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School CP - June 2006
The Star, Kuala Lumpur, 18 June 2006
By Mallika Vasugi
HOW DO teachers handle discipline problems now that they are no longer allowed to punish students like in the old days?
The person who asked the question was in his late 40's, not a teacher, and by "old days" he probably meant some 20 to 30 years ago when it was not uncommon to see teachers "armed" with canes, especially before they entered notoriously unmanageable classes. (Feather dusters and metre-rules were popular and effective substitutes when the need arose).
I remember Pn Saro, a colleague during my first year of teaching, a matronly figure clad in sensibly starched cotton saris who taught Home Science and English to the 2nd Form.
"The back of a wooden ladle applied swiftly and surely to belligerent and disruptive bottoms nips any possibility of similar repetitive behavior in the near future," she informed me crisply once when I asked her why she came to school each day with a huge wooden batter ladle in her bag.
Tried and tested
Other archaic "corrective methods" that I recall were the "running around the field three times" (A friend tells me they still do that sometimes in her school); standing in a corner or outside the classroom and of course the now infamous ketuk ketampi (ear squats). Based on stories told to me by long retired teachers, with allowances for the occasional exaggeration, punishment methods during their time were even more ferocious.
"We had whole bunches of wooden rulers tied together," boasted one such punishment survivor of the 1960's. "Our Maths teacher kept them under lock and key in the teachers' table. Each time we misbehaved or failed to do our Maths homework, out would come one dreaded ‘bunch' deep from the drawer. After one sharp thwack on the palm, no boy in class would ever forget to complete his Maths homework again. Sadistic? Perhaps..." he mused, "but one thing's for sure, that is the sole reason I can do long division and fractions in my head right till today. Not like all these youngsters nowadays. Pah! Turning to the calculator for every simple sum. They need calculator rehabilitation, let me tell you?"
Another "punishment in grades" started with being made to stand at the back of the classroom for minor offences. Second-time offenders had to stand on their chairs. This progressed to standing on the table and the final step was standing on the table placed outside the classroom.
The main objective probably was to embarrass, perhaps humiliate and to serve as a warning to would-be offenders. Often the punishment backfired because instead of feeling remorse or shame, some of the boys actually enjoyed their new "exalted" position and proceeded to continue disrupting the class with loud comments and long explanations for the benefit of curious passers-by.
Curbs on caning
These days, caning is not entirely obsolete. However there is a long list of stipulated guidelines concerning this form of punishment which outlines who exactly is allowed to cane students, the number of strokes, technique, offences that warrant caning etc.
Female students are definitely exempted. Counselling sessions are usually arranged. Then we have the surat amaran (warning letters), sent out at intervals and if there is no improvement in the student's behaviour, the parents may be called to meet with school administrators.
At times suspension letters are issued for more serious offences. When all else fails the student will finally be issued an expulsion notice. But this is uncommon and done only as a last resort or when the authorities feel that the particular student is a threat to the harmony or well-being of other students in the school.
Sending errant students in the class to the discipline master is probably the most common and probably overused action resorted to by subject or class teachers.
"Why can't teachers handle these minor problems on their own," complained one much-harassed and agitated discipline teacher who was overburdened with trivial discipline cases sent in by teachers. "It isn't only us in the school discipline board who are solely responsible for the students' discipline, you know. After all, handling student discipline is part of the job-description of every regular teacher. Why do I have to do the dirty work all the time?"
"What else can we do?" asks another teacher. "We can't cane them, make them stand or ask them to leave the class however badly they behave. Reprimands are like water off a duck's back. We don't want to lose our temper or shout. It's no use meting out extra homework or lines as a punishment – it will never be done. So we send them to the discipline room."
Some teachers I know have novel punishment methods which may not meet the approval of the education authorities. A colleague who teaches carpentry and woodwork to some of the most notorious boys during the Living Skills period swears by the "dictatorial fear- instilling" method as he calls it. He threatens to saw off parts of their body or hammer their heads together if they don't behave or follow instructions.
"Look," he says. "My Kemahiran Hidup bengkel (Living Skills Workshop) is full of all kinds of instruments and appliances which could become potentially dangerous weapons.
"Now, with 21 unruly, boisterous boys who think drilling holes into their partner's trousers is a great game, either I have to become a chief commando of sorts or risk having a major accident each time the boys do their projects."
What happens when things get stolen, wallets for instance?
"We usually have a list of ‘suspects' based on ‘information' we receive," said En Ali, who handled such cases in his school. "We can't be calling up the police each time this happens, but we have one or two..er? rather effective methods of getting a confession."
After some persuasion, En Ali agreed to divulge one of his secret methods.
"We get a basin of water from the school tap. Get some leaves, flowers, grass-like stuff and strew them on the surface. Then we get our most senior teacher to recite some mumbo-jumbo incantations over the basin in front of our row of suspects. We tell them to take a sip of the now-magical water. The guilty student, we inform them would have an instant crippling stomach-ache if he drank the water. Confessions are made almost immediately and stolen property returned. The moral? Always depend on the fear of the unknown to make things known."
As far-out as that may seem (and yes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction) there was an even more novel discipline method employed by a teacher I met at a course, who was at her wit's end, handling a class of 35 students who were not only rude, rebellious and disorderly, but couldn't communicate in either English or Bahasa Melayu.
"Perhaps I was a little mad myself," she admits, "when I made that trip to the coffin-shop and asked to buy a picture depicting what looked to me like the God of Hell. I took it back to the class, stuck it on the notice board and informed them that since they were all no better than demons in hell, it was probably good to have someone from home to watch over them. I know what I did was probably against all teaching principles, but it worked, you know. I never had problems with that class again."
Desperate times call for desperate measures and while it is easy to talk about how student discipline should be ideally handled, the actual scenario may be far different from the imagined. Sometimes it is whatever works that counts. And whether that would be professionally acceptable is something the teacher herself has to answer. There are no pat answers all the time.
Copyright © 1995-2006 Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)
The Star, Kuala Lumpur, 29 June 2006
Cracking the whip and putting things in order
HOUSING and Local Government Minister Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting was tasked with handling the disciplinary problems at CHS when he was teaching there from 1983 to 1985.
"It was called the 'gangster school' then because some problematic students were being made use of by outside gangsters. They became representatives of some gangster groups to collect protection money and recruit gang members," said Ong.
He said although the number was not significant compared to the total population, it was enough to affect the morale of teachers and students.
"There was also quite a number of students who came from urban slum areas and problematic families, and they used vulgar and abusive language most of the time in school. They created a lot of disciplinary problems for teachers and schoolmates. The disciplinary situation was far from satisfactory.
The then school principal, Brother Paul Song, gave Ong full power to discipline the students. With the help of several assistant disciplinary masters, Ong went all out to put the school in order.
"I took the lead to confront the masterminds in school. The 'big brothers' were identified.
"We introduced public caning and suspended a few of the stubborn leaders. I invited the anti-secret society police officers to come to school and gave assurance to victims forced to pay monthly protection money. I caned a few notorious characters and put them under close supervision. Eventually, we had to expel the mastermind.
"When I showed my decisiveness and took a series of uncompromising actions, more students came forward to seek protection and revealed more information.
"The morale in school was revived. Teachers were more daring in disciplining students," he recalled.
The stubborn students did try the teachers' patience but Ong and his team were in high spirits and went the extra mile with care and counselling.
"We used a psychological approach to win them over. I shared my teenage experiences with them during counselling sessions. Some of them were very touched by what I told them and realised their mistakes," he said.
"Very often, I stayed back after school to talk to problematic students. I called parents to tell them their children's problems," said Ong, who also went to nearby shopping centres to look for students who played truant.
Though tough, the teaching experience was nevertheless rewarding for the minister.
"I felt rewarded when some of them came back and thanked me for spending time with them to understand their problems.
"I am very glad that the team could put the school's disciplinary state on the right track and restored both the teachers' and students' sense of security.
"With a more conducive environment, teachers were able to give their best and hence make Catholic High School one of the best secondary schools in academic and co-curriculum results," added Ong.
© 1995-2005 Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)
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