The Red-Ink Terror and School Education

 Mahesh Paudyal


A decade has crossed since I have started teaching English to kids. Whether those kids have become better people now and whether their positions in life have improved is something that I cannot tell for sure. But I have definitely changed position, and have moved higher – working at a university now.

I have deliberately mentioned my association with a university – a bombastic thing, at least for those kids. My mobility upward is significant no doubt, but the irony it embodies is not only paradoxical, but also embarrassing. The reason is: I have moved upward, and forgotten the kids. My kids that I have introduced here with love are perhaps languishing in the corridor of a dream-seller, somewhere in Bagh Bazar or Putali Sadak – or any other dream-selling mall for that matter – simply because their English does not work, subject-verb agreement is a bizarre thing, and prepositions are frustrating.

I am aware that among those who had ‘incidentally’ become my students in the past, there are successful scholars, whose English is rocking. I honestly confess the English they have acquired is not an outcome of my teaching. It is a fruit of their individual endeavour. I have no doubt about my failures because, looking back at my ‘teaching’ from the position I hold now and the experiences I have gathered so far, I have more embarrassments and guilt to collect, rather than to bellow a narcissistic claim that I taught them English (italics deliberate).

This confession is informed by the fact that the methods we as teachers employ are completely wrong, and we deter children, rather than inviting them to learn a language. The red ink I and many ‘teachers’ like me use across the nation and elsewhere with pride and dignity to foreground their errors, makes all the difference!

I am not sure whether my voice is a representative voice here, to which, other teachers professing the same thing would add their tune. But I am speaking from the position of a ‘popular’ teacher who was often awarded, and was often, everywhere liked and warmly received by children. Only that, I taught many things, but no English at all! Those awards mock; that popularity foists guilt. Those kids – whom I often meet here and there – still write incorrect sentences.

Those days we would summarily declare that the children failed because they didn’t study. This is the cheapest answer to all ‘problematic’ children in many schools in our country. We link their failures with their pranks, their negligence, their family environment, their delinquent behaviours, their indifference to study, their affinities with decadent affairs, their age, their arrogance, and above all, their discipline. These things definitely distract, but there too are other things. We seldom acknowledge our share in the children’s ruin.

These ruins should force us to reflect. Contemplating on English once again, it has always been one of my strongest convictions that our focus is, and should rightly be, on correct written English. Once this is set, a learner will start experiencing comfort with this alien language, and reading habits will be enhanced. Vocabularies will pour in, and spoken language will take shape. Spoken English cannot and should not supersede the written counterpart, for speaking is more of a decoration, than a base. It will automatically follow, as time follows.

This discussion therefore centres on written English.

As a teacher for quite a long time, I took pride in making the largest number of red circles on a student’s writing. Those red circles – many times more than the child expects, or a fellow teacher would notice – all brought appreciations to me. It certified how acute a sense of grammatical accuracy I had, and how I ‘invented’ errors where others would have silently passed.

I am not acquitting those who make long good ticks, without reading the text. They are equally damaging. But, I have a lot more to say to the red-circle lovers like me, who are in fact, of little or no help to learning kids.

A few days back, a relative of one of my students came to my residence in Lokanthali. During our conversation, the talks about the student propped up. He said, “He doesn’t want to face you.” The conversation revealed that he was deterred by the red circles I made on his paper on his first encounter with me as a student. Frustrating!

This incident made me think hard about my past, much of which I spent in classrooms. The fact why my students repeatedly make the same mistakes in spite of those many red circles I deliberately make, started assuming a grave philosophical twist, and invited me to scrutinize all those worthless years of teaching – what if awards, decoration and love have come along!

Red ink – now I have started to think – is not only repelling, but also psychologically wrong. Red circles on a paper are neither an evaluation, not reinforcement. They are misuse of power and authority!

Red ink irritates. I have no doubt about this. It pertains not only to English education. It entails education at large.

I as a student too I had felt this at my school, and I can see the same on the faces of my students. The fundamental error lies in the fact that we the teachers tend to be policemen, identifying the weaknesses and errors, rather than filtering and treasuring strengths. Red is dominant over black or blue, and it foregrounds the error. Foregrounding errors, I believe, is not the goal of education. Education should foster skill and strength, and a pleasanter colour – green or pencil gray – would be psychologically better to foreground strong parts of writing. The errors should better be left untouched, and the children be informed that the untouched ones demand improvement.

Why foregrounding strength and leaving errors untouched? Man by nature is encouraged by commendation of strength. A child will surely learn if the strength is foregrounded, and weaknesses shown, albeit silently and appropriately. A red circle over an erroneous word is nothing but publicising an error, taking it to the child’s parents and guardians, and multiplying reproach. This, I think, is not education. This is deterrence.

This can be a revolution I think: No more red ink please! I am aware; it will not be received comfortably. Criticism will follow. I cannot myself be the first to start this, for, my living anchors at the mercy of my job-providers, and I am still not strong enough to take the risk. Conventions will not easily stoop, or opt to change. The tutorial ego we have treasured so long doesn’t easily bend. Red inks will continue to cater a sense of power and glory. Only that, they can never cater education. Red ink without education has become an impossible juxtaposition! If only a debate would start today: can we do away with this psychological allergen in our classrooms?