“Murder, this is murder, teacher under heavy pressure!” – Teacher’s Dilemma, Poonka, 1985
Wayne Poonka Willock, calypsonian-teacher penned Teacher’s Dilemma to lament the problems facing the nation’s teachers -mounting workloads and rising levels of indiscipline among students.
Now that he has retired from teaching, his words still ring true, especially with increased reports of violence involving teachers and students.
Last week, a 14-year-old boy was remanded to the Government Industrial School after an incident in which he physically assaulted a teacher for confiscating his cell phone battery.
According to reports, the student was using his cell phone in class, when the teacher advised him to turn it off. When he refused to do so, she took the battery out of the phone and confiscated it, and put the student out of the classroom. He came back and physically assaulted her, tearing her clothes in the process, as he tried to get back the battery. Failing that, he came back armed with a piece of wood with exposed nails in it, presumably to hit the teacher.
When he appeared before Chief Magistrate Christopher Birch, the magistrate told him what happened “in his day” and let the student know that his behaviour was totally unacceptable.
The Chief Magistrate said: ‘You decided you wanted to ‘dust out’ a teacher over a cell phone battery that you weren’t supposed to have. But then again, maybe you don’t have the same teachers that I had because you would have raised your hand at them and they would have handed back your hand broken!”
He also advised that the child’s father should have sought professional help for him when he realised his attempts at disciplining him were failing, by going to the Juvenile Liaison Scheme, a psychologist or a guidance counsellor.
The Chief Magistrate’s comments take us back to a time when the community was fully involved in education. For the most part, children went to the schools in their immediate neighbourhood and the senior teachers often lived nearby and knew the children’s families, so if an incident occurred at school, the parents knew about it before the children got home, often resulting in two sets of punishment!
Teachers have also been in the news for taking disciplinary measures too far. Earlier this year, a teacher invoked the ire of many Barbadians, including Minister of Education Santia Bradshaw for beating a special needs child severely. At that time, Bradshaw advised parents to report such teachers to the Ministry of Education, while urging law enforcement to prosecute teachers who flog children.
The Barbados Union Of Teachers objected, stating that moving in that direction would undermine efforts to “service and strengthen the relationship between parents and teachers”.
While it does not completely outlaw corporal punishment, the Education Act states that only principals are allowed to administer floggings, or they must delegate that responsibility to the deputy principal or a senior teacher.
However, a teacher does have the right to speak to a student or discipline him or her if they are disrupting the class in any way. So in last week’s scenario that ended up before the Court, the teacher was well within her rights to confiscate the device after the student refused more than once to hand it over or switch it off.
Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Barbados has long been a signatory, addresses the matter of protecting children from abuse, while Article 28 says discipline within the education system should be compliant with the terms and conditions laid out in Article 19.
But the convention does not give children the right to lash out at adults who are making an effort to correct any wrongdoing on their part, despite the biblical admonition not to stir up wrath in our children as it will discourage them.
It is true there are many societal issues that have led to increased aggression all around from both teachers and students. We acknowledge that the indiscipline and lack of respect towards adults often begin in the home, fuelled in some cases by abuse of different kinds or gang activity, and teachers may physically take out some of their frustrations on students based on their own personal psychological battles.
Yes, more guidance counsellors, psychologists and social workers to address the root causes will help, but that is a more long term solution.
But in 2019 as in 1985, the teacher is in charge of the classroom, the parent away from home, and as a parent, he or she has the right to instil discipline where necessary.
We agree teachers should be reprimanded if they go to extremes in doing so. But students who take it upon themselves to hit their teachers, or bring in their parents or associates to do so, should also face some kind of sanctions, including complete expulsion from the school system if their actions involve potentially deadly weapons.
For many years, Barbados has boasted of its high-quality education system, not only from an academic perspective, but discipline has also played a role in shaping that system.
All schools have basic rules and codes of conduct that all parties are expected to follow.
If we allow anarchy to rule because we are quick to vilify teachers who are merely trying to do their job and do nothing to remind students that there are consequences for taking laws into their own hands, we may end up in another situation Poonka described in the Teacher’s Dilemma: “With all these things you soon bound to see in every newspaper a fresh eulogy.”
Let us hope it does not come to that.