School discipline

Stabroek News
November 12, 2000

A recent report on teacher abuse in schools was given wide media coverage. It had the virtue of highlighting the serious problem of physical and sexual abuse in the educational system, although in an overall sense it was limited by the lack of clarity of its definitions. Unlike the author of the report, for example, most teachers and parents would not categorize putting a disruptive pupil to stand outside the classroom door as child abuse; removing the agent who is preventing a teacher from instructing a class is surely an acceptable strategy on an occasional basis.

The traditional method of disciplining children in the Guyanese school system has been corporal punishment, and in many schools it still is. While technically lawful, it is subject to abuse, and given the present world trend it will undoubtedly be abolished in the not too distant future. The question then arises as to what sanctions teachers would be left with which would allow them to keep order in a classroom - and make no mistake, there has to be order in a classroom, otherwise no learning can take place at all.

The other side of the coin to the contents of the report was set forth in a letter by a teacher which was published in our edition yesterday. "I have heard students using the worst four letter words and foul language in the presence of teachers," he wrote; "I have seen students refuse to carry out instructions. I have seen students walk out of a classroom and even out of school when problems arise between them and teachers. And the list can go on and on." He went on to ask, "how as teachers are we going to deal with reluctant, erratic, lawless and impolite students who have no regard for themselves, their teachers, their family, their environment and even their peers?" It is a serious question.

The old conventions whereby teachers were people of status in the community, and parents supported them in educating their children, have long since disappeared. Nowadays, a parent is as likely to abuse a teacher as give one backing. What has to be recognized is that in many of our schools there is no disciplinary framework in place, and in situations where there are no rules - or at least, no rules which are implemented - there will be indiscipline on the one side and an environment which encourages abuse on the other. The society at large is no longer rule-governed, so it is hardly surprising to find that many of the schools are not either. The result in both instances is 'lawlessness.'

Perhaps the time has come for the Ministry of Education to convene a seminar with head teachers of selected schools, delegates from parent-teacher associations, union representatives and certain professionals in the field to review the whole question of discipline in schools. We are probably in need of new guidelines on the sanctions which teaching staff can apply and the circumstances under which they can apply them. As stated earlier, the days of corporal punishment are probably numbered, but it might be noted in passing that even as things stand, that particular sanction does not appear to have prevented the slide into indiscipline which is evident in the urban schools in particular.

In a general sense, the ultimate authority in a school where disciplinary matters are concerned, should be the head teacher. A head should not be placed in a position where he or she feels that the Ministry has to be second guessed. The Ministry, as it has always done, has to set the rules and see that those are implemented, but other than in cases where these have been clearly transgressed, it should not be interfering in individual cases. There is nothing worse for discipline than a situation of split authority.

The Government is now pouring more money than ever into education, but without an orderly school environment which facilitates learning, that money will be wasted.

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