Monday, October 29, 2012

A Vicious Cycle

Today I walked halfway home from school with two Grade 9 learners from the high school next to where I work. We split up when I had to turn onto my road and they had to keep walking to reach their homes. Our conversation started like all the others do: How old are you?, what's your name?, do you like living here?, etc. It quickly took a turn. The girls started to talk about one of their teachers and her method of punishing the class earlier in the day. "She beat us today. The stick she used was too big." ("Too" in South African English is comparable to "so" in American English.) "Did she hit you on the hand?" I asked, making a hitting motion to my own hands. "Yes, look." They both held out their hands and showed me red marks on the heel of their hands near their wrists. The entire class was punished this way. For what, I have no idea, but regardless, it doesn't justify something like that. "Would you ever beat your students, Miss?" the quieter of the two asked me. "Never," I replied. "How would you discipline them if they misbehaved in class?" "I would keep them in at break, prevent them from having fun with their friends. Hitting learners doesn't solve anything, it just makes them scared." "That is a good idea, we like that idea."

Keep in mind, this is a conversation that I'm having with ninth grade girls. We're not talking about music or boys or America, we're talking about how they don't like being hit by their teacher. If that doesn't indicate the severity of this problem, I don't know what will.

Corporal punishment is "illegal" in South Africa and has been since shortly after the end of the apartheid era. I'm putting illegal in quotes because it's deemed illegal in writing, but is still practiced to some extent. I've seen it at my school, but not as seriously as reports I've heard from other volunteers. I've seen kids slapped with plastic straps that keep egg cartons closed, kids brought to the front of the class so teachers can hit them with a stick, and kids hit in the head with teachers' cell phones during morning assembly. It blows my mind every single time. Corporal punishment was alive and well in apartheid years and part of the reason it still exists today is because those who are teaching now were educated under the policy when they were kids, so it's a vicious cycle of violence.

Hitting kids is widely practiced in this culture, especially by parents at home. But hitting kids in the classroom neither makes them stop what they're doing or fixes the problem at hand. I've heard accounts from a volunteer friend of mine who watched a teacher hit a learner because he didn't get the right answer. I'm pretty sure he didn't say the wrong answer because he wanted to get hit; he either doesn't understand or is not being taught the information well, both of which are extremely viable answers. Needless to say, the volunteer stood up and very visibly exited the class because she was uncomfortable sitting by while this took place.

The learners act much differently around me than they do the other teachers at our school. Maybe it's because I'm new, and young, and white, and because they want to touch my hair, but I also think it's because I treat them like human beings. There's a very obvious sort of master/slave relationship between teachers and learners in school. Learners have to knock at the door and wait to be invited in before they enter. They curtsy or bow when they talk to adults. Many look at the floor or don't make eye contact. Teachers send kids to do stupid little tasks like going to the next classroom down to get their bag, or sending them to buy a snack from the women who sell on the school grounds during break, or having them ask the teacher in the next classroom if they can borrow their stick (this happened twice last week). I hope teachers will learn from my practices that learners don't need to be hit when they get an answer wrong, but maybe need a little extra help; that by "detaining" (word choice of my counterpart and principal) learners, they will cease to act out in class or show up late; and that not every learner is "naughty," they just need to be treated with love and respect. They're the ones who will be leading this country and this world in a few short years, so they need to be brought up right.

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