Listening to the other

Thejaswi Shivanand

Selvi is a nine-year-old attending a middle school in a town in south India. She has been the target of attention from some of her classmates ever since she joined this school late last year, and this attention has resulted in her being bullied and excluded from her peer group. Selvi is unhappy and has been encouraged by her mother to stand up to her classmates. But she is scared and feels unsupported in the class to confront them. Her parents are busy and have not spoken to the teachers about her situation.

Tathagatha is a young teacher in a government school in rural central India. He notices his colleague in the neighbouring classroom physically beating children with a cane. He wishes to speak to the headmaster but does not want to lose the friendship of his colleague.

Selvi John is a high school teenager in north-eastern India. He has been having a difficult time at home with his parents facing a serious conflict in their marriage. His work at school has suffered over the past few months as a result. He faces questions from the teachers and home over his dropping grades. He feels ashamed to confide in his friends or teachers about his home situation.

Ayesha is an experienced teacher who recently joined an international school in Delhi. She has been asked to formulate daily lesson plans for her class 10 mathematics class despite having taught the class for over 15 years and having very favourable recommendations of her teaching skills from her previous school. She feels that this additional burden is not justified and wishes to speak to the high school unit head, but is afraid of souring her relationship with the head of the mathematics department in her school.

These are just four examples, from different contexts, of situations that are common in our schools. Children facing bullying at school and difficult home situations, teachers having difficulties with colleagues – haven’t we all faced such examples personally, or heard of them otherwise, in our work or home contexts? How are these situations dealt with typically? For instance, Selvi will probably be told to buck up, her bullies may or may not be punished, punishment may lead to resentment against Selvi and further instances of bullying, which may result in her being pulled out of that school and transferred to another. What if the pattern repeats in the new school? If Tathagatha complains, he may be told to restrict himself to his work and the headmaster may or may not take action. What should he do?

We can think of procedural and institutional responses in both these cases, in fact in all these cases. The responses could range from setting strict rules and action against bullying in the first case, firm guidelines for reporting and acting on physical punishment, but in John’s and Ayesha’s cases, which are more nuanced, are procedural responses sufficient? Will the threat of punishment and institutional intervention solve the problems of bullying or punishment? Will refresher courses for teachers on the impact of corporal punishment be sufficient to stop punishment?

The author is a part of Centre for Learning, an alternative school located near Bangalore. He teaches biology, statistics and chemistry to senior students and is closely involved in the school’s nature education and library programmes. He can be reached at dumaketu@gmail.com.

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