Ridding schools of fear

THIS file photo shows pupils at a primary school in Gugulethu. Overcrowded classes can lead to disciplinary problems. Phando Jikelo African News Agency (ANA)

LAST week, as lecturers, we interviewed prospective students who had expressed interest in enrolling for the course we offer. Out of the many absorbing interviews we conducted, the memorable one for me was with a student who comes from a rural area in KwaZulu-Natal. The student curiously asked the panellists: “How do you punish students here? Is there corporal punishment? 

When I was schooling corporal punishment was dished out like nobody’s business.” As funny as the question had sounded at the time, post the interviews I was deep in thought about the student’s words. To many, it is a no-brainer that universities do not administer corporal punishment. However, as someone who has been on the receiving end of this practice during my time at school, I would argue that some people are bound to internalise it and think everywhere they go they will be made to toe the line, ‘violently’.

Interestingly, this came up just after I had participated in an intriguing three-day corporal punishment colloquium at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Education. The colloquium offered an engagement space for various stakeholders including pupils, parents, teachers, student-teachers, and civil society. It was unsettling to listen to pupils who opened up about their gruelling experiences of being ‘violently’ disciplined.  Some of the teachers poured out their frustrations and what leads to corporal punishment.

At the end of the colloquium, there was a unanimous call to root out the ‘culture of violence’ in our societies and schools.  Deeply reflecting on the troubling culture of violence in the South African schooling system, the colloquium also reminded teachers that the administration of corporal punishment was both banned and unjustified, and that it should be brought to a halt.

As a university teacher, I was interested in how disciplinary methods shapes a child and how the effects manifest when they reach higher education. Having interacted with first-year students from different social backgrounds, I have observed and would argue that the normalised violence nicely-wrapped with a glamorous cover labelled ‘discipline’ could be one of the factors that impact on students’ sense of worth when they get to university. At worse, instead of encouraging pupils to take personal responsibility, corporal punishment produces the opposite effects. It leaves pupils distressed, discouraged and dispirited, and they carry this emotional burden to the university environment which requires independent thinking and personal responsibility.

Institutions of higher learning are vastly different from high schools. As most of us know and have experienced, teacher power gets minimalised. Any progressive lecturer would not use a monologue in the classroom where they only deliver the knowledge they possess more or less the same as in a church. Instead they would desire to engage with the students and even allow their very own knowledge to be contested. In that way, we see the communication power being decentralised, from one person (teacher) to everyone in the classroom. Even when students may display problematic behaviour in the classroom, lecturers would not attempt to use violence to deal with their students. They have been trained to proactively create a healthy learning environment without resorting to threats and physical violence.  Both in legal and moral terms, any physical act is considered violence. Therefore, lecturers are not an “authority” like at school. This attitude, as well as strategically decentralising power in the classroom, promotes scholarship and must be encouraged among high school teacher who play an important role of preparing pupils for the future.

The consequences of corporal punishment are severe and serve as a stumbling block for both intellectual and emotional development. Even the late Murray A. Straus – the American professor of sociology – was critical of this practice in his many works. He noted although many teachers underestimated the severity of corporal punishment, its results were awful. As children, who were victims of corporal punishment, grow, they are likely to lack self-esteem and self-efficacy, have self-doubt, and fear to question and hold others to account, writes Straus.

There are students who have no courage to stand and speak their mind, challenge dominant views they may disagree with, or engage on critical matters. What worries me is that the students might be struggling with a sense of worth amongst their peers.

What I have seen in my classes is that some students feel their voice has no place and they have to follow the teacher’s orders, even when they have to exercise their agency. There are students who approach me trembling and fear, so terrified and apologetic, when they have not done anything wrong. When I dig deeper, I would find that students regard me as “authority” and when I stand before them, they always want to be seen in a positive way like soldiers before a commander. I appreciate the respect I receive but when bestowed unduly, it disturbs me.

I do not see my students as a group of people who have come to a ‘factory’ and after three years they exit with a set of skills to use in the industry. I regard them as important agents of social reform. I have a moral responsibility to capacitate them with critical and innovative thinking, so they can go back to the society and practise in their respective professions with a conscious mind that is aware of its responsibility to the immediate society, national agenda, and ultimately the global one.

Considering the political status of SA, there is a lot of deviation that has to happen.  We want to see young people critiquing the status quo and taking leaders to task, but how does that happen when a student has been socialised into thinking they always have to obey ‘authority’ outrightly?

The education system in South Africa continues to produce the mentality of servitude. In my experience, there is a high level of anti-blackness in among teachers who see no space for reasoning with a pupil but regard “the stick” as the only way to get them into order. Nevertheless, parents are equally guilty as most have relieved themselves of the duty to work with teachers in nurturing the children.

It would be ignorant of me to think every student who has been subjected to corporal punishment lacks a sense of worth. There are confident students who have thrived despite the violence they went through, but we cannot neglect those who do not fare as well. It is important to note that we are not talking about an individual problem which could be deemed circumstantial. But we are talking about a system and structure of oppression which is sustained through many forms of violence. Other people can resist it and develop coping mechanisms but largely the majority usually fail and sink into oblivion.

I want a vibrant classroom where students speak their mind without fear. I want every student in my class to have a sense of belonging. Students who live in fear are hard to work with. A recent Facebook post by Nomkhuleko Ngubane moved me when she wrote: “I would rather my daughter be called a loudmouth than keep quiet when something, anything she doesn’t like is done to her. I would rather she be called unruly and rebellious than succumb to any norms of any institution even if she feels they go against what she believes. I would rather she be called disrespectful than let anyone walk over her because of their age or gender. I would rather she be called a nuisance for questioning everything than keep quiet and go with the flow! Things have changed; our children cannot grow up the same way we did!! Something has got to change!”.

UKZN has started the conversation. We need more voices and perspectives to engage on the subject so we all can have an insight into our own blind spots. The ultimate goal is to root out violence in schools and promote peace and social cohesion.

Sphelele Ngubane is a Chevening scholar and teaches at Durban University of Technology’s journalism programme.