Occupational hazards

The gruesome murder of a teacher by a student in a Chennai high school classroom has brought a number of questions to the fore – about the process of education, the role of teachers, the expectations and preconceptions of students and parents in relation to the school system, the pressures on students… and so on. Perhaps at the core of all this is one larger question: who is responsible for the child’s development, and how do we judge age-appropriate behaviours between the home and the school? Is it at all possible to discern the micro-changes in behaviour that might signal the kind of breakdown that caused the student to resort to such extreme action? Who should have the task of identifying such breakdowns and then dealing with their consequences?

Speaking to a parent from a school where this particular teacher had been working, before her move to the current institution, I learned that Ms Uma Maheshwari had been a conscientious teacher, strict but sincere and competent. The “13 adverse notes” she had reportedly written in her assailant’s notebook were thought to be the trigger for his anger. Of course, the antecedents and the consequences of this act need to be considered at greater length and depth if we are to understand why this happened and what can be done within a school to make it less likely to happen.

This is not the first time a teacher has been attacked in the “line of action”, so to speak. Human Rights Watch reports that schools and particularly teachers are vulnerable to attack in various ways. Those who bring education to remote and underserved areas are often the target of extremist groups or even the State when the project of education is seen as a “radical” intervention that subverts the status quo. While such targeting is quite different from the kind of issues that underlie the Chennai incident, it all serves to underline the fact that schools have in some ways become the battleground for different ideologies, ideas and ideals. Teaching is no longer (and perhaps never has been) a safe and secure day job it was long thought to be.

Perhaps we all need to develop a sixth (or seventh?) sense that allows us to feel the pulse of the society, as it manifests itself in our classrooms and in our schools, and discern the small signs that tell us when danger is about to strike. But can education really happen in such an atmosphere of tension and watchfulness?