Published: July 10, 2008 at 9:00am
What’s happened to teachers and headmasters, that they no longer seem to have an aura of forbidding authority about them? I’m sure I am not the only one to remember the teachers and headmistresses of my school years as being a pretty offputting bunch on the whole, rather than approachable and friendly, still less the sort you could hit a ball at without fear of giant retribution. Now it appears that even parents are attacking teachers and heads of schools and their solution, instead of filing a police report and instilling discipline, is to cower at home and make a fuss.
Whatever training teachers are getting nowadays, and I know this through 17 years’ worth of parents’ evenings and more besides, it does not seem to involve controlling a class full of children and instruction in how to command respect. Those of my sons’ teachers who had authority and were able to command respect from even the most rebellious children had natural authority. They were born leaders; nobody taught them. The rest ranged from can-get-along to hopeless to disastrous.
One wet teacher was so far into outer space that she didn’t even realise she was an object of contempt for her pupils. Another spoke extremely poor English and when she corrected the children’s essays, she put mistakes into them, in bright red, instead of pointing out their mistakes. Yet for some odd reason – teacher shortage? – she had been hired to teach children who spoke English as a first language. The result was that she immediately lost every last shred of authority over them (“Miss, you can’t even spell”). The last straw for me was when I turned up at school on parents’ day – which in my parents’ time was parents’ evening, but now the teachers’ union is much stronger, so thousands of parents have to take a day off work so that a few teachers don’t have to give up an evening – only to be told by one of the teachers: “You must make sure your son behaves in class. He walks around having conversations with his classmates as though he’s at a party, and he won’t sit down.”
I was rather taken aback, just as the teacher was at my suggestion that it was his job to maintain order in the classroom, not the job of a parent who was miles away at home or at work. Maintain order in the classroom? Gosh, now that’s a new concept. So I had to tell him what to do. Tell the boy to sit down at once, I said, and sound really scary and as though you mean it. If he senses the slightest weakness and suspects he can get away with it, he’ll carry on ignoring you and chatting to his friends. Is this so hard to understand? Well, apparently it is. Yet children are quite forensic in identifying the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of grown-ups in positions of authority. All but the most naturally obedient children are going to try and get away with whatever they can. I know I did, and I had a line-up of dragons to teach me, not softies.
Now we have the news that a headmaster, no less, has spent a full three months recovering at home from “the trauma he suffered in violent assaults committed on him and other teachers”, or so the newspaper report of the court proceedings tells us. He is not recovering from the physical damage, you understand, but is suffering from what an older generation used to call ‘his nerves’. When I hear of these things, I wonder what men like this would have done if they had been born a hundred years earlier and sent off to fight in the trenches aged 17. I mean, really. If we all ran away from our jobs because we had the chance to stay at home while receiving a pay cheque and pleading a nervous disposition (or as in the case of that judge, staying at home with a crisis of conscience and full pay for several years), how would things end up? This man would not be paid to stay at home for three months in the private sector. He can do so only because he works at a state school, and meanwhile, his school has been left without a headmaster.
This news came out during the proceedings against a man who assaulted and scarred a teacher at that same school. The teacher had threatened to snap his girlfriend’s son’s neck when the boy kicked a ball at him in the school playground and hurt his leg. The man who assaulted the teacher was very much in the wrong, it should go without saying. But so was the teacher. A teacher threatening to snap a pupil’s neck is a disciplinary offence, and with good reason. Teachers are there to lead by example, and should not use the same vain and violent threats that one hears from gutter-parents in Valletta’s Republic Street. The man was right to take up the matter with the teacher (he couldn’t go to the head because the head was at home, resting his nerves), but he went about it in completely the wrong way. He should simply have registered a formal complaint about the teacher’s use of violent language towards a child.
Some people who commented about the story said that the teacher was justified in speaking as he did, because violent language is the only kind that “these people” understand. Ah, but children don’t only go to school to be academically educated, but to learn different ways of behaving and of being. If their parents threaten to snap their necks, then their teachers should show them that there is a different way of exercising discipline.
Teachers also commented, complaining that their job is now very tough because all the changes in society have led to the presence of ill-behaved brats in the classroom. It is not a coincidence that none of them belongs to the older generation of teachers, who would tell them that nasty, naughty, disturbed and difficult children have always existed. It’s just that today’s teachers don’t know how to handle them. The school I went to was chockful of troublesome girls, several of whom came from other schools from which they had been expelled, and others were forever being suspended, kept in detention, and occasionally, sent home never to return. But there was never any question of either the teachers or the headmistress being scared of them or intimidated by them. There was never any doubt as to who was in authority and who was not. I think back to that procession of dragons, and I have no doubt that even now they would have no trouble at all putting a recalcitrant child in its place with a single cold glare. Even the nice teachers – the young and pretty ones we liked – had considerable authority and could quell us by rapping very loudly on the table. I think they could have quelled a pub full of drunken people with that rapping.
One never hears of sergeant-majors running home for three months suffering from their nerves because their soldiers are playing up and won’t obey, or because the parents of new recruits come along to physically assault them. And there’s the clue. Schools, state schools and private schools, used to be run with regimental discipline, and the system worked. Now, being a teacher is just another job, and headmasters stay at home suffering from nerves, and the system doesn’t work.
Too many schools and too many teachers (and also, too many parents) don’t understand this simple fact about the psychology of children: they need to respect the adults who are in positions of authority over them. If they do not respect them, they will not obey them, unless it is because of fear. Instilling fear is not an option in today’s world, so it must be respect.