The news of a school girl in Muvattupuzha ending her life after harassment by her teacher should come as a wake-up call to those running our education system. The lack of sensitivity and ham-handedness that most of our teachers exhibit in dealing with the issues related to teenaged students is shocking, to say the least.
The Muvattupuzha girl is just one of the victims of the insensitive schooling system which relies on the rules of moral policing instead of empathy and compassion. Going by news reports, Nandana, of the Government Model Vocational Higher Secondary School in Muvattupuzha, was reprimanded by her teacher who found a letter in her bag, and the girl, probably unable to take the shame, immolated herself last Saturday. She succumbed to burn injuries at Kottayam Medical College Hospital on Saturday, after a week-long ordeal.
The teacher has been suspended and is facing a probe. Let the course of law decide if the teacher had any role in the incident and let's not make any judgement. However, it's a fact that incidents like this one are not isolated ones in our schools.
Classrooms and staff rooms in schools across Kerala turn trial courts, perhaps on a daily basis. Make a surprise visit to a school, government-run, aided or unaided, and you will find students being put on public trial by the teachers. With no regard for their sensibilities or even their rights and the laws governing student-teacher interactions. These teacher-prosecutors simply forget whatever little child psychology they had mugged up to pass their exams.
Most of these teachers have no clue on how to deal with issues related to adolescent students, their physical and mental issues and, most importantly, their relationships. Or that affinity for the opposite sex is just part of growing up. They aren't trained to deal with these situations either.
Faced with such issues, the teachers fall back on the easiest option they know: moral policing -- and they do it with vigor. Naming and shaming is the rule of the game. Child psychology be damned.
Students are summoned to the staff room, where the teachers wait to brand them as “characterless.” The 'accused students' are also sometimes asked to attend classes only after bringing their parents to meet the teacher.
The sad fact is, the street-smart children always manage to get away despite all this. It is the vulnerable few, the introverts, those with a high sense of self-esteem, those without enough connect to a support system, who fall prey to this correctional torture and sometimes end up taking the extreme step. Still our teachers and education mandarins haven't learned their lessons.
A few years ago, a student in a school in Thiruvananthapuram committed suicide after the teachers asked him to bring his parents along before attending class the next day. His crime: an adult magazine was found in his possession. The student – the only son of his parents – was an introvert, studious, and a little behind on street smarts. Someone in the class had brought along the magazine and when they realized the teacher had spotted it, tried to hand it over to the person nearby. The magazine changed hands rapidly a few times and when it reached this boy, he did not know what to do, not being used to this kind of game. And he was caught, shamed and sent home. Afraid of being shamed before of parents, he took his life that very night. The school staff dared not visit his house for fear of being manhandled by a violent crowd.
I remember how a girl, a plus one student, was prosecuted by almost all the teachers of my own school. Her crime was that she mingled “too much” with the boys. During my brief stint as a guest lecturer in an engineering college, I had colleagues who felt no shame to refer to a girl and a boy -- childhood friends -- as hubby and wife.
But despite incidents like the ones mentioned above, there is practically no push to reform the educational sector and train teachers in handling students more sensibly.
Education experts opine that there is a huge gap between the theories on pedagogy and students' psychology and the ways they are translated into practice.
“Harassment by teachers is nothing new. But we can't bring a sea change in a day or two. Teachers' attitudes and the school environment play a crucial part in such incidents. Often innocent kids, who may not be involved in the issue in question, become victims,” Bindu R.L, associate professor, department of education, Kerala University, told Onmanorama.
However, she said teachers alone cannot be blamed for such incidents. “In today's world, kids become isolated, self-centered and sensitive easily. We should also inquire why this happens,” she said.
True, but teachers need to understand that possessing adult magazines, letters, etc., are not really crimes. These are children; they are curious, inquisitive, experimenting with life, and belong to a bolder generation. And try as much as you can with corporal punishment or shaming, they will still get what they want. The teachers need to know that the moral/disciplinary rules that their own teachers applied to them are not adequate for today's generation. And in some situations applying those rules can be serious human rights violations.
The teachers get paid also to understand their students, their backgrounds, and upskill themselves. It is not a 9-5 job, but a constant effort. But how many of our teachers do that?
They need be taught that they have to empathize with their students and the issues that trouble them. They have to understand that children make mistakes and easily fall into traps, and often a few words of love and compassion are all that is needed to correct them. Above all, a teacher must understand that she has no right to hurt a student – physically or emotionally. That age is passé.
Will the Muvattupuzha incident trigger a change? Or are we waiting for more such tragedies?