Build them up, don’t break them down

teacher-caneOne of the biggest grouses we often hear aired about Malaysian graduates, is that they are not independent thinkers and that they are heavily reliant upon guidance and instructions from their superiors.

This lack of self-reliance and autonomy in handling themselves professionally should come as little surprise if one considers that many of them are generally products of an educational environment that expects them to be submissive, deferential and passive for the most part.

I attended an event at a primary school recently. As I had arrived early for the function, I was able to sit at the back of the assembly hall and observe the last-minute preparations and rehearsals for the event.

Three upper primary class groups walked in accompanied by a few of their teachers. There was somewhat of a din as the students began arriving, understandably so, considering that there were approximately 120 or so of them piling into the hall at the same time, all trying to follow the various instructions by their teachers to behave themselves and quickly get in line.

The loudest noise that could be heard however, emanated not from the many groups of students in the hall but from one teacher in particular. This particular teacher was shouting and barking out orders like she was a Sergeant Major on a battle-field.

Why the harsh discipline?

She was also armed with a long thin cane which she utilised quite liberally to intimidate, threaten and brusquely point students to where she wanted them to stand.

Lips pursed, eyes narrowed and hand gripped firmly around the cane, she behaved more like a jailer in charge of hardened criminals, rather than an educator responsible for young children half her size.

These students were not, by any stretch of the imagination, being naughty or misbehaving, so as to warrant such strict enforcement. Yes, some were chattering away excitedly and calling out to their peers from other classes but none were shouting or speaking in particularly loud voices.

They were simply being children and doing what comes most naturally to them at that young age. The event had not started, most of the invited guests had yet to arrive and therefore there really was no justification at all in stopping the children from expressing their delight and excitement at being present for this particular occasion, especially in such a stern, aggressive and authoritative manner.

Even after the children sat down in their assigned spots and were all settled, this teacher would still every so often suddenly jump up and walk over to children she spotted merely whispering to their friends before hitting them on their arms or shoulders with the cane.

Whilst the strikes were not necessarily hard nor vicious, the looks of shame, humiliation and embarrassment on the faces of the students who were hit were palpable.

Humiliation not the way to mould characters

Surely it would not have been too difficult a task for the teacher to get down to the students’ level and request calmly, but firmly, for them to stop talking before taking more drastic measures.

Would it not have made more sense to first brief the students on the behaviour expected of them in the assembly hall, outlining the dos and don’ts, rather than herding them into the hall and managing them like they were unthinking barn animals who needed to be reminded, via a ‘stick’ no less, as to how to behave?

Should this particular teacher have attempted to get herself, along with a hundred or so of her adult peers, organised neatly, in a relatively small space, she would have realised that doing so in a quiet and highly organised manner was not necessarily as easily achievable a feat as she would appear to think.

Coming from an education background myself, I found it both highly disturbing and concerning, to see a teacher, especially one who is older and can therefore be assumed to possess extensive experience as an educator under her belt, behaving in such a detrimental and harmful manner.

This is a person who parents entrust their child’s well-being and positive development to. This is someone who spends a considerable number of hours with children each day and is trusted with guiding them in the right direction. Yet, this individual, looked as though she absolutely detested every moment of her job and every one of her young charges.

None of the other teachers around, nor members of management who were in the vicinity at that point, seemed particularly bothered by this teacher’s actions, which would suggest that this manner of disciplining was the rule, rather than the exception.

It is also seemingly quite a common occurrence in general for us to hear of aggressive and hostile teachers lashing out at students and punishing them harshly, often over the smallest of transgressions and the silliest of reasons.

Stifling individuality will kill self-confidence

When the exhibition of any signs of individuality and personality is quickly quashed and swiftly penalised, how can students be expected to develop self-confidence?

When the risk of being shamed and punished is a constant, looming threat, how can students summon the courage to be different, to step out-of-the-box and allow for their individuality to shine, let alone think for themselves?

If students are raised in an environment where they are expected to only be seen and not heard and where they are chastised for speaking and expressing their thoughts because teachers with canes choose to liberally and indiscriminately wield the power of their positions over them, then we should not be surprised that so many grow up to form part of the rapidly increasing pool of “unemployable, incapable graduates” that has become a genuine cause for concern.

Gayatri Unsworth is an FMT columnist.

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