What’s appropriate?

Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri

Every month, we bring you situations commonly faced by teachers that may be linked to the mental health of their students. We discuss possible responses and how you may approach these situations with sensitivity and mindfulness. Most often these “problem cases” are a topic of discussion in the staffroom and teachers use this opportunity to learn from one another. We hope you will use these cases to exchange views on appropriate teacher responses and share your stories with us at gaiha@stanford.edu.

Sia and Sahil like each other. They are constantly bunking classes together. You cannot leave the rest of the class to look for them. You are also the class teacher.

Sia and Sahil liking or dating each other is their personal choice, but the fact that they are bunking classes is a discipline issue. It is important to understand the difference between the two because the first one is a moral issue and each teacher has their own take on the same. So how do you decide whether their behaviour is appropriate? It’s important to understand that teenage students, like Sia and Sahil may be going through one or more of these situations:
• Experiencing genuine feelings for one another as special friends.
• Facing pressure to come together as boyfriend/girlfriend or as a ‘couple’.
• Seeking attention or being together to be perceived as ‘cool’.
• Feeling lonely, and thus finding comfort in talking to and confiding in each other.
• Excited to experiment with sexual or physical relations.

Some teachers believe that relationships between boys and girls at this age are a distraction and may potentially lead to poor academic performance. Others believe that they are a training ground for relationships in the real world, where students learn to manage ups and downs, moods and emotions while retaining a focus on studies. It is important to bear all this in mind while interacting with such students as their behaviour will likely be difficult to change. But as an educator, two students missing their classes needs to be addressed.

With Sia and Sahil: Meeting them together and talking to them about their absenteeism is needed. You may ask them why they are not attending classes and remind them about attendance requirements, and that if they see a future together they must work towards a secure career first. Mention that you want what is best for them. They may fall silent and not give you answers, but it is important to give them a fair warning. While you could threaten them that you will inform their parents, or that they must break off their relationship – such discussions are more likely to push them to act out and not trust you. You must explain the damage that their distraction can cause to their academic performance and even in bringing out their talents and hobbies. The need for balance is something you cannot stress enough. If they are seen to miss classes again, they must be made aware that the matter may be escalated: a written warning followed by a meeting with the principal in the presence of parents. Check the school norms for absenteeism.

With other students: Avoid making any reference to Sia and Sahil missing classes together. This may overcome any additional attention that they can gain from being absent. Sending other students from their class to go and look for them may make them feel more important. You may arrange for a meeting with them by sending a student from a different class out to search for them or if there is an announcement system, ask for their names to be called out. In case other students mention it, stress that Sia and Sahil are losing out on learning and will later realize the value of class discipline.

This column was co-written by Shivani Mathur Gaiha and Spandana Kommuri. Shivani is a public mental health communication practitioner and post doctoral research fellow at Stanford University. Spandana is a counsellor, work-life coach and trainer with eight years experience, currently working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Hyderabad) apart from carrying on with her consulting work. She is also a registered practitioner of RE-CBT from Ellis Institute, New York. This activity has been conducted under a public engagement grant awarded to Shivani by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.

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