Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sandro Pellicciotta, an Italian geography teacher at a high school in the city of Bologna, has been facing hundreds of questions from his students.
His students would ask him seemingly innocuous questions like "if you were in Putin's shoes, would you have attacked?" Pellicciotta told the New York Times in an interview that "to be honest I am quite afraid of saying some nonsense" while answering them.
Tara Harmer, a British teacher, also gets stormed with questions the moment she enters the elementary school classroom.
"Russia is big enough; why does he (Putin) want more land?" Another red-cheeked English kid would ask, "why are most crazy people men?" Or they would ask the teacher, "would you stay and fight for your country?"
A recent New York Times report found that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the effect of which has been strongly felt all across Europe, the Western classrooms have witnessed students asking their teachers more questions. With kids raising so many questions, the teachers had to provide answers, and fast.
The Ukraine war's ripple effects have been dearly felt in Bangladesh as well. With prices of daily commodities and fuel skyrocketing, with local media constantly covering the war and with information and video clips of Russia's invasion circulating on social media like TikTok - a platform that is heavily used by school students, it no longer remains a faraway incident. Rather it has an impact on our lives.
So we explored to find out about the state of teacher-student interaction in Bangladesh in this volatile geo-political climate that is changing the world in many ways.
Tasmia, a high school student in the capital Dhaka, takes the local bus on her way to school. In the last couple of months, bus fares to school have increased from Tk5 to Tk10. Also, the price of food or tiffin items increased. So, her parents had to increase her pocket money.
What do you know about the price hike? Have you ever asked why prices are increasing?
"I had to write a composition on this in our exams. And I wrote with the ideas I got from my surroundings, and from what's written in the book," Tasmia said.
Do you talk about this in your classrooms? Do you ask your teachers? Or, do you talk about what is going on in the world, like the war in Ukraine, with your teacher?
"Our teachers don't discuss things outside of the syllabus," she replied. "They enter the classroom and without the textbook copies, they never talk about anything else. And we also don't feel like asking them about anything beyond the syllabus," she added.
The classrooms here, however, are not always about syllabuses and textbooks.
They do have fierce debate among the peers who are sometimes divided as 'BTS army' vs Blackpink fans. Also, they hold discussions on viral TikTok or Instagram content. And the classrooms, when the teachers are not around, are full of commotion about who watched what content.
But when the teachers are in the classroom, the fun, the excitement, and the commotion dies down. Because with the teachers in the classroom, it is all about the textbooks.
Tasmia is one of the students we interviewed recently to learn what our secondary and intermediate level students talk about in their classes, and especially as mentioned already, their interaction with teachers about issues that involve their everyday life.
And after conducting dozens of interviews with teachers and students, we found that our classroom conversations are, still, all about what is in the syllabus.
The unrest and the changes outside hardly impacted the classrooms here – neither do the students ask teachers any questions with regards to the war or any other changes in their surroundings, nor are the teachers interested in raising any such issue in the classrooms. And similarly, many guardians prefer that the teacher-student interaction remains only within the syllabus.
For example, Tasmia's mother Lutfun Nahar is a school teacher. She teaches in an NGO-funded school in the capital's Agargaon area. The school teaches under-privileged, slum-dwelling children, who are the most primary, hard-hit victims of the recent price hikes. But Nahar never receives any questions about these issues in the class.
"Our kids are mostly influenced by their parents' preconceived notions about which issues are whose fault. There is a faultline at play here, of blaming someone based on the families' preconceived notions. This is one of the reasons we never discuss [certain] issues," Lutfun Nahar said.
Several teachers on the condition of anonymity, however, justified their abstinence from saying anything out of syllabus or about the contemporary issues because they fear remarking on something that could be interpreted as anti-government and land them in trouble.
We asked Nusrat Jahan, a college student from Rajbari if she knows that a big war is going on in the world.
She said she heard of it, but does not know where or who is fighting, or anything about the ripple effects that trickled down to all the corners of the world due to this war.
Nusrat said that she sometimes has questions in her mind that she would like to ask her teachers, but she fears that the teachers would snub her for asking questions outside of the syllabus. "Actually, I don't ask my teachers anything at all," she said.
So, it is not like they have no curiosity at all. They have curiosity. Still, why don't our students ask their teachers questions and why don't teachers entertain extracurricular questions from students?
Is it something we have carried through generations from the era of Mahabharata? Like Eklavya, who did not even question his master Drona and cut his right thumb on his demand for guru-dakshina (the tradition to repay one's 'guru' or the 'teacher' after the complete process of education is over).
Or did the active Western classroom culture - derived from that of Socrates and Plato's teachings - stem from an education system based on questions and dialogues?
Educationist Rasheda K Chowdhury said, "although our education policy has sections for creative learning and teaching, the schools and the teachers don't follow those. And that's because here in our country, the teachers are not the best paid jobholders. For that reason, they don't want to invest their time, and energy into this job."
She also blamed the absence of a uniform education system in Bangladesh. "Our education system has three different types of education: mainstream, English medium and the Madrasa. The mainstream education is further divided into two sections, English and Bangla versions," she said, adding that this creates disparity in the syllabus and hence knowledge dissemination.
Professor Syeda Tahmina Akhter, the director of the Institute of Education and Research (IER) of Dhaka University, resonated with Chowdhury about teachers not being paid enough to take things more seriously when it comes to creating a culture akin to that of Western classrooms where questions and debate are encouraged.
"The young professionals are trained to provide creative education to the students. That includes analysing current affairs, taking the students on different field visits and tours, developing a better understanding among the students, etc. But after some time, they lose all their inspiration and dedication. Because they are not paid enough," Syeda Tahmina said.
And hence, during a time of a war that is fought almost equally on TikTok, Instagram and any other social media platforms as they are on the field, our students who are very much into TikTok and social media have little to no questions for their teachers about it, nor the teachers have anything to say to their students.
And for that matter, anything not part of the syllabus remains off-limits in our teachers-students interaction.