The important role of school teachers

By James Falconer

Teachers are role models. It is widely perceived that having good role models in a young person’s life can make a positive impact. As teachers/educationalists we can help students make informed choices, instil confidence and thus empower them to reach their full potential in adulthood. However, children are vulnerable and can be subjected to various forms of abuse by negligent teachers.

Shouting at children is a form of emotional abuse. As a Language Assistant in a secondary school I have a perfect vantage point from which to observe teaching practices. If a teacher is shouting at children one doesn’t have to invest much analysis into the methodology of this type of “teaching”. Have you ever walked in on two people having an intense argument? You know that feeling of wishing you weren’t there? Welcome to my world! How should schools correct inappropriate behaviour for students and teachers alike?

There is a system of punishment in place for children who misbehave. If a teacher is having problems in his/her life they may unconsciously punish students for spurious reasons unrelated to inappropriate behaviour. Teachers are given the power to judge if a student’s behaviour is inappropriate. On the other hand, who is the arbitrator of a teachers conduct when they have behaved in an inappropriate manner towards students? It appears that students don’t have a voice. Although each class has an assigned student representative, they still have to find the courage to report the matter. Many teachers seem to expect students to behave like adults. We all make mistakes, but as adults in responsible positions shouldn’t we be more conscious that mistakes are an ideal opportunity to help children learn, and become wiser? Children will behave better when teachers love them, treat them with respect and consistency, and consider their needs and emotions.

Recently, I saw one of my students in the corridor repetitiously writing out the same line. What was his crime? A teacher caught him standing on a desk before class and had doled out the following punishment: he had to write out “I will not behave like a monkey.” This he was compelled to do for the duration of that class for the whole week. Teachers should not evoke hatred in children. The teacher unjustly imposed his view of a monkey on the young student, quite possibly connecting with his Darwinian self, but a 12 year old boy all the same. There is likely a hidden reason behind this student’s behaviour. It is the teacher’s job to try to discover it, and enlighten the student. Positive disciplines are much more productive than negative punishment. Upon seeing the student on the desk, the teacher could have laughed and said “Get down quick; desks are for writing on!”, or something to that effect. After speaking to the student in the corridor I reported the matter to the principal and highlighted the punishment as being useless and humiliating. He agreed, duly intervened, and the punishment was ended. You may ask whether I am trying to be a hero. Well, not exactly.

I was a dysfunctional child in school, or at least I was led to believe that I was. I was possibly a functional child in a dysfunctional school. Irrespective of that, I can wholeheartedly identify and empathise with the student being punished. Did this type of punishment do me any good? No, it just exacerbated my dysfunctionality, caused me to hate others, hate myself, and restricted my development in many ways. The influential Swiss psychologist Carl Jung propagated Lao Tzu’s, ‘what you resist persists.’ With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that many teachers fought me at school and the more they resisted me, the more I persisted with my rebellion.

I left school at a young age, was coaxed back by my parents, got into more trouble, changed schools, repeated a year, and eventually clambered over the line. Was I interested in going on to university, which meant more school – not a chance! It was the working world for me. I worked as a painter & decorator when I left school. There were, of course, rules at work, but I was relieved that I could actually talk to my colleagues whilst doing some creative and practical work, and get paid! Earning money was a reward for my efforts and it also gave me the means to abuse certain mood altering substances, which may or may not have been subsequent fallout of the aforementioned dysfunctional educational system. That, I suppose, is another article of itself!

It seems that the incentive to work in school is based on a carrot and whip marking system which encourages a kind of a herd mentality. Knowledge often gives people a great degree of freedom. Should students not be motivated based upon knowledge, not marks? Students appear to be conditioned to work for a mark, rather for the level of knowledge the mark is intended to represent. But, then again, institutionalised education is a breeding ground for competitiveness, not cooperation, which generally seems to result in more inherently self-interested pawns for the neo-liberal project. All this was far from my scope back then as my competitive drives were channelled towards the sporting field.

Compared to academic achievement, I was far more interested in playing sport at school. I found that by excelling at sport it compensated for my rebellious streak in the classroom. Moreover, I got out of class to go and play various games around the province. I enjoyed the encouragement and praise from a few teachers who admired my prowess on the sporting field. I am not maintaining that all of my teachers were bad. In fact, if it wasn’t for the clutch of teachers who respected me, I may well be dead now. This, I believe, is how crucial the role of a school teacher is.

When I say ‘respect’, I mean that they treated me with kindness and disciplined me in a positive manner. They didn’t shout at me, or humiliate me in front of the class. When I behaved well, which like all kids I was capable of, the teacher reinforced this with praise and a positive attitude. The result was mutual respect. The illusion that a teacher can stand before a class of students and shout “I’m the teacher and I demand respect” needs to be smashed. This sort of attitude is more suited to military sergeants. What sort of an example does that give to a student? Nobody has the right to demand respect, you should earn respect. How can you respect someone who is cruel to you and attempts to garner your respect through fear?

It only takes the cruelty of one teacher to hurt a child. For the most part, I was being taught, in Ireland, by adult children of a repressive Catholic regime. Some of these teachers dished out corporal punishment to students. I remember my woodwork teacher once hitting me with a stick because I was messing with a friend. I pulled the stick out of his hand and told him not to hit me again. He sent me to the school principal for my defiance. It wasn’t a case of me challenging him. I was standing up for myself. Like all bullies, they don’t like when their victim stands up to them. Children, in particular, should be admired for standing up to unjust punishment. The poet Philip Larkin once wrote, ‘Man hands on misery to man.’ However, handing it on is as a result of ignorance, a lack of awareness, and very likely a degree of suffering.

What ultimately inspired me to write about these dubious “teaching” methods was the suspension of one of my students. He accumulated the requisite number of negative comments from teachers (teachers can email parents with comments), thus earning him two days at home. Is this going to teach the student a lesson? He was given his final nail in the suspension coffin for calling one of his teachers an idiot. I believe he had grounds for such an insult. Here’s what happened: when giving back exam papers the teacher tore his paper into pieces in front of the whole class. ‘How humiliating’, I hear you cry. Well, you see, he failed the exam, and this was his correction. Surely, the teacher could’ve being more supportive of the child’s efforts. A quote from a prolific German writer comes to mind here: Goethe said that, ‘Correction does much, but encouragement does more.’ The humiliating act of ripping up of a student’s exam paper can hardly be considered “correction”, but a few words of encouragement wouldn’t go astray. This punishment was yet another form of humiliation and the student responded in a hostile manner. Many teachers seem to value obedience and docility in children and do not tolerate them arguing or answering back. In this environment, it is likely that children will become indolent, dependent, and lose their passion and appetite for study. I have witnessed this very result recently.

Another one of my students was suspended from school. In this case, the suspension was not set for two days, but for one whole month. What sort of lesson does that teach a student? She did punch another student in the face. However, it cannot be pleasant to be singled out in a group of more than 20 students, publicly labelled as a misfit appearing too stupid to fit in to the group and isolated at home with an angry parent/s for one month? Is that the best punishment there is? Where is the compassion, the understanding? What made her lash out at another student? Is keeping her suspended from school going to enable us to get to the root of the problem? Sociologist Robert Merton said that we get our self-image in part from the way others see us. If we think that others see us as some stupid failure then that is how we are going to see ourselves. I have noticed how dejected the student has become since she found out she was to be suspended. Will this 12 year old child benefit from being taken out of her social group and isolated for one month? She’ll miss the final month of the year. This will inevitably have a negative and distressing impact on her. Speaking of negative impacts, I would like you to imagine two 12 year old girls chatting in a class.

The teacher had already asked them to stop talking. She seems to pick on one of these girls a lot. Sophia confided that she doesn’t like the class because she feels that the teacher picks on her. I believe she has a case. The whole class could be talking, but the teacher focuses the correction on Sophia. I suppose you could classify her as a scapegoat. The solution to this problem is blatantly obvious; the teacher has only to separate these two girls if she deems them to be talking excessively. Too many teachers seem to allow the best of friends to sit beside one another. Students, I feel, should be moved around every couple of weeks as it keeps the learning process fresh. Unfortunately, only a couple of teachers do it. There seems to be no universal methodology, or code of discipline in place. Some rules appear to be simply dreamt up, created out of some umbrage that a teacher has picked up. This too often leads to teachers carrying out their own spontaneous forms of discipline as happened in this case.

The teacher snapped, went to the drawer and took out a roll of toilet paper. I looked on in wonder as it all seemed to happen in slow motion, like witnessing a car crash. The teacher was very angry – I saw the look in her face. She unravelled a length and proceeded to wrap it around Sophia’s head, yes, gagging her mouth. Initially, there was a deafening silence around the class until someone laughed thus igniting more laughter. I was sitting there in disbelief as I looked at Sophia, red-faced, trying to make some sense of what was happening to her. The widespread laughter didn’t quite manage to obscure the mist of humiliation which emanated from the teachers scorn. I cringed.

A few minutes later the teacher did the exact same thing to Sophia’s accomplice. It didn’t appear quite as shocking on this occasion as onlookers had been somewhat anesthetised by the first act. This time the laughter was more widespread as if the act had been, to an extent, normalised. I looked on in disgust, wanting to shout “Stop, this is wrong.” I refrained because I didn’t want to scare the children by inflaming the situation even further. Whilst I looked on my conscience rattled out the following, “I’d be furious if someone did that to my child.” When the class ended I went over to both girls and asked them were they OK. They both replied “yes” in a nervous, timid way. I couldn’t get out of the classroom quick enough. I can see how I have been affected from witnessing this unorthodox act of discipline. It was in my head for much of the weekend.

No one asked me “are you OK?” after the class. I can unequivocally say that my answer would have been, “No, I’m not.” I filed away in a trance, dejected and confused with what I had witnessed. I think it was only after I exited the school did I start to get a clearer perspective on what happened. These children were humiliated in front of the class. I don’t think that the teacher consciously intended to do this. But, like many of us, her emotions were stirred more quickly than her intelligence. However, publicly shaming someone in an attempt coerce them to perform is abuse. I find it fairly shocking that a lot of teachers seem unaware of the basic psychological research relating to this area. The research shows that this kind of treatment undermines creativity, damages productivity and causes social problems. Instead of singling them out and gagging them, why not separate them before class begins? Considering they had already proven themselves to be chatty when together. Why not move into the solution?

After the weekend, still unsure of the best course of action to take, I decided to speak to the two girls in the presence of a different teacher. I told them what happened was wrong and that I reported it to the principal. I asked them had they told their parents and they said ‘no’. A few days later, I spoke to the teacher in question and she tried to reassure me that the two girls had told her they weren’t happy with the treatment. The teacher said that she explained to them that what she did was a joke. As it turns out, the children’s parents told them to deal with it! Without parent intervention it is very likely that no disciplinary action will be taken.

When the class began, the teacher told all the students that the girls and I were not happy with the incident. She maintained that it was a joke, just a bit of fun, and apologised. Later in class, Sophia was sitting with me (probably feeling safer) discussing her project, separated from her friend. Seeing that the two girls were separated and still talking, the teacher, in another attempt to justify her actions, exclaimed “Look, they’re separated and still talking. You see, separating them doesn’t make a difference.” Oh how I wanted to retort, “Of course, because wrapping toilet roll around their mouths does the trick.” I avoided the confrontation.

Admittedly, this article has not been entirely even handed in acknowledging the often fraught and difficult job that teachers face on a daily basis. Teaching is a tough job; we only need to replay some of our own childhood memories in order to reach an almost unanimous consensus on that point. However, the job does, for all its undeniable trials, offer an abundance of rewards, which is the primary motivation for entering the profession. If a teacher does not wish to be a role model and instil confidence and trust in their young charges then you may rightfully enquire, what are they doing in that position in the first place? Mutual respect is something which is built up over time. Respect cannot be demanded or forcibly extracted. It certainly will not develop in an atmosphere where a teacher is shouting at, calling a student a monkey, ripping up their exam paper, suspending them for a month, or gagging them with toilet roll. The question one must ask oneself is this, is it possible to have a genuinely warm and respectful aspect towards a person in a position of authority that uses intimidation and humiliation as their stock-in-trade means of maintaining order in their realm?

I, as you may have gathered, do not think so. In the words of Pink Floyd, “Hey teacher, leave those kids alone!”



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