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To sir, with a shove
Our newspapers are full of stories of schoolchildren being sadistically punished by teachers, to the point of emotional and physical scarring, even suicide. Many of these are true, and such teachers need to be punished. But it's not one-way traffic, as most of us believe. Teachers - and we're not talking college, but school - are under attack. The power equation has been subtly shifting in the classroom, particularly in so-called elite schools where students pay a bomb, are often treated as 'clients', and think they can get away with pretty much anything. Not only are the laws stacked against teachers, technology is now adding to their torment. Teachers find themselves being bullied and vilified, often for no fault of their own, on social networking sites and blogs. No wonder many of them are asking for video cameras to be installed in classrooms so that school authorities and parents can see for themselves what students are up to, and whether they're crossing the line that separates boisterousness and innocent mischief from unacceptable behaviour.
When a teacher asked Sunil, a Class 8 student of Government Model Senior Secondary School, Chandigarh, to show his homework notebook, he slapped the teacher in front of the entire class. A junior teacher at an elite school in Darjeeling is petrified of his students - Class 8 boys. "Every morning, I feel physically sick at the thought of being in the same room with that bunch of hooligans, " he says. "In one single 40-minute class, I have to deal with boys trying to slam the door on my face, put glue on my chair, spit in my water. Fortunately, I haven't been physically attacked yet. " A lady teacher in a Shimla school refuses to teach biology to seventhgraders. "They ask obscene questions and make me repeat details about the human reproductive system. One boy asked me if 'practical lessons' would help him understand the subject better. " Sixteen boys in a prestigious Chandigarh school posted obscene and lewd remarks about their math teacher after they scored zero in an exam. The school suspended all of them.
Classrooms are increasingly turning hazardous for teachers and such cases represent just a small proportion of a much larger problem affecting our education environment. During research for this article, teachers across the country - from Darjeeling to Shimla, Chennai to Mumbai, Lucknow to Kolkata - said they face abuse, vulgar behaviour, verbal and physical intimidation, and even sexual aggression in some form or the other almost every day. They all agreed that aggression against teachers is soaring and fuelling the phenomenon is pupils' awareness that in a politically correct world their tutors have only limited sanctions against them.
Not surprisingly, the trend is more defined in posh English-medium schools, where it is easy to see where the swagger of the students comes from. "It is true that aggression among students has increased, but it is primarily an upper middle-class, urban phenomenon. Students from poorer homes carry the aspirations of their families. These parents believe that the only way a child can get ahead in life is with the help and guidance of his or her teachers, " says social anthropologist Aarti Kawlra, a former teacher with the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai, and IIT-Madras.
Generations of students have giggled their way through biology classes on the reproductive system, but the jokes now go beyond harmless banter. Technology has only fuelled the fire. The internet and mobile phones take insolence to another, more vicious, level. At a time when an anonymous status update on Facebook can be as public as pinning up an obscene caricature on a school notice board, teachers today deal with problems that they couldn't even imagine a decade ago.
INVERSION OF POWER
This was not how it was supposed to end up, though. It had all begun with a noble enterprise - to empower children and insulate them from savage assaults. "If teachers earlier could have tyrannical ambitions, a different power equation is settling in now. These days, we see a lot of defiant behaviour among students - in even the very young ones. Disrespect, cockiness, aggression, lack of sensitivity, tendency for physical abuse is common among junior school students, " says Kawlra, adding, "Some of the behaviour that teachers have to put up with in classrooms would be considered a crime outside the campus"
Attempting to explain a phenomenon she's still coming to grips with, Archana Singh, a counsellor in Delhi, says, "With teachers' authority being weakened, it has become possible for the young to bully us. We devised laws to protect 10-year-olds from being caned;now we let violent, disruptive 13-year-olds play the power game with their teachers. This inversion of power serves no one - not the children, who cannot learn in chaotic classes;not the parents, who spend good money to send their kids to prestigious schools; not the teachers, whose ability to teach and communicate are hampered in the oppressive environment. "
Abha Adams, who is on the board of directors of The Doon School, Dehradun, and Sri Ram School, Delhi, couldn't agree more. "In this world, where values have been 'inverted', where it is cool to be BAD and have an attitude, you are a nerd and a geek if you work hard. As schools, we do not adopt a policy of zero tolerance when it comes to disrespectful behaviour, violence and the abuse of social networking sites We are in big trouble if we do. Parents need to be on board on this. All too often we have situations where even the slightest reprimand brings parents rushing to the school to protest. "
While some teachers can handle unruly children, others just cave in under pressure. A chemistry teacher in a Mumbai school says he is teased by students because he has a speech problem and is not very good with English. "There are laws to take care of a disabled or weak child and ensure he is not tormented in school. But what about weak teachers?"
In an era when education has become a most lucrative business and where students - some of whom pay Rs 25, 000 a month apart from other fees - have metamorphosed from pupils to well-paying clients, teachers are increasingly resigned to various forms of bullying. Many say they look at it as an occupational hazard. "People pay huge sums of money, sometimes in lakhs, to get their children admitted to good schools. Therefore, both students and parents treat the school as their fiefdom - they are paying for a service and expect to be kept satisfied, " says a senior teacher at the reputed Calcutta Boys' School in Kolkata.
Kabir K Mustafi, eminent educationist and former principal of Bishop Cotton's School, Shimla, believes that educational institutions - particularly private schools - are bending backwards to accommodate students, and a large part of it is because of the 'client factor' in the great industry that education has turned into. "A common insult is adolescents telling teachers that they carry more money in their pocket than what the teacher earns in a month. "
Not surprisingly, while students get away with gross indiscipline, teachers are frequently pulled up, sometimes even suspended or sacked for 'insulting' those they teach. Issuing warnings for minor things like not completing work, bringing contraband to school, being disrespectful to elders are now fraught with danger. "School boards and principals are left with scant option but to acknowledge the powerful parent - the political heavyweight, the alumni body chief, the local police officer, the municipal commissioner, even the hardware store owner - and carry on with the job as usual, " says Mustafi.
But with a growing number of student suicides - as many as 16, 000 school and college students have killed themselves in the last three years - and the fear of being taken to court by well-connected parents, many teachers now think twice before even asking a student to step out of class for making noise. "We hardly have any means available to discipline an unruly child. Parents want their children handled with kid gloves no matter what mistake they make. On one occasion, a parent told me in front of the child that I deliberately wanted to fail him, " says a teacher of Modern School, Delhi.
Tolerance levels among students are spiralling downwards. Francis Fanthome, chief executive and secretary, Council For Indian School Certificate Examinations, says, "Today, society is not patient enough to let people's personalities mature over time. Consequently, there is little time for teachers, students and parents to blend a partnership with the school. Each exploits the other given the first opportunity. "
The government hasn't made it any easier for teachers either. Jyotsna Brar, principal, Welham Girls High School, Dehradun, says, "The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 says that schools cannot cause 'mental harassment' to students, but it does not qualify what 'mental harassment' can mean. Moreover, schools are also not to expel any child up to Class 8. This can mean more problems for schools in the future. "
One of the greatest fears, though, is of sexual abuse charges being thrown at unsuspecting teachers. It's a career killer. A teacher at a Mumbai-based IB (international baccalaureate) school admits that all a student needs to do is accuse a teacher of touching him/her inappropriately. "I have seen teachers being asked to resign because a student accused them of making sexual overtures, " she says. "In one case, a girl, barely 11, had sent a provocative e-mail to a particular teacher. When the teacher replied to her, telling her to be patient and consider the repercussions of such communication, the girl complained to her parents. Though the matter was hushed up, the teacher was asked to leave. "
Those in the education industry believe that a large part of this problem stems from the disregard parents now have for teachers. "When I was young, " says one teacher at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Delhi, "I once went to my father and told him that my teacher had caned me for no reason. My dad insisted I must have been at fault. " While that sort of unquestioned authority may be taking things too far, classroom aggression is also directly linked to parents' criticism of teachers in front of their children. If teaching is a service to be bought - and provided well - what need is there for the service provider to be put on a pedestal.
Sometimes, the constant demand on institutions to be politically correct actually ends up backfiring on the parents. Mustafi says: "You can't call a spade a spade in case rakes and trowels are offended. Interestingly, in this time of political correctness, parents are frequently at the short end of the stick. One-to-one parent-teacher interactions are often nightmarish because of the way the kids are virtually stripped down in front of the parents, and parents attacked and shamed in front of their children. "
ROLE OF A TEACHER TODAY
So, just how are teachers meant to ensure discipline? After all, they can't count on the one big thing that saw them through earlier - respect for their authority. That principle has been eroded. Kawlra says rampant indiscipline has begun reflecting on behavioural patterns of an undermined teaching community. "Teachers play it safe - just coming to class, dishing out lessons and leaving. They are reluctant to enforce discipline lest they become the subject of malicious allegations from pupils. Everyone is frightened of getting involved and is worried about misrepresentations. "
Equating the classroom environment to a war zone, Kawlra adds, "The state, legal and watchdog bodies have swooped into our classrooms, hallways and locker rooms like vultures along with surveillance technologies to monitor teachers - the newly defined criminals of our society. What we need to answer is why has the school become a war zone?" Welham's Brar sees ominous signs in where the modern classroom is headed. "Teachers are at a premium today. No one wants to join the school-teaching profession except those with few other choices. And men do not want this job at all. Are we soon going to have a whole generation of boys and girls never taught by a man through their school years, with their only male role model being that strange figure called the PT instructor?" Not a happy thought that. These, certainly, are difficult days for the master class.
With inputs from Anahita Mukherji in Mumbai;Pervez Iqbal Siddiqui in Lucknow;Jaideep Deogharia in Ranchi;Pooja Kashyap in Patna;Amit Sharma, Shimona Kanwar and Naresh Kumar Sharma in Chandigarh;Sruthy Ullas in Bangalore;and Somdatta Basu and Debashis Konar in Kolkata
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