“Mr. So and So is scary,” my little daughter tells me, mentioning her teacher’s name. “If he gives you a lash, it hurts so much.” This is not just my daughter’s observation. Other children have told me similar stories. “Our Mathematics teacher comes to class with a stick,” another child tells me. “And if a child disturbs in class he beats him with the stick.”
From my chat with primary school children, I have come to the conclusion that physical punishment is still common in our schools despite clear instruction against its use.
A PTA meeting I attended confirmed my suspicions about how common physical punishment is. “Some of the children,” a teacher who addressed a class full of parents told us, “get so frightened that they do not want to come forward to do some calculation on the blackboard. Sometimes they have hard time containing their pee.”
I expected some parents to voice their views why such children in the teacher’s class had to be so frightened. Nobody said anything because they saw nothing out of the ordinary in the teacher’s words. Most Eritrean parents expect teachers to frighten their pupils if they are to keep them quiet. “If you won’t stop disturbing,” some parents threaten their children. “I will tell your teacher and he will lash you into obedience.”
It is very likely that most of the parents [in the room] were raised by parents that punished them physically when they misbehaved when they were their children’s age. At the time the parents were little children, it was not uncommon for parents to beat their kids when they disobeyed. Talking back to a parent was a grave ‘sin’ and put a child in big trouble. No father allowed any of his children to “disrespect” him this way. If he did, the parent is considered to have failed in his duty to raise his child properly. And that child was dubbed unruly, and other parents warned their children to avoid him in case he infected them with his virus of unmanageable behavior.
Similarly, students were expected to fear their teachers. Students, literally, turned a corner if they saw their teachers from afar. They didn’t dare to let their teachers see them around tea-shops let alone drink with them in the same bar or tearoom. If they could, they made sure that their teachers did not find them in places considered ‘disreputable’. In short, parents and teachers were feared and obeyed.
The teacher [in my child’s school] continued talking about children in her classes not participating. Later, in the question and answer session, a parent raised his hand and asked her a question, which tried to show to the teacher that they [the children] had very good reason to be frightened because some of their teachers came to class with sticks and often used them to keep the children quiet.
“How can we, then, keep them quiet?” the teacher admitted using sticks herself. “How can a teacher handle a class full of noisy children? Our only means is to frighten them.”
To be honest, psychologists have not come to a common conclusion about physical punishment, referred to by different names such as spanking, slapping, beating, hitting, each term showing different levels of severity. Some argue that the negative consequences of physical punishment outweigh its benefits. Others psychologists, though they do not support its employment, are not convinced that it has no benefits for the child. But this much is clear: it halts effective communication in an educational setting. And it can lead to other problems, if used inappropriately.
Spanking is harmful emotionally for the child. It is traumatic, makes a child feel as though there’s something wrong with her (instead of something wrong with her behavior), creates resentment, and can lead to body image and self-image problems.”
It is true that some people differ from other people on how they handle misbehavior. Some cultures encourage discussion while others advise: “spare the rod, spoil the child.” I think the Tigrigna belong to the latter. (We are not alone in this. About 60% of Americans spank their kids at home.) I think we have the wrong belief that spanking can correct malformations in behavior in a child. Though we often also tell off children when they misbehave, spanking seems to be the preferred means of behavior modification among the Tigrigna.
“Do you know what your problem is?” many parents told teachers I have worked with. “You don’t punish children.”
“But we do,” the teachers replied. “We detain them, give them time-out, or even suspend them from school for a few days.”
“You call such things punishment?” the parents answered back. “Our children think they are nothing. Why don’t you take a stick with you to class and beat the children that disturb?”
“But we can’t,” the teachers would reply. “Our school policy doesn’t allow us to do that.”
“Then,” the parents continued. “How do you expect to keep the children quiet?”
Many teachers, as perfect products of our culture, believe beating corrects misbehavior, and produces a model child out of a naughty one, and often use it with their pupils. Hence, many teachers are armed with sticks.
Despite many teachers’ belief, physical punishment is hard to justify in a school. Pedagogically, it is not sound, and not very effective. A child cannot learn from a teacher who frightens him. A child that is punished for talking to his friend learns not to give his views. He learns not to participate or get involved in the activities. Or he learns to hate school because school for him becomes a place where you please the teacher by keeping quiet. This child is frightened. He cannot learn because to do so he has to be made to feel at ease.
Learning involves different sides of our personality i.e. both the teacher’s and the learner’s intellect, which process the facts, and understands them, their emotions, which decide if they like or don’t what they have heard or observed, and the participants’ behavior or character. A teacher cannot teach well a material that he doesn’t understand well; neither is he expected to do justice to a material that he has no positive attitudes to. If he hates the material for any reason, it is almost certain that he will handle it poorly. In the same way, a teacher cannot teach his pupils well if he doesn’t like them. Or if he doesn’t respect them, value their views, and if he has low opinion about them. Similarly, a teacher’s character affects how he teaches his students. A patient teacher who listens to his students’ views and respects their knowledge and skills, is likely to enrich their experiences and give useful skills, which enable them to do later in life.
It is not unnatural for students to hate a subject because the subject teacher has a very unpleasant character. Students, like other people, love teachers that build their students’ self-image and make them feel confident and capable as human beings. No human being likes anyone that tears him or pulls him down. Neither can students learn and enjoy their stay with their teachers, and grow as human beings if their teachers degrade them. Unless they are forced, they don’t want to see such teachers again.
Primary school children like talking to their friends, playing and moving around class. For this reason, their teachers are expected to be tolerant and allow some freedom if they are to teach them well. They should allow some noise in class, since children need to talk about the issues they learn, relate the topic to their daily life, and even make fun of the people, comment about the places and concepts in their lessons, deliberately mispronouncing words, making their friends laugh, as children usually do.
Imagine a child denied such little freedom!