Pushed into a Corner

Jul 23, 2013, 01:57 IST | Fatema Pittalwala

Teachers are increasingly wary of upbraiding children as a brittle generation, faced with intense pressure, threatens suicide at the slightest instance or perceived humiliation. Parents add to the problem, saying they will lawyer up if a teacher dare discipline their child

Increasing reports about students committing suicide indicate that there is something seriously wrong, either in the education system, or teaching methods, or in the mental makeup of today’s students. It could even be a combination of all three. While we tend to get carried away by the sheer tragedy of such reports, we are apt to forget how teachers, who are habitually blamed for this by the media, society and parents, react or feel.

Illustration/Amit Bandre

Teaching is not everyone’s cup of tea. It demands a lot of stamina, oceans of patience, and a sense of humour coupled with a grasp of child psychology. All this, in addition to knowledge of the subject, of course. But the days when students would look up to their teachers with respect are no more. Now, students feel -- and exhibit -- contempt, anger and even hatred, for their teachers.

Change is a must: Swati Popat Vats. Pic /Abhinav Kocharekar

This indicates a paradigm shift in the relationship between teacher and student, which has become fluid and even weakened, along with the numerous walls that modernization has broken down. Students are no longer intimidated by teachers, and increasingly vocal parents mean that teachers too are under pressure. Students can see this. Moreover, with classroom sizes increasing, it is simply not possible for teachers to note behaviour changes in individual students, or indeed get their attention with a public address system.

With good intentions: Principal Farrukh Waris of Burhani College does not believe in sparing the rod for the child’s benefit PIC/Datta Kumbhar

Swati Popat Vats, President of Podar Education Network says, “Parents are very rude to teachers and I don’t think it is an easy job being a teacher. It is also very important that the teacher is respected. Previously, a teacher was treated like a goddess. Parents and schools would always listen to her. But today schools dismiss a teacher whenever they want; parents come up and say, ‘I am paying your salary, do what my child wants you to do’.”

Last thoughts: Professor Farhat Khan. Pic/Datta Khumbhar

When you talk about a child committing suicide, two people should have seen it coming: a parent and a teacher. The fact that both of them didn’t see it coming, tells us that something is clearly wrong. If a teacher is blamed for a child’s suicide, it is something that one can never recover from. It weighs on a teacher’s mind forever that ‘I caused something like this’. Even though she may not have caused it, ultimately what society feels is going to impact the teachers. It is going to affect their emotions, their psychology and how they will cope with it. In this case, some teachers end up taking their frustration out on other students, some may go into depression, or some may quit their jobs,” Vats explains.

Team work: Dr Zirak Marker wants to focus on teacher-student collaboration. Pic/ Datta Kumbhar

She further adds, “Humiliation is something that adolescents can’t take. They are in a developing stage and being insulted, especially in front of their peers, is something they can’t handle. So they will they will answer back, they will insult you and this aggravates the situation if you start making it a tennis match. With adolescents, suicide is a spur-of-the-moment decision. In a fit of anger you may take something and break it, and later you may regret breaking it. But here, since it is a suicide, there is no chance given to them to rethink their decision. Suicide is something which is very final, which most adolescents don’t know.”

Vats explained that, a school is like a mini community. Everybody is very concerned about what others think of them. In a classroom students are very aware about what other students think of them, teachers are very aware of what students as well as other teachers’ think of them. So it does impact the psychology of the teacher and student when gossip and allegations go around.

Vats says, “Teachers have not been able to change with the changing scenario of the classroom. It is a time for awakening. So many suicides are happening -- what are we doing? Are we just discussing it in the media or are we trying to find solutions? Teachers need to be trained to identify problems with children. Parental grooming is also required. They need to be counselled and guided. There should be a uniform, discipline management policy in schools, across classrooms. This is a must.”

Recalling an incident with one of her students, principal Farrukh Waris, of Burhani College, Mazgaon, says, “We are walking a tightrope. As teachers, we have a very strong value system of dos and don’ts, and hurting another person is not an option. Teachers have a very difficult existence. A girl student failed in five subjects out of seven in her first semester exam. Unfortunately three days later, she met with an accident and she could not attend the greater part of the second semester.

But she did come back for the exams of the second semester; teachers accepted her projects without deadlines, provided notes and handouts. Now she and her mother threatened us and said, ‘If you do not promote her to the second year of commerce, she will kill herself’. How can I promote the child if she does not even attempt to give her first semester exam? Giving that understanding and support to students has a flip side and that flip side is very hurtful. Students are misusing the position they enjoy, by threatening something as extreme as suicide -- and they are well aware of it.

“There was another episode where the brother of one of our students wanted to sit for an exam as a dummy, in place of the student, who was out of town. When I did not allow it he said, ‘I’ll shoot you, I’ll gun you!’ I wasn’t scared by the threat, I guess I am far too old to be scared now,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Dr Farhat Khan, history professor at Burhani College, feels that each teacher has to be a counsellor as well. Though it is not mandatory, it is understood that the teacher should be accessible to a student, anywhere and everywhere, not just in the classroom.

She says, “The entire approach, as far as the teacher-student relationship is concerned, has changed. I have had not only students, but also parents threatening me. They tell me, ‘mera beta apni jaan le lenga agar apne kuch kiya nahin’, (My son will take his life if you don’t do anything about it). They even come up and say, ‘I will go to the trustee’ or ‘the next time you will hear from my lawyer’. It is very tricky managing students. Now teachers are no longer teachers; they are supposed to be facilitators. We are stern where we have to be, but humiliating students, and taking them for granted, is not acceptable and will lead them to take drastic steps. Once, a watchman stopped a student from entering the college because he didn’t have an identity card. We were later told that he had gulped down tablets! Change is setting in among teachers, but parents also need counselling. There are no bad children but there are bad parents.”

Mamta Mehrotra, a single working mother in Mumbai, feels that if a child commits suicide and blames it on the teacher through a suicide note, the parents may agree to it as they are going through something traumatic and it is easy to blame a third party. Though it is not a blame game, but when a teacher is blamed for a child’s suicide, it is wrong, she says. Mehrotra says, “Each child deals with an emotional trauma differently. Some may be calm and glide through the rough patch, while others just don’t know how to deal with it. In India, with each class having 40 or so children, it is very difficult for teachers to provide them attention. They won’t have the time to go to their students and ask them ‘let me know if you have a problem’.”

Mehrotra feels that, there are expectations from both parents and teachers, and when the child is under stress, he may not know where to turn for help. She says, “The older generation is much stronger and better, because they were disciplined in schools. Today, the kids are more emotionally vulnerable. They are offended by inanities and then they end up taking extreme steps. Hence, because it is so hard to understand the mentality of kids these days, teachers are afraid of being tough with them. They don’t know how a student would react and they are afraid of disciplining a child. I have seen parents overdo things, compensating for not having enough time for their kids. The love and the quality time are replaced by material possessions. In the end, the buck stops with parents. I stand by teachers and I feel the change has to start with counselling of the child, teachers and parents.”

Child and adult psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Dr Zirak Marker believes, “Teachers are not afraid, but they are definitely more alert about what to say to children. They have to be more cautious as kids today, are more fragile. Instead of reprimanding a child in front of the entire class a teacher should rather have a one-on-one session and try to understand the behavioural pattern. Teachers are overworked and are under enormous stress. In that environment it is very hard to spot the troubled child.” Marker stresses on the fact that a child and a teacher should work as a team. “I don’t blame the teachers, but the whole system has to be changed. Mental health and strength should be given utmost priority. Counselling sessions are a must, not only for children and teachers but also for parents.” 

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