First appeared in The Raven Magazine
When I was in primary school at Ura in Bumthang in the early 90’s, hearing the word Lopen simply sent my heart racing. I conjectured images of getting into trouble, or having done something wrong and then, thoughts of the unbearable stick would come to mind.
As a child the word Lopen was firmly associated with the idea of corporal punishment. I don’t think that this is anything new. For many who belong to my generation it is common knowledge that this was the modus operandi of teaching – to beat and punish children with the notion that they were “educating” and “disciplining”. It was so common and accepted that nobody ever questioned it; nobody knew whether it was effective or not. Nobody ever asked, did the children really learn? Hence nobody saw it as being wrong either. Where I went to school, the beatings and punishments were so frequent that my imagination involuntarily tied a teacher with punishment and hence instilled nothing but fear in me. In retrospect that was truly unfortunate, for I am a teacher now, and I wouldn’t consider it very flattering if my students had that image of me.
I cannot deny that some taught us well, and meant well. But I guess they didn’t know any better. Whatever the case, I remain grateful for the education I received. However, some of the teachers were so mean that they seemed better at punishing than teaching. I remember one of them had punishment techniques that were better than his ability to teach. He even had different equipments of torture, a whipping cane that folded in two, and a piece of electric wire.
I will never forget the incident when some of my friends and I were forced to strip and dip ourselves in ice-cold water one early frosty winter morning. Bumthang winters are brutal and we were, well, just children. And our crime? Coming late to morning study. We could have died from hypothermia. Luckily we didn’t, but some suffered from cold and serious bouts of coughing, I suffered from serious stomach cramps the remaining of the day. It was a horrible and painful experience that I never wish upon any children. In those days our parents entrusted us to the teachers and the school, and it was up to them to do what they could, with us. Parents didn’t complain.
One teacher had punishment techniques that were better than his ability to teach.
Other’s haven’t been so lucky. There have been incidents when a child succumbed to corporal punishment. A friend told me that in the late 50’s when her father went to school in Wangdiphodrang, a boy was beaten and kicked so badly in his chest that he died shortly after. The case was never reported to the police, and the teacher never lost his job. That was then, at a time when farmers not only valued free education, but felt so privileged and fortunate that their children could get a seat in one of the few schools that existed in the country. In a culture where teachers are revered as gurus, it is sad that such abuse not only existed, but was tolerated and condoned. Today, after years of research and studies conducted by child psychologists, social behavioural analysts and learning specialists, the world is learning a different way. The discussion of how children should be taught and what kind of environment is best for learning, has taken a different direction. It has taught us that there is a much better and compassionate way of educating children, and even “disciplining” them. Mine was a childhood fraught with learning by the stick. Exams and class-tests were constantly followed by the cane. Some teachers beat us for every single error that we made in our papers. But more often than not, these beatings were because of so called “disciplinary” issues. Teachers beat students simply based on what was desirable or undesirable behaviour in their eyes. Sometimes the scoldings and beatings started right from the morning assembly, upsetting our mood the whole day.
While there were about 400 children in less than a dozen schools spread across the country in the early 60s, there are now more than 200,000 children in 536 schools.
To me, teaching those days seldom went beyond chalk and a blackboard, and the teacher’s movement in the classroom rarely went beyond the front row – except maybe when he wanted to smack someone who sat at the back.
When I was in the fifth standard, I was accused of breaking into a near-by food store. I had a thousand and one reasons to prove otherwise, and I was so eager to proclaim my innocence that I couldn’t stop from talking. But as soon as I started to speak the teacher slapped me hard across my face. That shut me up, but he continued to slap me repeatedly. After a dozen or so slaps, unable to bear the humiliation and his repeated accusations that I had done it, I gave in and said I did it. It was one of the most hurtful and humiliating experiences I have experienced. It impacted my sense of self, my view of education and the world around me. I hated school and I hated teachers. Not only was it difficult to accept a crime that I hadn’t committed, but it was even more painful to see that I had hurt my parents, who were made to feel embarrassed for what I had not done. A part of me understands that teachers sometimes deployed such punishments with good intent, after all they have to maintain the order of the school. However, I think if they stand in the shoes of the child I am sure they will realize that corporal punishment injures a child for the rest of his life and eclipses his opportunities to blossom positively.
In my view, the Teaching-learning process in those days was irritatingly dull and full of lectures by people who never seemed to follow any of the rules in life. We never got the opportunity to contribute in our own learning process. We were never taught to question; instead we were told to listen only. We were never taught to enquire and be curious, for that was doubting the teacher. We were never taught to speak up, because that was being disrespectful, bold, and disruptive. Teachers kept on lecturing until the bell rang. We had a small one room library with few books, but we weren’t even encouraged to read or even go there. After all, they didn’t expect us to write anything new in our test answers. If we regurgitated what they taught us, that was enough – complete rote learning. The only upside to rote learning from my childhood was that I managed to by-heart all the Buddhist prayers like the Doelma and Barchoedlamsel.
For society, however, the reputation of the school remained high. Every year, the students who appeared for the board examination would bring 100% pass marks. Besides, the students also exhibited exemplary discipline and behaviour when there were visiting dignitaries. In such fashion, teachers in the olden days were victorious in upholding what they thought was the nobility of the teaching profession, without realizing that not only was it immoral, but that the children had really learned nothing. They didn’t prepare the children for the world, they prepared us to fear everything. Unfortunately, because of a lack of of what a meaningful education was, society during that time considered teaching one of the best professions and teachers were given great respect by all and sundry.
Whenever we were asked what we wanted to be in the future, more than half of us ironically, raised our hands and said our dream was to be a teacher. And this was not because we merely wanted to please our teacher, but because we envied the power they wielded, and the respect they got from society. Even at home, my friends and I would play the teacher-student game. Everyone loved being the teacher and punishing the others, clearly showing that we were learning how to love power and authority and the ability to have others obey us. They say children being told about good and bad behavior rarely has any impact because they learn more by looking and listening, and emulating the behavior of the adults. It was only when I was at Paro College of Education that I realized the journey the teaching profession has made. Today, teachers have learned better and work harder, but the irony is that society no longer seems to see that. Currently the morale amongst teachers is pretty low. I came across many trainees expressing dissatisfaction with the profession. It also seems to be the last thing that most people want to be now. Once I happened to visit a village in Paro while gathering information for an assignment. In a soiled cow shed I saw a few children playing a teacher-student game. A girl who was enacting a teacher was holding a big stick, and pretended to beat her students when they didn’t listen to her. A friend told me that at a private primary school in Thimphu which her nephews attend, one teacher put the pencil in between the child’s tender fingers and pinched them together causing immense pain. That, for not doing homework.
In some ways teaching children without beatings and punishment is an alien approach to our society and many who want to be “teachers” are learning/hearing of it only now. For those who don’t care about children, yet want to be a teacher, I think their want is for the power and authority the profession commands and not because they want to be an “educator.”
During our training, the modules like Child Psychology really helped us understand the effect of corporal punishment on learners, both physically and mentally. We also learnt that Bhutan was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) without any reservation in 1990. Today, anyone wanting to be a teacher should know that Corporal punishment is also against the teacher’s code of conduct. While at the training college we took a basic counseling program to teach us an alternative way of working with children. The module holds significant value in teaching us the substitution for corporal punishment. But, in my opinion, one module in the six months semester seems to be inadequate. We hardly got the chance to exercise or put to effect how this works.
I am back in a primary school again. I was assigned as a PP (Pre-primary) teacher to Chhuboelsa Extended Class Room (ECR) under Tsirangtoe Lower Secondary School in Bhuan, after I completed my training course. On my first day, I entered the classroom with great excitement looking at faces that reminded me of myself decades ago and started a conversation with the children seated before me. I asked them many questions and they eagerly answered in a chorus. Once the ice had been broken and they seemed comfortable enough, I told them I wanted to appoint a class captain and asked if anyone was interested. Suddenly, everyone in the class raised their hands and started yelling enthusiastically. I asked if they knew the responsibility of the class captain. I was frightened and shocked when everyone unanimously said, “to beat la”. I had come a long way, but it seemed like the message hadn’t reached some parts of Bhutan. I realized I had a lot of work to do. The children, it seems, were learning well from corporal punishment. You get a little authority, even as a captain, and you have the power to “beat.”
Moved by such experiences, I’ve talked with many of my colleagues, parents and students on how they feel about corporal punishment in our schools. While, most of them are against it there are still some who genuinely support it, and I think it is because they do not know any better. A senior teacher at Tsirangtoe Lower Secondary School said that he felt handicapped with the ban of corporal punishment. With a mere basic counseling course, he said, teachers are helpless in handling the adverse behavior of some stubborn students. He claimed that he has witnessed the swift change in students’ behavior after the ban, implying that it was getting worse. The teacher-in charge at Chhuboelsa ECR said that he has advised and spoken to many youth but he was still unable to identify their problem, leave alone finding the solution. He said they always came up with some excuse prompting the “counseling session to become an advising session.” He said his advise was in vain when students took it lightly. He, therefore, felt that the only way these children would listen was through strict disciplinary action like corporal punishment. Another teacher believed that, the discipline is an act of love where sometimes we are required “to be unkind, to be kind”. He quotes an excerpt from You can win by Shiv Khera: “We are all familiar with that big animal, the giraffe. A mama giraffe gives birth to a baby giraffe standing. All of a sudden the baby falls on a hard surface, and sits on the ground. The first thing the mama does is to get behind the baby and give him a hard kick. The baby gets up, but the legs are weak and wobbly and the baby falls down. Mama goes behind again and gives him one more kick. The baby gets up, but sits down again. Mama keeps kicking till the baby gets on its feet and starts moving. Why? Because mama knows that the only chance of survival for the baby is to get on its feet – otherwise it will be eaten by predators.”
But are we Giraffes?
When I heard these arguments I doubted myself and wondered whether corporal punishment could, in some instances, indeed be helpful? I recall an incident, when after hating school I had begun bunking classes and tried to force my parents to let me leave school. It was only with a painful slap that I received from my class teacher that made me stay back and continue my schooling. Today, I look back and wonder – would I have remained illiterate if he hadn’t hit me? Then I ask myself the question, but why did I want to run away from classes in the first place and what made me want to leave school in the first place? Was it because I felt so misunderstood by my teachers and tired of the beatings and the way I was treated? If they hadn’t made learning such a miserable experience I think I would have enjoyed school and not skipped classes. At one point I even referred to it as the “golden slap” because it had forced me to stay in school and indeed changed the course of my life. But I shouldn’t let that one incident sway the argument that corporal punishment, whether well intended or not, is right.
The golden slap is really a tap on the head with the good intent of making someone snap out of doing something stupid, naughty or silly. Corporal punishment on the other hand humiliates, embarrasses and hurts the child both physically and mentally. It is a punitive form of punishment that has many harmful repercussions to the overall development of the child’s mental and emotional development. Unlike the educated parents in towns, most of the parents at Tsirangtoe that I’ve talked to feel that, a little corporal punishment should be allowed in our schools. They believe that strict discipline in schools will eventually shape a child better. Some even overtly blame the ban for the increasing youth related problems. I think this is because they fail to understand that causes of our youth problems are more complex than that. They are, I think, confusing the symptom with the cause. The reason why we have youth problems and are witnessing a growing lack of respect for authority, is not because of banning corporal punishment, but because maybe such punishment or aggravation exists in their homes. What teachers also don’t realize is that their duty is not to discipline the children. That is the duty of the parents, and it is something that a child should learn at home, taught by the parents. There needs to be a partnership between parents and the school to help the child develop the right manners and discipline. If the child is undisciplined then the teacher should simply push the responsibility onto the parents. A teacher’s duty is to teach and educate and help steer the child in the right direction. But he/she must do the best he can in the most compassionate manner. If this doesn’t work, parents have to be called in to help dissolve the situation of the misbehaving child. And yet still, if bad behavior continues despite warnings it should result in strict disciplinary actions like detentions, suspensions and ultimately expulsion. There is no need for teachers to resort to taking matters into their own hands and mishandling a child by physically abusing them.
But sometimes, I have heard people talking as if all teachers are in favour of corporal punishment as if it is a pastime for us. Recently, a member in WAB (Writers Association of Bhutan) explicitly mentioned in his post that “teachers love to beat their students.” It is really painful to digest such remarks and generalizations. Indeed, we teachers too hate having to scold our students for nothing. Our only wish is to see our students enjoying school and learning; to see them happy and for us to enjoy what we do. There is nothing more annoying than to have misbehaving and troublesome children who disrupt the smooth running of a class or school. There is also nothing more saddening for us to see these children’s lives ruined with neglect, punishment and lack of support from the faculty and their parents.
Above all, the ban seems to have affected the morale of teachers who have known no other way to run a classroom or school than with corporal punishment. They feel that this instead empowers some parents who have first of all never taken an active and positive role in their children’s lives, leave alone education and discipline. Some teachers feel that banning corporal punishment ties the teachers hands who are left to deal with troublesome children while parents blame, sue or even beat teachers for the the bad behavior of these children. It demoralizes hundreds of teachers across the country. What our education system, society and the parents of troubled children fail to realize is that this is a joint effort and without it, there are bound to be lapses in how our children are educated and disciplined. We are not talking about teachers who like beating for the sake of beating – like in my childhood. We are talking about teachers who are trying to do their jobs as best they can with the limited exposure they themselves have and the limited resources available to them. It is not the work of the teachers/educators alone to discipline a child. Our role is to teach mainly but it is the parents/family’s role to provide the values and discipline. For too long the Bhutanese attitude and society has put the onus on the teacher’s alone. Education, is not limited to the school. The examples of what kind of person you want your child to become, begins in the family. Many of the parents today are educated, how many of them really take an interest in helping with home-work and communicating with the teachers?
If parents cannot handle the few children they have, then they shouldn’t expect a teacher who has 35 to 40 children in a class to perform wonders. People don’t seem to realize that teaching is not a simple 9 to 5 job. A Teacher is involved in the lives of 35/40 children everyday. There are lessons to prep for and assignments to correct, and ensure the safety and wellbeing of these children day in and day out till the end of the school year. Parents who seem to leave all the responsibility to the teachers should work with us and support us. With no parent involvement and support some of them come in with the smallest complaints and harass the teachers.
For instance, this year alone, many parents charged our teachers. A non-national school teacher of Pelkhil High School in Thimphu was beaten-up by a parent of a student in April this year. The reason, we heard was the teacher smacked the child twice on the back during class. The father of the student, it is said, pulled the teacher out of the classroom, and beat him up. Such disrespectful incidents can demotivate the teaching community. What must be remembered is that there are negligent people on both sides – the parents and in the teaching community. In August this year, an expatriate teacher at Sipsoo was arrested for violating the teacher’s code of conduct. Lured by showing some test questions, he harassed two class VIII girls by showing a porn movie and physically and sexually abusing them. Radhi JHSS principal was charged this June for acting unfriendly to the whole community including teachers and students. He manhandled the school caretaker two months after his arrival. He is also alleged to have held another teacher by the collar and accused for verbally assaulting and humiliating school staff in the meetings. Worse, after a minister’s visit to the school on September 30, 2010, the same man forced his teaching staff to drink two cases of beer, even though they didn’t want to. And now we have a case where a teacher allegedly injected students with a used syringe as punishment.
What we as teachers must keep in mind is that such ill-thought, reckless, and ignorant behaviour of a few has serious implications on the entire teaching community. The status and nobility of the teaching profession can be better promoted only by our teachers who love and care for the children, their staff and their profession. The hard work of hundreds of teachers can be completely overshadowed by the blunder of a single teacher. Our profession therefore requires us to be extra cautious of what we do, both inside and outside the school campus. We are talking about the education of not one child, but of the entire nation, and for the next generation. Every stakeholder should do their share. Parents should help out in any way they can to support teachers and their children’s school, and the Ministry of Education has to assist teachers and principals with putting in place of corporal punishment, effective disciplinary measures in place that can have far-reaching consequences for those – parents/children/ and teachers – who do not comply. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and our people and society have to realize that if parents do not step up to take more responsibility for their children, schools alone cannot be blamed for an education system which many see as failing.