PD Ouspensky approached Gurdjieff as a disciple. Gurdjieff said that at the outset one thing must be decided, decided absolutely and only then he would say a single word. He requested Ouspensky to go into the other room, and on a piece of paper there, write on it in two columns whatsoever he knew and did not know. Ouspensky was authentic. He came back after half an hour, gave a blank sheet to Gurdjieff, and said, “Now you start work. I do not know anything.”
Ustad Zakir Hussain a celebrated Indian tabla player, composer, percussionist, music producer and film actor shares, “a teacher never teaches. The student learns.” He goes on to add, “a student must inspire the teacher to teach.” His reflection set me thinking on how crucial the role of the student is in the overall learning process.
In my experience of over two decades, as CHRO, leading the people and organisation agenda, I have observed that while efforts are made (through engagement level activities) to provide a similar level field (that is, up to an extent possible) the response to it by individuals differ significantly. A Leena AI survey shared that 75% of organizations surveyed confirmed that their employees were not engaged. While all employees go through almost similar training programmes, their response to following protocols differ, as is evident from cabin crew responding to ‘incidents’ in two Air India international flights quite differently.
In my experience, and borne out by research studies, learning occurs when the teacher ‘cares’ for his student. I cannot over emphasise this point. Let me share a few personal anecdotes to illustrate this point. They steer to the power of encouragement, caring and challenge provided by a teacher.
John Mason, my principal at St. James’, Kolkata, encouraged all of us to take part in extracurricular activities. On one occasion, he strolled into our classroom and his eyes settled on me as he invited me to take part in the upcoming debate competition. I protested, saying I could never debate. “How would you know you cannot”, he countered but with a smile “unless you tried. I want to see you on the podium next week, young man” he said as he walked out. The next week I went up on the podium, my first time, and over the years many such events followed. But it was just sheer nectar, that first moment when he walked up to me after the debate, and shook my hand, my face all flushed and red with excitement.
Then there was that moment of pre-selection results announced ahead of the final board exams. He walked into our class, and started to address each student, exhorting each one to give their best performance. When my turn came, he looked at my academic progress scores, which were quite good, but his eye picked the lowest subject (no guesses, it was Hindi). “So, what do you have to say about this?” he challenged me. “I will do well”, I replied, but weakly, this time quite uncertain of myself. Then to my surprise he said, “I know you will do well. I recall the day on the track field last summer. You had red all over your foot (I had wounded myself and bloodily). You still picked yourself, ran that race, and completed it. I know you will finish this one too”. No surprise his words spurred me. I put my mind to the task, not so much for myself but for the faith he had put in me.
I finished off St James’ as a school prefect, stood second in my class in the board exams, and had a string of certificates in field and track events, soccer, as also debating, elocution and plays. I curiously wonder what made John Mason pick me that day in class? I know it could have been anyone: each of us is a seed of potential. Today, I would like to thank you sir. Your encouragement helped me, as I am sure that would be true for so many others.
There are many kinds of learners. Some who are curious intellectually and flock in front of a Master as in the case of the many followers who came to listen to Jiddu Krishnamurti. Soon the student becomes a disciple; next the disciple becomes a devotee; and finally, the devotee disappears in the master. It is crucial that a student must have the desire and motivation to learn, and the teacher will help them in their journey of learning. The student's readiness and willingness to learn is a key factor in the student-teacher relationship. Other factors matter too: Learning is best when the content is aligned to learners’ interests, values, and goals and where one is emotionally invested. Learning occurs when one is in a state of ‘flow’ (full absorption). For many, learning occurs when there is interaction with the environment, travel being one way of learning. Also, being a critical thinker aids learning.
In Sanskrit, the relationship between a student and a teacher is known as ‘guru-shishya’. The root ‘gu’ (to conceal or ignorant) and ‘ru’ (to remove or reveal), while the word shishya is derived from the root ‘shish’ (to learn). The teacher offers ‘Sneha’ which means ‘affection’ or ‘loving emotion.’ which describe feelings of love, care, and compassion and one of the key components of relationships. The student offers ‘Shraddha’ ie: ‘faith’ or ‘devotion.’ It is a deep, heartfelt belief in something or someone.
When a devotee disappears into the master, then not unlike the musical instrument and the musician, only the music (learning) happens.
(Steve Correa is an Executive Coach and OD Consultant, who has had over three decades of corporate experience. He is author of ‘The Indian Boss at Work: Thinking Global Acting Indian’)