“Let go of me or I’ll knee you in the balls!”
I shouted this at a bulky matric pupil who was shaking me around in front of my class of Grade 9s. It wasn’t the first time I had got myself into a dangerous situation. There had been a few other intimidating confrontations with anonymous male pupils who were disrupting my classes. I remember staring one down and thinking, “Oh hell, he’s going to punch me in the mouth. There go my teeth.” He backed off but on another occasion another pupil punched the wall next to my face.
As a result of these incidents, and various less dramatic encounters, I started planning my reaction to a truly dangerous situation. As far as I could see I had two options: back down and compromise my standards by treating learners differently based on how intimidating they were, or stand my ground and continue to risk a punch in the face every now and again. I figured a threat of a groin kneeing would work well if I was being manhandled, and I just really hoped I wouldn’t have to make good on my threat. The school couldn’t guarantee my safety so I had to take it into my own hands. Hence my violent threat to a pupil who was shaking me around vigorously after telling me he “really didn’t want to hurt” me.
In my early years as a teacher I was in survival mode. When you fight to control your classes while trying to ignore the bunking kids banging on your window; when you stress because you are not getting through the work and there is a test coming up, but your classes keep arriving 15 minutes late; when you stay up late at night planning lessons, barely seeing family or friends during the year, and you spend your weekends marking; when almost every instruction is challenged; when some kids threaten violence; when you keep fighting and investing emotionally because you know there are so many kids who want to learn but their school environment is against them, then, yes, you go into survival mode. And without training it is hard to think straight. In survival mode we instinctively think we only have two options: fight or flight. I chose fight and unfortunately my fight included making a violent threat. I had no idea how else to react and I didn’t really feel I had the mental space to reflect on alternative reactions.
This was not an environment I wanted my learners to be in or scenes I wanted them to witness. I had gone from an idealistic peace-espousing student to a teacher seriously considering damaging a matric’s groin. Even worse, in my first year of teaching I had guiltily, but seriously, wished that some form of corporal punishment would return. I am incredibly ashamed of this. In my mind it seemed the only way to deter dangerous and menacing learners, and the only way to create a safe and conducive learning environment for the kids who really did want to be in class.
I know I wasn’t the only teacher who thought this, and listening to the callers on radio and reading some of the tweets around corporal punishment in the last few weeks, many, many people would welcome a return of corporal punishment to our schools.
By my second year I’d learnt a few more crowd control techniques, and I was learning when an instruction would be followed and when it would be futile. I felt guilty about my previous year’s desire to see corporal punishment reintroduced and this guilt was compounded by a specific incident. Two pupils were holding up a map I was showing to the class. The learner closest to me was a self-assured and confident 16-year-old guy. I flung out my hand to sweep it across the map for emphasis, but it was no longer there. It was dangling in the hands of the learner furthest from me. When I had raised my arm for dramatic effect, the kid closest to me, this self-assured teenager, instinctively dropped everything and shrank away, arms raised protectively over his head, his back hunched, head down. My jaded heart cracked right there. For a moment the mask of this cocky teenager dropped away and he became a scared, beaten-down little boy.
I had strayed from my strong beliefs about corporal punishment, and this incident helped me to return and attach to them even more tenaciously. Our children see violence around them every day. Many are experiencing physical abuse at home. Schools need to be safe spaces for teachers and learners. There is no way that we can break the cycle of violence and abuse in our society if we show the slightest violence to our kids at school. As teachers we have to model alternative ways to deal with intense emotions and challenges. If their parents (or deputy ministers) aren’t going to show them appropriate reactions, teachers are our kids’ only hope.
But we need help.
A big high five to Angie Motshekga who has recognised that it is not enough merely to tell teachers what they can’t do. She has recognised why many teachers use corporal punishment and she sees the need to support schools by providing them with alternative behaviour management methods. It is absolutely vital that this support is practical and that the alternatives are specific and workable. Many schools will need to be overhauled entirely and the Department of Basic Education (DBE) will need to ensure that new, practical behaviour management systems are implemented fairly and consistently by all teachers. This should be the first step in taking teachers out of survival mode. It will take time and the DBE is going to have to be tough on non-compliant teachers and schools.
However, if we want deep, meaningful and lasting change in our schools, we cannot stop at the practical. We need to challenge and transform mindsets about teacher-learner relationships and the persisting ideas of punishment, particularly corporal punishment.
I shared my shameful secret about wishing for a return of corporal punishment because my experience shows that difficult working conditions can shape or change personal beliefs (particularly of impressionable new teachers) in an effort to survive daily realities. Our mindsets influence how we react under pressure. If we only have superficial changes in our schools, physical and emotional abuse will merely rear its head in different ways when teachers are under pressure. This will only change when there is a true commitment from teachers to build a safe, peaceful and affirming school environment.
We know that racism is still much too pervasive in many of our schools. We got rid of obviously racist actions like segregated schooling and the banning or certain words, but we find racist actions emerging in more insidious forms. We can’t force someone’s world view to change, but we can hope to challenge them and make them more receptive to different ideas. This can be done through safe dialogues, and by providing each party with opportunities to experience empathy for the other. These efforts can be painful and they take time and perseverance. The same holds true for corporal punishment. We need to uphold the banning of the practice, and we need to provide workable alternatives, but we also need to work on changing teachers’ mindsets.
If we are really going to engage teachers around this issue, we need teachers to be open and honest about their real beliefs, their concerns and their reasons for wanting to use corporal punishment. Many teachers just want outsiders to recognise their difficult, sometimes dangerous, working conditions and their feelings of helplessness. If mentors or trainers are going to go into schools with judgemental holier-than-thou attitudes about corporal punishment, most teachers are going to shut off. They might nod and agree and say the right-sounding phrases; they might even try some of the alternative methods suggested. But if these alternatives fail or take too much effort, they will probably revert to their previous habits. Only if teachers are ideologically committed to changing their own practice will we have lasting, constructive transformation in the way teachers manage relationships and behaviours.
It is also imperative that training on alternative behaviour management methods includes learners. All learners, not just their representatives. Schools need to be visited and our kids need to be told by DBE officials what their rights are, and what they should do when their rights are violated. The DBE should ensure that these channels work efficiently and do not lead to kids being victimised by teachers. Learners and teachers also need to have open discussions about violent behaviour management, but these will need to be facilitated by expert facilitators.
Last, our tertiary institutions will need to pay much more attention to classroom management techniques. This is really the space where practical advice can be given while simultaneously changing students’ attitudes towards corporal punishment. Very few educational qualifications prepare teachers for the reality of schools and this needs to change. Now.
The fact that corporal punishment continues in our schools is shameful, but I see its continuation partly as a symptom of a chaotic system where teachers and learners are in survival mode, unsure about what to do or how to act and react. Too many schools are sites of stress, chaos or even danger, rather than safe havens of learning. Minister Motshekga, I agree with you that our schools need support on alternative methods. I hope you see the provision of this support as a long-term commitment and that it will be practical, specific, intensive, and transformative. DM