Creating a learning community, and inspirational teachers!

Creating a learning community, and inspirational teachers!

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I was speaking to some management students a couple of days back, and they spoke about how a professor converted many of them to love a very new subject. And the talk moved to inspirational teachers, versus instructional teachers. My thoughts immediately went to the one man who epitomises inspirational teaching for me.

About 3 decades ago, my father came with me to drop me in XLRI. I was a 19 year old, a bit anxious, and my father was even more anxious though he tried not to show it. The first person we met as we entered the institute was a tall, old American priest, well in his 60s. I recognised him, though I didn’t know his name then, as the person who was in my XL interview panel. That was Father McGrath, fondly known as Maggie. (I still vividly recollect the interview in the Kothari Sugars office in Nungambakkam, Chennai. He had asked me as to why I wanted to join XL, and I mumbled something about helping people and workers. He then said, “Aren’t you being pretentious?” That stumped me, and I tried to muster a reply under the steely gaze of his co-interviewer, Prof Neelima Acharji. I thought I finally managed an unconvincing reply, but
phew(!), made it though!)

Maggie told my anxious dad that I will be fine, and spoke to me to put me at ease. At the evening tea time I found him playing basketball with the students who had just landed in that day. We learnt that he was the Director of XL- this unassuming man, who always had a smile.

But his course in first semester, Basic Managerial Skills, was what set us on a magical learning path. Simply put, this course was all about the simple skills of management- defining a problem, problem solving, communication, delegation, participating in a group discussion, leading a committee meeting etc. And the focus was on real hands-on practice through role plays and exercises. He divided us into teams of 5-6 people each, and every Friday we had to perform one activity and be assessed.  Eight different skills, like public speaking, participating in a committee, etc. capped by a final project where we had to organise an event for charity. But the master stroke here was that he made our senior batch assess us every week and give us feedback. The seniors were also divided into groups of 5, and we would be assessed by a different set of
seniors each week on a different activity! While we learnt to practice those skills, the seniors learnt to assess us and give us good developmental feedback. And imagine the community and the bond that was created by this fabulous interaction. We got to know the seniors better, they saw us up close and helped with feedback- in fact I was amazed at the sincerity and commitment of our seniors in giving us feedback and making us feel at ease. We learnt a lot from them.

Isn’t that an innovation in learning? I think it was magical. I guess we all learnt far more in that course than we thought possible. And imagine, this was 30 years ago! And one man, sitting in that corner of Jamshedpur, was orchestrating this learning, building a magical community, instilling values and building skills that will stand the test of time! This course had elements of peer learning, mentoring, lot of hands-on role plays, interspersed with his fun classes where he just outlined some tips. We were given numerous opportunities to apply what we learnt in the classes,  and correct ourselves where needed. We learnt a tremendous amount from each other-such was the environment that was created.  He inspired people- with his simplicity, by empowering and enabling students, and by being a great role model.

As I meet managers and academicians, there is always a debate on whether our graduates are equipped with the right skills for the world of business. Conceptually and intellectually, they are probably up there with the best, but do they have the skills to negotiate, give developmental feedback, lead teams, understand the underlying emotions, etc. I guess many struggle in these areas. What we probably need here is the kind of learning innovation that Maggie put together- a great focus on building skills, practicing in a safe environment, inspiring people with values and building a true learning community.

Maggie was a true institution builder. Even as he was an inspirational teacher,  he focused on bringing human values to life. He inspired many lives by his humility and simplicity, and I guess many of us still adore him for that!

-By Krish Shankar

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