Last weekend, when ten of my classmates from our 1977 batch of De Nobili School in Dhanbad gathered to talk about old times, we decided to invite our chemistry teacher, PT Joseph, to join us. But it wasn’t atomic weights or molecules we spoke about with him. Rather, we recalled the social realities he had exposed us to, especially a trip to the leprosy colony near our school.

My favourite teacher in school was Joseph Thomas, thanks to whom the marvels of nature and the changing maps of the world still enthral me. I recall a sixth standard class in which he mimicked the snake in Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi, declaring with a wave of his hand, “If you move, I strike; and if you do not move I strike.” When in the 11th standard, CJ Joseph created vivid images of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, we could feel the agony of Macbeth when he announced, “I have done the deed.”

Long after I’ve left class, I’ve realised that my fondness for my teachers (and the school) has grown as I have encountered life and discovered how the lessons I’d been taught related to my everyday experience. My love for literature, history and geography expanded with time, as also the respect for teachers who kindled the spark.

Mihir Chakraborty, in the fifth standard, taught us the geography of Bihar, with original content because no textbook existed. We learnt to draw the map of Bihar, a skill completely irrelevant now as the map of the state changed when Jharkhand was carved out of it. But larger lessons endured. I learnt that just as Chakraborty
created a Bihar curriculum when one didn’t exist, we must overcome constraints
to create our own rules when necessary. We also realised that before going global, we must learn about our state.

When I joined Masters in Computer Science at IIT Kanpur in 1984, I was fortunate to meet Professor Gautam Barua. His decision to expose us to Unix kernel source code shaped many a career. UNIX was the operating system developed at Bell Labs, which chose to licence the source code, and some early versions were available free. Most of the world’s popular operating systems that followed were variants of or inspired by UNIX. The foundation Barua laid down thus gave us a headstart in our careers at a time UNIX kernel expertise was rare.

More difficult to assimilate was his work ethic. He worked at the lab till 2 in the morning, and returned to class at 8 next morning with undiminished energy – we had no excuse to skip the early morning lecture. Even as we worked, we had a fun time at the lab. He was friendly and humorous, yet always focused.

Looking back, I realise my most inspiring teachers shared some common traits: irrational optimism, an obsessive spirit of service and a resilience to scepticism.

CJ Joseph (centre) with the writer of this piece and another student.

A decade ago, I had an opportunity to spend a day with Sunil Gavaskar. I suggested he should coach the Indian team. He flatly disagreed. “I cannot be a good coach,” he said.

The cricket legend explained: “I am not an observer of the game. A good coach is a keen observer of the game.” Gavaskar said that when he had made those long tours of the West Indies, he’d carry a suitcase full of books. After he got out, he’d read a book instead of watching the match.

While he said he is not a good coach, he taught me a good lesson about teaching: the need to observe.

On Teacher’s Day, I hope that many people – young, old, and in between – are inspired to be teachers: to create purpose, inspire values, build inner peace and technical strengths. And as they do so, to demonstrate caring for their students, the way my best teachers did.

Kalyan Banerjee worked at Wipro and Mindtree. He is now dedicated to education, primarily with under-served segments, with non-mainstream methods.