Teaching has always been an area of my interest. Since learning is a lifelong process, I consider learning with students as an important way of learning. Student and professor are at different steps of the ‘ladder of knowledge’. To teach, you have to learn. Hence teaching becomes a very strong stimulus for learning. Their curious questions in the class at times bring in a new dimension and insight to the topic being taught. What I learned from my students can be grouped under four headings:
A. Being comfortable with what I do not know:
This is the most important thing I learned in my professional life and my students helped me internalize it.There is so much of knowledge; no one can claim to know everything. If someone claims he knows everything, he simply does not know what he does not know. This awareness is the first step of learning but most of us are not comfortable in accepting lack of knowledge especially, if one is teaching a class. Though all of us grow up reading many quotes such as,
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates
“I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.” Mark Twain
“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Stephen Hawking
During the initial days of my profession, I was also not comfortable publically acknowledging what I did not know or knew less than my juniors and least of all my students. I have come across many instances when they may knew more than I did. I give you one example,during discussion in one of the classes in Health Economics course, one student asked me, “How does RBI decide, how much currency to print?” I did not know the answer and acknowledged it and turned the question back to the students. I was happy that one of the students answered the question. I checked with my colleague who is Health Finance expert and confirmed that the students answer was correct. I went back to the next class and again complimented the student in the class for his knowledge and the correct answer.
B. Learning while teaching:
I taught Nutrition, Immunization and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene to undergraduate medical students. These areas became my strength during my work in UNICEF and probably played an important role in getting me a UNICEF job. When I prepare/teach a topic, I pass through the following four phases of learning:
1. Collecting facts: This phase involves collecting articles and books related to the topic, reading these and taking notes and preparing outline of what to teach. This phase starts about six months in advance.
2. Developing conceptual framework: This phase of preparation is the longest and contributes to most of my learning. One can not do this unless one has conceptual clarity oneself.
3. Preparing teaching aids including Power point: Next phase is putting together teaching aids including power point for the classes and short-listing the reading material
4. Discussion and preparing answers to the questions I could not answer in the class: The best part of teaching is the discussion with students. Many times they raise issues I had not thought about or do not know.
Below are example of two topics which I learned about from teaching/discussing with students:
1. Water, Hygiene and Sanitation: I joined as a lecturer in a medical college in Delhi and was assigned classes for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). This topic is not interesting for students, though according to WHO, proper attention to WASH can reduce human diseases by 80%. But typical reaction of an undergraduate student is, “who wants to listen about human excreta?”. I prepared for 13 classes on WASH for about six months and found extensive evidence to support my argument in support of WASH. This helped me understand why WASH interventions are more important for health than most health interventions and laid the foundation of my strong belief that health of a population can only improve if all determinants of health (most of which are outside traditional health system) need to be addressed comprehensively.
2. Health Economics: To be frank as a medical doctor, I always felt inadequate in dealing with Health Economics. During almost four decades of my work in public health, I realized that health economics is very important for a public health person to understand. I was uncomfortable when I started financial management course during MBA but by the end of the course became comfortable (and narrowly missed distinction!). Later I did an online Health Economics course from the World Bank Institute. This further vetted my appetite to learn more and I did another course from London School of Hygiene and Public Health. These courses made me confident to play an important role in a performance based financing project and initiate dialogue on elimination of user fee in Kenya. But what made me most comfortable in Health Economics was teaching a course on Health Economics. This course is usually taught by economists or finance professionals. During the four phases of my own learning (mentioned earlier) on the topic, I divided the course into five modules for teaching. I fondly remember many new things I learned from the students such as assessment of quality of service in a hospital, health insurance etc.
C. To learn new things/skills, one has to push beyond one’s level of comfort:
I strongly believe in and apply principles of adult learning in the in-service and pre-service training/teaching. While teaching Health Economics course, I divided my class into two parts. First part (about 40 minutes) would be presentations by the students and the second part would be a presentation by me. While most students enthusiastically agreed to this when I suggested this approach, many were reluctant but I insisted. I had selected 42 articles selected from peer reviewed journals and other reports. I assigned one article each to a group of three students to review and present it to the class. The discussion after each presentation was in two parts. In the first part the students critically reviewed presentation skills of each student. In the second, we discussed the technical content of the presentation. The presentation skills of students got better and better with each presentation. The technical aspects were covered so well by many students that my subsequent presentation became redundant in many classes. In addition to learning details of the health economics in the presentations and discussion, it was very satisfying that most of the awards for paper presentations were bagged by these students at an international conference that followed this course. I was happy to see that the course was also evaluated positively by the students in their feedback at the end of the course.
D. How to deal with difficult situations in life?
Listen and keep the focus on common interest while dealing with differences while negotiating. I am sharing some of the learning experiences through my students:
1. Dealing with an agitated group: One day, I was in a meeting with other faculty and heard some noise from outside the room. I received a call from the head of the institution that there was an emergency and I was needed immediately in his office. I came out of the office and saw a crowd of agitated students. I was a bit nervous to see the students in an agitated mood. But reassured myself that they are my students and they respect me and I respect them, this kept me clear headed. We requested the students to assemble in the seminar room and senior faculty will talk to them to address their grievances. In the class room, we asked students to tell us their grievances and requested one of them to note these down. Their grievances exhausted by the time they got to number 10. This exercise of listing the grievances brought order and rational thinking back among the students. The senior faculty addressed these one by one. At this point, I asked them, “Are you a part of the problem or part of the solution?” There was a pin drop silence for sometime and then whispering started that each one of them was part of the solution and certainly not a part of the problem. From then on the discussion was focussed on how we could move forward to improve the situation to benefit each one of the student. Following this we had more open discussions on a regular basis to address concerns of the students with students taking the lead.
2. Dealing with absenteeism and indiscipline in the class: My classes on Water Hygiene and Sanitation, mentioned earlier were during the last period from 4 to 5 pm. I started my first class by taking attendance but students continued to make a lot of noise to disturb the class. I announced, “ those not interested in the class can leave as I had already marked attendance”. To my disappointment three fourth (of 130 students) left but the class continued peacefully after this. Next day, before the class, a delegation of students who had walked out of the class previous evening came to see me. They told me that all the students who left the previous class wanted to attend. “Then why did you walk out after the attendance?” I asked. “Most of us live in south Delhi and the last University Special (exclusively for students) bus leaves at 5 pm and if we miss that bus, we get home very late,” they replied. “What can I do?”, I asked again. “Sir, if you finish the class by 4:45 pm, we can still catch this bus and also attend the class”, they suggested. “ I will finish my presentation in about 40 minutes and leave the last twenty minutes for discussion, and those who have to leave early can do so”, was my response. After this, my classes had near 100% attendance and all students stayed in the class even when discussion continued beyond 4:45 pm.
I sincerely thank all my students for being my ‘teachers’ and look forward to continue to learn from them in my teaching and training assignments.