Wednesday 22 May, 2019

A need for corporal punishment in schools signals deeper issues

My first few weeks of teaching went well. Class time was structured and the 3-13 year-olds in my care, at various times of the day, were curious enough about my long faux locs and fair-tanned skin that they hung on my every word attentively, silently gauging what kind of person or teacher I was. An educator by day, a theatre performer by night, I taught at an English school in South-East Asia as a means to sustain myself. I covered all elementary school subjects from Science to Composition. When I was called in for the job following my demo and interview, I was informed during the briefing that “hitting the students is not allowed.”

I was indifferent to the instruction because instinctively I knew I would never lay a finger on anyone's child. My own experience with corporal punishment was enough to make me loathe the practice. I'd been known to be a quiet and disciplined child but in primary school, on three separate occasions, I found myself under the wrath of two different principals, one who'd make her point by hitting us with a long, thick panel of glass. Depending on the teacher as well, a ruler or heavy piece of wood, wrapped in duct or scotch tape, would be just another component of the class' everyday fabric. Flogging on the hand and the upper shoulder was administered to those who wound up on 'Miss' or 'Sir's' bad side and who had failed to recite their times-table correctly. In secondary school, 'cane', as they called it, was reserved for the especially “delinquent”.  

During my teaching days, as the students in my care grew comfortable, it became clear who required an extra dose of discipline. Normally, it was the students who refused to be quiet when I called for silence; ring-leaders who would purposefully distract the students around them; students who would refuse to complete assignments, and others who would even pick fights for seemingly no reason. Yet, it was hardly a thing a lecture, a demand to remain standing or an exclusive, additional work assignment would not fix. Generally, they were a joy to teach and be around.

My oldest class of pre-teens, however, posed a challenge. Some of them had notorious reputations and after about a month, I knew just how they earned it. The most ill-reputed was a female student who had a knack for telling vulgar jokes and mimicking obscene gestures. She had joined the class about two weeks into the school's first semester and her effect on the other students was evident. They became accomplices, laughing here, snickering there, refusing to snitch after some disruptive act was committed against another student or myself, like on one occasion when I was mysteriously locked out of the classroom, to which, following the aftermath, the students insisted it was an accident.

When I noticed our lessons were being cut in half after long, tumultuous routes to an effective form of punishment, even failing at times, I followed the lead of my colleagues. Once the female ring leader merely began to itch with restlessness, at her first offense, I would finish the day's lesson quickly then order her to pick up her book to complete the accompanying practice assignment, outside in the hall. The school's classrooms had big, glass panels in their walls, so I could still see her but she would also be in full view of the principal, vice principal and supervisors. The benefit her absence had on the other students were undeniable. We would end the day peacefully, assignments would be completed, checked and corrections done. The following week the girl would come into class and appeared to make her best effort to avoid being put out again, but it didn't mean much. Her best efforts involved barely toeing the line and instead of being outright with her offenses, she was sneaky.

As the weeks rolled by, I noticed how fearful the girl was of sitting in the hall, even tearfully begging not to go at times, which I found peculiar. On a particularly difficult day when I could make no compromises, she went out. Another student casually revealed to me, that when the girl sat outside, word would get back to her parents who were both school principals themselves, and they would flog her, at home.

In addition to intuitively knowing this pre-teen had psychological issues and wondering what it would take to bring out her best, I was convinced then that her getting the help she needed would be a long shot. She would be attentive in the presence of the supervisor on days when I called her to sit in during class time if needed, no doubt fearful of her mother and father's indignation and physical assaults. But without the threat, her good behaviour had a limit and she was a tyrant to others. What they were doing at home did not make her an upstanding student. Sadly though, having to return home to attend to a family emergency meant I would not be around long enough to witness a change.

In Saint Lucia, the controversy surrounding corporal punishment has surfaced again with talks of a ban in the near future. Those who oppose this ban believe it will result in a hike in crime, though islandwide crime has increasingly been on the rise with no ban in place. A few teachers I know, however, have expressed to me their approval of the abolishment of corporal punishment, indicating that they have had no use for it and believe aggressive, especially physical punishment serves as an enabler of violence in and outside school compounds.

One teacher, however, from a neighbouring island, insisted to me that corporal punishment is needed and effective, with long-lasting benefits on students. His reasoning was that the students of today are not the students of decades ago. He said, when all other options have been exhausted, a few strokes by the principal sometimes does the trick. When I hinted to my own experiences of teaching in South-East Asia, he said it was a different culture.

I do believe that every student and every circumstance is different. However, the belief that our children in the Caribbean are a different breed, deserving to have fear of being flogged used as a tactic to manipulate them into good behaviour, is hard to accept. And, if it is the case, it's something we need to change. Poor conduct seems more a result of a defect in nurturing. There must be other ways to pick up the slack than 'beating' the good into a child.

A normally well-mannered student, who has a one-off incident and gets flogged once or twice by a teacher or parent and so corrects his or her behaviour out of fear of being hit again, was a well-mannered child from the onset. Undoubtedly there are other forms of discipline that instill fear of wrongdoing but the adult involved needs to be up for the challenge of finding what punishment or rewards are most effective for their students. In some instances as well, adults should consider whether they hit to correct wrongdoing or as an expression of their own anger and frustration.

For students with notorious reputations, hardly would excessive flogging work. And if the teacher is unable—getting a third party, a counselor, for instance, invovled—to get to the heart of the problem, sounds like a more suitable solution.

In terms of the concern with a rise in crime, we need to ask ourselves whether being able to hit children is the answer to our woes or whether our problems lie with there being a lack of proper at home supervision and care, poverty, and gang and drug-related influences. It's no small wonder why countries like Canada, New Zealand, and Austria where corporal punishment is banned, are ranked some of the safest in the world, and also some of the richest. High living standards seem to be the winning combination. We, in the Caribbean, were dealt a bad hand but children do not have to be the ones bearing the brunt of it, even though it means putting in that extra effort to think of other effective forms of punishment.

Perhaps our fear of the ban would subside if there were viable alternatives. In Saint Lucia, it was said that training would be conducted with teachers and this legislative change would be accompanied by mechanisms for classroom support. However, widespread scepticism is not surprising when a society has watched itself implode in various ways and has given way to a number of social ills. A more comprehensive approach aimed at tackling all the issues affecting youth and the population in general, along with available, adequate physical and human resources might be what we need.

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