Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Adventures of a Bystander by Peter F Drucker

Peter F Drucker (PFD) was a top dog in management and has written many books to his credit. Somehow, I chose to take a stab at his autobiography rather than any of his specific works and I was delighted by my choice.

During Drucker’ s life time, he seems to have interacted with eminent people like Sigmund Freud and Henry Luce and so on. For the commentary purposes, I would restrict myself to just one chapter. It is about his school teachers and it impressed me the most. I also liked his views on grandmother and Indian summer of innocence chapters very much. This work would not qualify for an autobiography in a strict sense since he talks about a handful of people, but the way he has mixed his observations and the environment details makes for a compelling read. If society is made of individuals and their stories, this work would constitute one good chapter.

In this chapter “Miss Elsa and Miss Sophy”, he talks about two teachers whom he adored without any reservations. In terms of handling students as well as personalities, they could not be more different – yet, very effective in their own way. As per Drucker, despite the fact they were first rate teachers, if not outstanding, they failed to impart what Drucker needed to learn – that is, writing legibly and learning a bit of craft skills.

PFD enjoys watching the teachers a lot. Let us see them through the eyes of Drucker.

Miss Elsa was the principal of the school. After three weeks, she asks Drucker about his strengths, weakness and his own rating on reading, comprehension, arithmetic and handwriting. I think it was a great approach at such an early stage of school. They agreed that he is very good in the first two and she left with minimum directions to consolidate on the two strengths. Then, as to arithmetic, he rated himself as “Poor”, but teacher remarked he is fine – except that he is very sloppy and specific techniques need to be taught to check the answers – he was making no more mistakes than many. I think such nuanced an observation comes only if you are a terrific teacher. As to handwriting she went beyond his assessment that he is “Poor” and called him a total disgrace for her class. She drew clear and detailed plans how to go about improving it.

Miss Sophy, arts teacher after observing him for a month or so asked Drucker, ”How about making a milking stool for your mother?”. Drucker responded “We don’t have any cows at home” for which she would respond that is about the only thing he could possibly make. Sadly, by the end of year the one he came up with was barely stable.

What I liked the most is, after making serious attempts to improve his handwriting and failing, Elsa called his parents to say he won’t improve in future either (she was correct) and hence recommended him for higher education school (it is called Gymnasium in Europe at that time) ahead by an year since his other skills were more than up to the mark.

Drucker in his other works insists that one can build performance based on strengths not on weakness and also that it takes lot more energy and effort to move from incompetence to mediocre than from mediocre to excellence. Now, at least we know the context.

Drucker strongly believes that students always recognize a good teacher. But, teacher is an elusive term. Some are verbal and some are non-verbal. Some are effective in large crowds, some in small groups, and some in one-on-ones only. What works for one rarely works for another first rate teacher he opines.

There are two breeds. (1) Teacher – who has a gift in his keeping. They are born. (2) Pedagogue – who programs the student for learning. It can be learnt by almost everyone. This is the most important detail I had learnt – wish I had this grasp when I was in school.

Miss Sophy had charisma, gave enlightenment, conveyed vision and was a teacher! Miss Elsa had method, gave skills, guided the learning and was a pedagogue. In either case, they are passionate and they held themselves accountable for the results. He concludes rather strongly that, “there are no poor or stupid or lazy students for a real teacher and pedagogue. There are only good teachers and poor teachers”.

Finally, my image of a teacher is one of apocryphal story – a teacher who has unerring instincts and unsurpassed effectiveness. Once there was a teacher, who was reputed to know answers to all questions. A student was determined to prove him wrong. He does a thorough job of understanding the teacher’s daily routine. He figures out that the teacher has the habit of coming out of home briefly after waking up for morning ablution. After meticulous planning, with some of his friends as witness, he waits near the teacher’s home one day very early in the morning when visibility is a bit dubious. He is holding a sober bird in a cage (basically it won’t make any noise). He also has a sharp instrument that is poisoned that would kill the bird almost instantly. His plan was near perfect and all he has to do is ask the teacher is the bird is dead or alive. If the teacher says it is alive, he can kill the bird in an instant and show him he is wrong. If he says it is dead, he would be wrong already.

Now he asks the teacher in a loud voice from a distance to ensure low visibility, “Teacher, tell me the bird in the cage is alive or dead?”

Teacher, with all his sagacity summoned responds, “My dear, the choice is yours!”

Thanks for reading this far.