Student Violence

21 Feb
( This article was published in the Times of India blogs on February 15, 2012)

A student stabs a teacher to death in Chennai and we are shocked. This is not the country we grew up in, we exclaim. This kind of violence happens only in the West, not here – say local observers.

It is true that countries such as the USA and the UK have seen a few tragic incidents caused by teenage rage. There have been numerous cases where gun toting teenagers have gone on a rampage in a school shooting down their peers indiscriminately. The case in Chennai, in contrast, was a targeted stabbing – where one teacher, who he said was strict – was attacked and killed.  The UK too has had its share of student violence. Despite laws against carrying a concealed weapon, it is not unusual for students to go into secondary schools, carrying large and dangerous weapons concealed on their person and bags. Many schools have installed metal detectors to keep them out. Students say that they feel safer with weapons, though statistics say that carrying or brandishing a weapon almost always escalates the incident and causes more damage to the person showing the weapon. Youth violence and a culture of gang wars have spread to schools causing teachers to curtail their expectations when teaching to within classroom matters.

We would like to believe that such a violent culture has not come to India, that teachers are still revered in the old traditions. Yet, anecdotal  evidence gathered from many schools does not prop up this belief. Teachers report a high degree of aggression from students who are physically larger than them. These are often students who have not been academic achievers – some even scoring zero in their annual examinations, and yet having been promoted year on year due to regulatory compulsions. Students cannot be held back until class 8, which is when they first experience the consequences of their failure. Some do threaten their teachers with consequences if they receive negative feedback or a telling off. Some teachers have certainly been attacked, and there is nothing that a school system can do to stop this aggression, though of course they have tried.

Where is all this anger coming from? This cannot just be an isolated, disturbed child, for similar rumblings can be heard across the nation, if we care to listen. We, as a society, are getting more aggressive for various reasons – political, social, systemic and economic. An economy that sees rapid growth often sees a collapse of traditional societal norms, as they struggle to evolve at the pace of the former. The student in question blamed a movie, his elders have blamed the fact that he was given money everyday, which ‘spoilt’ him. Others comment on the lack of values and value education in schools. All speculative and facile reasons, for the truth may be much more disturbing.

Let the teaching community use this as a moment of self reflection. Do teachers do all that they can to sustain and nurture the learning values of every child? Are they professional and dedicated enough to go beyond their own ego, their own limitations and focus only on the great responsibility that they hold? Teachers, especially in India are incredibly negative. They discipline with humiliation, often ritually so. Many of them are violent. In the same week as the news of a student stabbing a teacher comes the news of a teacher beating up a young child who could not perform a task – so much so that the child was blinded. This is worse than unprofessional, this is criminal.

A lot of teaching is focused on what went wrong, on correcting mistakes and on punishing the improper. The big red cross on the paper dominates. Criticism often devastates the learner, and insecure learners suffer the most. If the teacher is unable to assess the range of insecurities in the class – and they certainly are not trained or expected to – then, it may be more professional to work towards always using constructive criticism. Positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement, especially in younger groups. A child who could not achieve a target may benefit from spending more supported time on the task rather than on a ‘punishment’ that only creates resentment, self loathing and anger against a hazy sense of wrong. The psychological effects of these events are lifelong. An unkind word has been known to create learning disabilities – witness those who think they cannot write, draw or sing, just because a teacher once said so.

Maybe the process of learning and assessment needs to move to a space where achievements are celebrated more than failures vilified. I would love to see the phrase ‘ You are wrong’ replaced by ‘try it another way’, thus embedding the thought that there is always an alternative. Acknowledging alternatives when things go wrong is an essential tool for survival. Especially for a nation where student angst often leads to suicide. There is nothing more powerful than a teacher who fosters a confident child, there is nothing more tragic than a teacher who breaks the will to win.

The rage and the angst that we see cannot grow but in a vacuum, one that is created when the joy of learning no longer has any value. A value that needs to be supported by the educational and social community.


One Response to “Student Violence”

  1. apurva parekh July 6, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    It is sad that students are becoming more violent and rough today than ever before probably because they have never experienced love and a touch of care and so hatred sets in and rebellious behaviour results causing more pain and anguish to those who love them the most.

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