Many teachers, particularly in cities, are present at an academic institution only during the time of their classes, and work at several other institutions. In this process, they spend considerable time commuting on motorcycles. Thus the phrase ‘helmet teachers’ (wearing a helmet is mandatory in Nepal) is commonly used to refer to teachers who teach part-time at several institutions.
Many of us have encountered such ‘helmet-teachers’ who are all unique in their own way, largely in terms of their orientation to teaching and learning. We have also heard diverse opinions about these helmet teachers, ranging from ‘they are money minded individuals’ to ‘they are the soul of higher education’. Sushil Kumar Pant in “Innovations in Nepali College Classrooms: The Experiences of a Helmet Teacher” captures these sentiments by arguing that the phrase ‘Helmet Teacher’ is often associated with teachers who are not committed to their profession. He also draws attention to several innovative classroom practices of these helmet teachers including case studies, internships, project and thesis work, seminars, audio-visual aids, article reviews, and reflection journals in teaching-learning engagement.
Helmet teaching results from the way our education system is organized. Underlying the phenomenon is the belief that teaching and learning can be accomplished in a 45 to 60-minute classroom where the instructor is the purveyor of some curriculum based knowledge and students the passive recipients of that knowledge. Although some helmet teachers might be innovative, as Pant suggests, helmet teaching hardly supports important aspects of teaching-learning, like building a strong teacher-student relationship, encouraging active learning, giving prompt and adequate feedback and accommodating and respecting diverse ways of learning.
An economic lens offers a clearer view of the phenomenon. Most teachers in Nepal are paid based on the time they spend in classrooms (or the number of classes they take, or the number of courses completed). As the pay at most educational institutions is minimal, teachers can make only so much income from one institution. So they need to work at several institutions.
Economic benefits being their key incentive, helmet teachers want to maximize their income by scheduling classes at two institutions with little time in between. Considering the traffic situation in Nepali cities, particularly Kathmandu, the commute time is unpredictable. Many times the teachers arrive late in the classroom, and at other times they cannot come at all. Retrospectively, as teaching-learning in Nepal is largely limited to the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, this process is severely impacted when the teacher or the knowledge provider is absent.
The economic struggles of teachers are not limited to Nepal though. In many parts of the world, teaching is not a lucrative job. For examples, in the US teachers take a second or even a third job to make ends meet, a phenomenon called ‘moonlighting’. Both ‘helmet teaching’ and ‘moonlighting’ illuminate the need to provide teachers with a decent income.
We see helmet teaching as an important issue that calls for immediate attention because of its cyclical nature and manifold impacts. At the micro level, the most prominent and immediate impact of helmet teaching is that it deprives students of engaged, holistic learning and limits them to simply meeting curricular requirements. At the meso level, these teachers are part of or lead academic institutions and run the risk of transferring the same values to their students, making it an inter-generational problem. And at the macro level, helmet teaching even impacts educational policies.
We understand educational policies as a product of the experiences of educators and concurrent discussions on education. In an education system that values helmet teaching and undervalues holistic learning, educational policies are unlikely to transcend this limited understanding.
Educational institutions should take the lead in establishing the value of the teaching and learning process. They are the ones that should expand teaching-learning from the confinements of the syllabus and incorporate its other values like research and skill-development. Students too can contribute to changing the teaching-learning culture by being active participants in the process, not relying completely on teachers, and going beyond the syllabus and examination scores to incorporate career goals and life skills.
If the majority of teachers practice teaching-learning engagement as adding value to life’s purposes, and academic institutions strive to prepare students for life by facilitating skill development—rather than preparing them for exams and decent grades and educational policies can be made context-specific and holistic, helmet teaching would be an obsolete phenomenon.
Dahal is a PhD scholar in Social Work at Boston College, the US. Dhamala is an Assistant Professor of English at Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus, Nepal.