Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Treating students with respect

Amidst the political turmoil in our country, this little story headlined Student alleges sexual assault by teacher appeared in Malaysiakini. For the benefit of those without a subscription, a Form 2 student claims her male teacher physically assaulted and sexually abused her in front of her classmates—and when she reported it, the discipline teacher told her to keep the matter a secret. She told her parents, who confronted the principal—but the principal claimed the teacher had only scolded the girl for not bringing her Malay grammar book to school.

Sexual and physical abuse is a clearcut issue, so let's talk about a related problem: discipline. I am not opposed to caning in the household or in school; I think used properly, the cane can reinforce a good lesson. But the problem is, caning is difficult to do responsibly. And the reason it is hard to cane responsibly is that it is hard to discipline young people responsibly.

A big problem with expecting schools to enforce discipline is that it is hard to respect children and young adults as people who have their own thoughts and feelings. I've attended many different schools, all of which had their own approaches to discipline. But in almost every case, I think the approach would have been very different if the teachers had been dealing with someone their own age and size, instead of someone younger and smaller than them.

You can argue that young primary schoolchildren need harsh discipline; I am inclined to disagree, but I can accept that. What I cannot accept is the idea that young adults in secondary school still need to be scolded and caned like primary schoolchildren for things like forgetting their books. How is this supposed to reinforce the lesson? These are young adults who are already in a position to think for themselves. If canings and harsh scoldings are supposed to work on young adults, why don't bosses cane their subordinates?

Yes, there are bosses who do yell at their employees, and there are some who even beat them. The latter is illegal, and the former is just bad business. It may be better to be feared than to be loved, but you should at least be feared for the right reasons.

I think a lot about my primary school headmistress when it comes to the question of fear, because everyone in my primary school was deathly afraid of her. I can't remember ever seeing her cane anyone; she never even yelled at anyone. There was just something in her demeanour which told us she meant business, and that she would not look kindly upon anyone who let her down. If you did let her down, you would get a stern talking to from her, but she wouldn't beat you up. She wouldn't shout at you. She would tell you what you had done wrong, and what she expected from you—and you would scurry away, tail tucked firmly between your legs, knowing you never wanted to get another such talk from her again.

The difference is that my headmistress knew that people will respect you when you first respect them (a lesson some politicians on both sides of the aisle could learn). She treated us as responsible people who knew what was right and wrong, even though we were just primary schoolkids. She made us feel shamed, not because we had been punished, but because we had let her and let ourselves down. That is the kind of shame and fear which works. This is why my headmistress was both feared and loved.

Because so many teachers do not understand that fear and love have to go hand-in-hand, we get incidents of teachers beating up and humiliating pupils. While this might work in the short run, it eventually makes school even more unpleasant for students, and makes them even more disinclined to learn.

I am presently reading a book by actor Keith Johnstone—a former teacher who hated school. One fantastic observation Johnstone makes is that we misunderstand the difference between good and bad teachers. Education, he points out, is not a quantity, of which good teachers dole out a lot, and bad teachers only a little. Good teachers, he says, really make you learn. Bad teachers really make you unlearn. This strikes me as true in a variety of ways, but I cannot think of an area where this applies more than discipline. Good teachers give you lessons in discipline which last for life; bad teachers only wind up making you even worse off than you were before.


Anonymous said...

How China opened her door in the late 1970s and embraced capitalism.

The story went like this as it was popularly told among the Beijing populace that it all started back in the 1971, when US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger was visiting China to re-establish diplomatic relations with China.

It was one of those late-evening, while Secretary Kissinger was resting that he suddenly received a secret summon from his host to a secret meeting.

He was taken immediately from his guest residence house and quickly, ushered into a private chamber.

Inside the private chamber, Secretary Kissinger was quite taken aback to see the great helmsman himself, Chairman Mao and Comrade Deng Xiaoping were there, seated with their translators.

After proper introduction and greetings, Secretary Kissinger took his guest of honor seat and the
conversation started.
Chairman Mao (through his translator) pointed at a Chinese poem painting that was hung on the wall and said “This is a poem composed by me many decades ago, please allow me read it for you, Mr.Secretary”.

Alone I stand in the autumn cold
On the tip of Orange Island,
The Xiang flowing northward;
I see a thousand hills crimsoned through
By their serried woods deep-dyed,
And a hundred barges vying
Over crystal blue waters.
Eagles cleave the air,
Fish glide under the shallow water;
Under freezing skies a million creatures contend in freedom.
Brooding over this immensity,
I ask, on this bondless land
Who rules over human destiny?

Chairman Mao upon finished reciting the poem, then looked at Secretary Kissinger and asked “Who rules over human destiny”, ”Who hold sways over human destiny?”.

Secretary Kissinger pondered for a short while and then responded, “Control oil, you control the nations, control food, you control the people, control money, you control the world”.
“Bankers-capitalists own the world and rule the world, Mr.Chairman, capitalism is a necessary condition for freedom” said Secretary Kissinger.

Chairman Mao quietly nodded his head and then he turned to Comrade Deng for his reply.

“I strongly agree! Mr. Chairman. We must restructure our society hierarchy to be such that the profession being the most minority should be at the bottom of human food chain and the majority merchants and traders should be placed at the top of human food chain, that way, China shall enjoy freedom and prosperity. After all, to get rich is glorious!”, Comrade Deng exclaimed.

A brief moment of silence hung in the chamber after Comrade Deng’s uttered words. Then Chairman Mao, smiled and burst out laughing and soon after, all of them were laughing too.

So to cut the story short, the meeting ended and few days later Secretary Kissinger returned back to U.S , convinced that he has successfully opened China’s door to the world.

Chairman Mao, meanwhile, had no doubts in his mind in designating Comrade Deng as his successor, and few years down the road, he passed away.

In 1978, Comrade Deng ousted Hua Guofeng’s clique and rose to prominence position within CPC and soon economics reform starting to take root in China and since then, China continue to travel down this capitalism road and never looks back.

Moral of the story at this education blog:

Chen Chow -Top of human food chain
Tony P.
Kian Ming
John Lee
Charis -Bottom of human food chain

Shawn Tan said...

With regards to the issue of caning sec school students, I think that some of the teachers will argue that it is still needed. However, with regards to being sexually assaulted, that's quite wrong under any context.

However, the trouble with sexual assault is 'proving' it. Often, it degenerates down into a 'my word against yours' kind of situation. In this particular case, there may have been witnesses but in other cases, the teachers may have taken the students aside - which is what they are supposed to do anyway.

Might be a good time to start installing CCTV cameras in schools.

Unknown said...

Hi Tony, Kian Ming,

here is your chance to kill the JPA scholarship boogey once and for all!

TOday there was a report in the star about rejection of JPA scholarship.

Notice the criteria of 60% race component!

This is ridiculous! Gather everyone and hold them accountable!


1. Publish the name of all JPA recipients and the scores they received.

2. The JPA interview, any english tested? What criteria?

3. THe A levels - what is the standard demanded? What if you flunk your A-levels? Why do they still send you to state universities/

Refer to this website:

It clearly claims that race is not a criteria!

Also: please publish the following statement by JPA director! This is something that should be publicised!

"There is another avenue, but it is a longer road. From this year, any Malaysian who gets into an Ivy League university (in the United States) or Oxford and Cambridge (in Britain) or the Group of Eight in Australia, will be sponsored by the government, but again, in specified fields of study.

If you didn’t do well in SPM, you still have a chance. Do A-Levels and work your butt off and get into Harvard, and a scholarship will be waiting for you."

Even though I don't think Australian universities are comparable to Ivy league.

And here is another interesting statement:

"On May 11, we published on our website the results of people who have succeeded in getting the overseas scholarship.

The overseas programme is very competitive. The criteria is 70 points for academic excellence, 10 points for interview, 10 points for family economic background and 10 points for co-curricular activities."