To Sir with love, respect and awe

More than 40 years ago, I was a schoolboy in the temple town of Madurai, in Tamil Nadu. I completed my higher secondary education at the Vikaasa School, an excellent institution, originally promoted by Madura Coats. Our school principal was a firm but soft-spoken gentleman called MS Iyengar. He had a big influence on my life and indeed on the lives of so many of my school mates.

Way back in the 1970s and 1980s, he transformed the system of school education in Madurai through his progressive ideas. He introduced techniques that made teaching more practical. There were no examinations until middle school. Even for the senior grades, he brought in a unique system of examinations that tested knowledge rather than memory. He pioneered self-discipline for students rather than external control by teachers. He introduced accelerated learning lanes for exceptional students. Most importantly, he emphasised all-round development, with students being actively encouraged to participate in music, drama, carpentry, trekking and even early computers. He did all this in a relatively conservative small city.

Two years ago, we decided to publish a book in his honour. One of our school mates, Kumaran Sathasivam, took the lead in authoring this book and many of us contributed pieces to it. I wrote an emotional epilogue, entirely in verse. The book titled ‘Educationist, Progressivist, Humanist’ was released a few weeks ago in Bengaluru, where MS Iyengar now lives.

The book launch event was held in a large auditorium packed with people — students, teachers and staff — from over the years and their family members. MS Iyengar, now 91 years of age, was there as well. For over four hours, the tributes to him flowed like they would never stop. People narrated anecdotes that had impacted them, and conversations that had shaped their ways. The emotional content of this book launch event was far more than any other session I have attended in the recent past.

Later, as I reflected on this event, it came to me that the lifelong relationships we develop with some of our school and college teachers are some of the most durable and emotional bonds of our lives. Why then have marketers, who excel in using real-life emotion to build brands, not leveraged this Guru-Shishya relationship actively enough? There are instances of brands such as Raymonds and Titan occasionally coming up with beautiful television campaigns that celebrate teachers, but these have been few and far between. On the other hand, brands have focused on celebrating many other cherished relationships, such as those between wife and husband, father/mother and child, grandmother and grandchild.

Amul’s teacher’s day ad

Amul’s teacher’s day ad

In fact, this space becomes even more compelling for marketers once we realise that the teacher-student relationship covers not just one shade of emotion, but a diverse set of emotions. First and foremost, this relationship carries the emotion of respect because we generally tend to respect our teachers as elders and wise people. Then, there is the emotion of admiration for all the knowledge that they carry in their heads. We have all been in awe of our teachers, for how much they know about the subjects that they teach.

Then again, students love their teachers and particularly some teachers towards whom they have developed great fondness. Such love emanates from the selfless giving that excellent teachers are associated with. This is specifically true of teachers who have been generous with their time and knowledge.

Many teachers are also seen as benevolent protectors, who take great care of their students. With such teachers, there is also the emotion of safety and reassurance.

Finally, many of us have also been afraid of specific teachers in school and college. We have feared them for being strict disciplinarians. We have also feared their tough examination question papers and even wondered why they were out to get us.

Because the student-teacher relationship carries all these emotions, marketers have the choice to play in this space and leverage the specific shade of love or fear or awe or respect that dovetails naturally with their specific brand. In addition, celebrating teachers is a good deed that brands can usefully perform, because it positively showcases a noble profession that adds so much value to our lives.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.

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