Not all politicians make good teachers.

Children listen to the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Children listen to the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi

“Education should be imparted with a view to the type of society that we wish to build. We are working for a modern democracy built on the values of human dignity and equality. These are only ideals: we should make them living forces. Our vision for the future should include these great principles.”

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

In India, as in many other countries around the world (but not here in the UK) there is an annual “teachers’ day” during which the nation celebrates the work of teachers and their contribution to the well-being of the country. This  event is held on 5th September to coincide with the birthday of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the philosopher and statesman who became the second President of India (1962 – 1967). Having held professorial positions in both Calcutta and Oxford, Radhakrishnan believed that teachers held a unique position of influence in society that should be supported and respected, and that learning in schools should draw upon the best of Indian and western ideas. When his students suggested that they would wish to commemorate his birthday he asked that this should become a day to celebrate teachers rather than focus solely upon his own accomplishments.

In many societies today, teachers struggle to command the respect that was once commonly afforded to individuals within the profession. In many of the world’s poorer countries teachers are badly paid, have little access to training and often work with inadequate teaching resources. Whilst the nomination of a day to celebrate the profession may not address these issues, it does at least send a message to the wider public that teachers should be held in some degree of respect for the services that they provide within their communities.

This year, teachers’ day in India came with a departure from the traditional celebrations and marks of appreciation that draw attention to the work of professional colleagues. An announcement was made that on this day a speech to the children of the nation would be given by the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi, and that teachers, students and others in education should switch on their radios or televisions to hear what he had to say. Schools duly obliged and in some instances made elaborate arrangements to ensure that the Prime Minister’s address could be heard.

In a wide ranging speech, Mr Modi considered issues that included the learning to be gained from reading biographies, the provision of improved toilet facilities in schools, the responsibilities of doctors and engineers to engage with schools and the need for students to participate in physical exercise. Little of what he said was controversial, though he did seem to dwell rather on how challenging his own work was and made very few references to the dedication and professionalism of teachers.

The speech given by Prime Minister Modi, being somewhat bland in nature did not in itself provoke much debate. However, the very fact that he appeared to some listeners to hijack teachers’ day for political purposes has raised a number of hackles. In particular there were some strong feelings expressed about the fact that by drawing attention to himself, the Prime Minister diluted the purpose of the day which should have been focused upon teachers.

The speech itself was not delivered without some difficulties. A particular issue for some teachers and children was the fact that Mr Modi spoke in Hindi and sought some assistance from translators, but was unable to communicate effectively with many students, particularly those in Government Schools working in local languages. In some parts of the country technical difficulties meant that the broadcast was not easily accessed with large areas of Rajasthan and Kerala unable to hear Mr Modi’s words.

During his speech Mr Modi paid tribute to Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, stating that the late President still remains an inspiration for the entire country. This is undoubtedly true and I often hear teachers and academics in India referring to  Radhakrishnan in reverential tones. His achievements and his commitment to education remain as a fine example of his professional focus as a politician, philosopher, statesman, and of course as a teacher. I suspect that had it been Dr Radhakrishnan addressing schools his words may have been greeted in a manner completely different from those of Mr Modi.

Whilst the actions of statesmen such as Narendra Modi are often undertaken with good intentions, they can lead to a variety of interpretations in respect of motivation and purpose. As an outsider it is not for me to pass judgement and say whether this was a triumph or an ill-conceived idea. However, I do hope that in all the brouhaha that has surrounded the Prime Minister’s actions the dedication and critical role played by teachers in ensuring that children receive the education they need is not overlooked. I for one, look forward to my forthcoming visit to Bangalore as an opportunity to celebrate the work of my teacher colleagues and to learn both from and with them in the coming weeks and years. I do hope that our British Prime Minister does not attempt to emulate the initiative of Mr Modi!

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. The instigator of Teachers' Day in India.

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. The instigator of Teachers’ Day in India.