Love letter: To my son's teacher
Corporal punishment is supposedly banned in Indian schools, but it is still prevalent.
Every June, when the new term begins, my son is reluctant to go to school. He’s been in the school system since before he was three. We start early in India. He’s never been a fan. Once he’s in there, though, he seems to be fine, braving the company of more boisterous boys or finding his way through the large campus.
When he was six, he often came back despondent and refused to go to school the next morning. A little prodding revealed that he didn’t like some of his teachers. Teacher R beat X, he said one day and he cried a lot. X was five, and the teacher, one of the school’s most “experienced” ones, had grabbed him by the hair and rubbed his cheek across the blackboard. His mother was outraged but refused to complain saying that the child might be targeted even more.
Another classmate told his mother that his heart hurt when he saw other boys being hit by the teacher. The teacher said that boys need that discipline; they would remember this and be better behaved throughout their school years. The principal asked for a complaint in writing before he would take any action.
The children waited in fear, wondering when their turn would come.
At almost ten, my son is now hurtling towards middle school. This is the first year that he has had a teacher who has not raised her hand to his fellow classmates, pinched them, or experimented with other subtle methods of corporal punishment. For the first time in over seven years, he has not had to witness a classmate being abused. I cannot over-emphasise how big a deal this is.
In our own limited circle of family and friends, we have heard of kindergarten and primary school students being slapped, hit with sticks or wooden/steel rulers, pinched or hit in places that will not leave evident injuries, hair pulled, head banged on desks or blackboards, derogatory statements made against children's families, their caste, their parents' occupations. When parents complain, the physical abuse slows down for a while but the verbal harassment increases with teachers taunting children in the class, calling them names (which other kids pick up) and generally humiliating them enough that no further complaints are made. These are four to eight- year-old children; I shudder to think what happens to the older ones.
Corporal punishment is banned in Indian schools. The Right to Education Act (2009) clearly states that “No child shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment”. Like most of our legislation, though, the reality doesn’t match the words on paper.
Some teachers are being taken to task for their behavior but that hasn’t been enough of a deterrent. A 2007 study on child abuse by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India revealed that 69% of children surveyed reported having been physically abused. Two out of three children reported facing corporal punishment in school.
The effects of corporal punishment have been extensively documented. Children who are abused at school and home develop a negative sense of self and of personal safety. They often grow up exhibiting aggression and are unable to see it as negative behaviour.
Punishing a child is widely accepted as normal in schools and at home. I have never hit my child. Most of my friends don’t subscribe to the "spare a rod, spoil the child" philosophy, either. Yet, many others do. One mother said to me in exasperation, “I told the teacher to do what she likes. I am fed up with trying to discipline him.” The child in question was nine years old. With such explicit permission granted, who would protect him at home or at school?
Hurting your child (or asking his teacher to do it) is not love. There is no evidence to show that children who get “disciplined” in such a manner do better or grow up to be successful in their studies or work. In school, our children are away from our watchful eyes. We send our children to schools where we expect them to be looked after, where their teachers and peers act as a surrogate family. We do not send our children to school to be beaten or pinched or abused.
Teachers are our children’s caretakers. They are responsible for our children’s physical and emotional wellbeing while our young people are in their custody. We trust schools to look after our children.
When teachers resort to hurting a child, deliberately and with intent to hurt, that trust is irrevocably broken.
When your child comes home from school and says," Mama, we had a good day. Teacher X didn't beat anyone today" you realise that even if your child is not at the receiving end, he and his classmates are being emotionally affected to a degree that most parents probably don't comprehend. And if they did, would they raise their voices and speak up?
When I was eight, I was punished for not doing an assignment. My teacher, Mrs. B. Pinto, made me stand in front of the class. As if that wasn’t enough, she told me to put the dustbin over my head and stay there. I don’t remember how long I stood there, garbage bin full of trash on my head, classmates sniggering at me. I remember fainting at some point, losing consciousness from the fatigue or perhaps the shame. Even decades later, I have not forgotten that school day or how it made me feel.
Many years later, long after I had graduated from school and college, I spotted Mrs. Pinto standing in the doorway of a Mumbai local train. My anger and fear were like a large wave, immediate and potentially destructive. I wanted nothing more than to push her out onto the tracks.
I got out instead, not even wanting to be in the same space as her.
My almost-ten-year-old is thriving this year. His teacher disciplines the class with a gentle firmness that some of her counterparts are sorely missing. There is no yelling or screaming at the large class of boys. There is no surreptitious pinching. There are no snide remarks made about a child’s background. When she has a complaint about a child, she speaks to parents in a manner that is respectful, yet firm and kind.
I watch her in action and I’m grateful my boy lucked out this year. I don’t know what the coming years will bring but I hope he will always have good teachers who are invested in their students’ wellbeing. To these teachers, a thousand kisses and my guaranteed devotion. May you bloom and be happy. May your palm never hit our children’s fragile bodies. May your voice never tear their spirits down. May you thrive, just like our children under your care.