided in them regarding their troubles and confusions about matters ranging from academics to love.
  • An efficient organiser. The teachers are responsible for coordinating events such as the annual day, sports day, school picnics and Christmas and Diwali parties. Besides that, special assemblies for Independence Day, Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti (all national holidays and important days in India) were planned by teachers who worked with their students on songs, dances and dramas. Taking attendance, maintaining registers, filling out mark-sheets and report cards, writing summative remarks about each child - while routine, these tasks have to be done regularly and meticulously so that there are accurate records of each child.
  • A role model. Some of my students had fathers who came home frequently drunk and resorted to domestic violence in their stupor. Their communities had a history of gangs and fights so the older children (especially the boys) used to negatively influence my kids (you can read more about such influences in my post on Karan). In such an environment, students need to be able to look up to their teachers as adults whose behaviour and character are worth emulating. Thus, a teacher needs to conduct himself/herself with care as there are numerous pairs of eyes consciously (and sub-consciously) taking in his/her every word, action, facial expression and body language cue.
Some conditions that influence teaching

Teachers do not work in a vacuum. The school that a teacher works in, the classroom and children that he/she is assigned, the community in which the school is set, the kind of colleagues and leadership at the school - these play key roles in shaping a teacher's effectiveness and, consequently, student learning outcomes. There tends to be a general overestimation of the influence of personal characteristics and an underestimation of the influence of the situation on teacher behaviour (Kennedy, 2010). What this means is that a combination of teacher characteristics and situational factors is what actually determines teaching practices that lead to effective (or ineffective) student learning. Furthermore, situational elements that have proven to be very relevant to teachers’ effectiveness are planning time, curricular materials and extra-curricular demands and responsibilities (Kennedy, 2010).

From my experiences, planning time and extra-curricular demands are closely linked. If additional responsibilities are placed on a teacher's shoulders, he/she may begin to feel bitterly towards the school. I observed this by listening to the conversations that staff members at my schools had with one another; their focus and energy was diverted from lessons as they worried about meeting deadlines for the new work that had unexpectedly cropped up. Lesson planning and classes also tended to take a back seat when events such as sports day, annual day and the special assemblies (mentioned earlier) were around the corner.

Social conditions in the school are another set of factors that strongly influence teacher satisfaction which in turn is directly correlated to student learning outcomes (Johnson, Kraft and Papay, 2012). These social conditions can be broadly classified into three categories - relationships with colleagues, support of the school leader (or principal) and school culture.

Teaching comes with its share of challenges and uncertainties. Without strong relationships with fellow staff members, a teacher could gradually lose the joy that comes with being a part of a close-knit school community. Having strong relationships with teachers at school allows one to learn from their experiences and openly listen to their viewpoints. It makes planning and running school activities together a pleasure rather than an ordeal. On some of my most trying days as a teacher in my first year, it was reassuring to have my co-teacher to talk to. At my second school, I had a wonderfully supportive team that admirably dealt with the struggles that came our way which made the difference while navigating the troughs that are a part of the school year wave.

As a novice teacher, you depend on senior teachers and your school leader for advice and guidance. When I joined the Teach For India fellowship, I was placed in a school where the principal had been leading the school for over 12 years and had been a teacher for more than 25 years. I made it clear to her that I had a lot to learn and was willing to put in the hard yards to succeed in my class and the school. I worked to build a strong rapport with her and helped her out with administrative, logisitical and technical issues. that arose from time to time This was critical to my earning her trust and her giving me permission for the various activities, field trips and extra class sessions that I carried out with my children during the second year of my fellowship. As our professional relationship strengthened, I got to know her better personally and have made it a point to meet and spend time with her whenever I get the chance to visit Pune. Her support gave me the leeway to experiment and learn from my mistakes in the classroom.

Lastly, school culture - an intangible, almost magical, feature intrinsic to any school. Building a positive school culture and environment can be consciously worked towards by the school leader and teaching team. School team meetings that emphasise honesty and an open sharing of positives and negatives can create a school that teachers want to be a part of. Teachers observing their colleagues' classrooms and giving feedback on the lesson is another way to foster a healthy attitude towards growth and improvement. Informal meals and outings to a movie or park can build personal bonds among the staff. Some parts of school culture are also shaped by circumstances - for instance, something as innocuous as the length of the school day can influence school culture! A longer school day might indirectly convey to children and their parents that the school places a lot of importance on instructional time and also indicate to teachers that they would need to put in more effort.

Other factors that affect teachers and teaching are community and parental support, facilities and infrastructure at school, resources and time (Johnson, Kraft and Papay, 2012). One could write an essay on each of these points so I will not explore them in more detail here!


I conclude this essay with a Zen Pencils comic based on the poem "What Teachers Make" by Taylor Mali. One of my flatmates, also a Teach For India fellow, had this comic strip up on the wall of his room during the fellowship and the words in it have stuck with me to this day.

Teaching isn't that straightforward, is it?


Dewey, J. (1958). Chapter 1: Traditional vs. progressive education. In Experience and Education, pp. 1-11. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Fenstermacher, G.D. & Richardson, V. (2005). On making determinations of quality in teaching. Teachers College Record, 107(1), pp. 186-213.

Johnson, S. M. (2005). The prospects for teaching as a profession. In The Social Organization of Schooling, pp. 72-90. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Johnson, S.M., Kraft, M.A. & Papay, J.P. (2012) How context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers’ working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students’ achievement. Teachers College Record, 114, pp. 1-39.

Kennedy, M. M. (2010). Attribution error and the quest for teaching quality. Educational Researcher, 39(8), pp. 591-598.

Mehta, J. (2013). Chapter 10. In The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations, and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling, pp. 269-294. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schleicher, A. (2012), Ed. Making Teaching an Attractive Option. In Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century: Lessons from Around the World., pp. 58-62. OECD Publishing.

~ ~ ~

I read the articles quoted in this essay as part of the course EDU A123 Teacher and Teaching Quality at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course examined literature on teacher and teaching quality, their definitions of quality and their respective proposals for improvement to positively impact student learning outcomes.


  1. I think almost every teacher would relate to this essay on a certain level. I would like to see more on the evolution of education (formal schooling) from grandparents' era to now and ahead.

    'The achievement sense of teaching had students effectively learning what the teacher was teaching'- do you think anyone except for the teacher itself can gauge this?

    1. Regarding the achievement sense of teaching, I think that the teacher is the main judge of whether students are effectively learning inside the classroom or not. For instance, there were some lessons that I knew did not go well even before I took a test to gauge my students' learning. On some occasions, I was not sure whether my kids had understood the material and performance tasks were helpful in seeing where my kids and I stood. There were also a few wonderful times where I knew the lesson went well and it reflected in my kids' work too! Since teaching is nuanced and there are thousands of subtle interactions that take place among students and between students and the teacher, I think it requires a person to be present and involved in the class to know about the process of learning. Summative assessments conducted for a large number of students (the case in India) tend to gauge the product of student learning and might not be effective in seeing where breakdowns in learning happened.

      So, I think the teacher is the best judge of student learning and well-designed assessments, both formative and summative, can give both the teacher and his/her students invaluable insights into the process and product of student learning.

  2. I called each child up to the front and had them write their name in pen that signified complete ownership of a book they had earned through their hard work and regularity with extra classes. I was crying in Gutman reading this line. Good job, Shreyas!

  3. There tends to be a general overestimation of the influence of personal characteristics and an underestimation of the influence of the situation on teacher behaviour (Kennedy, 2010)

    I would like to know the definitions and examples of the two influences:)

    1. Personal characteristics of teachers include, but are not limited to - their mannerisms (are they caring? are they efficient? are they engaging?), their credentials and qualifications, their test scores on licensure examinations, their skill sets and their core values. These tend to be within the locus of control of the teacher.

      Situational characteristics include, again not limited to - resources and available school infrastructure, planning time, the teacher's daily schedule, the community that the school is set in and where the children come from (in government/public school systems).

      The article by Kennedy contends that both personal and situational characteristics play a role in determining the quality of teaching practices which in turn impacts student learning outcomes.

  4. OMGsh, I love the comic in the end!!! I will print one for myself in my new apartment! Sorry I talk too much:)

  5. I must commend you on choosing to write on this topic. This is one that is dear to me too and I loved reading it. It just makes me think of how, contrary to popular opinion, teaching involves so much more effort, patience and courage.

    1. Thank you so much! I am glad that it resonated with you. :-)


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