We have all had great teachers who have shaped our lives. Yet, we can’t pretend that India’s education system is not broken. Most of it has to do with teachers. Indian school students famously don’t ask questions in class. If you ask questions, you are a problem child. When there is rote learning to see you through examinations, why do you need to ask questions?
There’s an institutionalised problem with student-teacher relationships in India’s schools. Teachers are revered authorities whose job is to discipline and punish. The classroom atmosphere is authoritarian. Students are encouraged to be afraid of teachers.
This culture of fear in the classroom is institutionalised by the ritual of Teacher’s Day, which puts teachers on a pedestal as demigods, instead of seeing them as professionals. The culture of deifying teachers comes in the way of honestly looking at what’s wrong with the teaching profession. And a lot is wrong.
It is estimated that teacher absenteeism costs India $2 billion (Rs13,337 crore) a year. Teacher absenteeism in India is nearly 25%—the third highest after Kenya and Uganda. Students and parents are often not in a position to question this malpractice due to the culture of authority and fear that is ingrained in our education system. The only way they can tackle this problem is by resorting to private tuitions—a huge industry in South Asia.
The more extreme forms of this classroom authoritarianism are corporal punishment and sexual abuse.
Less than two months ago, a 45-year-old computer teacher in Chennai was arrested for sexually assaulting a girl in the third grade. A few days ago, a teacher in Madurai sexually assaulted a boy in the class 10. In June, a teacher in Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu followed a girl student to the toilet to assault her.
Stories like these appear regularly in our newspapers. We see them as aberrations. Yet, if you were to see the regularity with which these appear—and these are just the reported cases—you will see an institutionalised culture of sexual abuse. Studies have found that in rural areas, many parents are reluctant to send the girl child to school for this reason. The news stories will always say ‘sexually assaulted’ but if you read them closely, they indicate nothing short of rape.
Even more common than sexual abuse is corporal punishment. Just some news stories from the last few months:
Karimnagar, Telangana: A nine-year-old girl died as a result of injuries caused by punishment in school.
Imphal, Manipur: A school teacher caned a student, resulting in a student body taking umbrage and beating up the teacher.
Batala, Punjab: Even a deaf and mute boy was beaten up for not doing homework, in Batala.
Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh: For stealing a pen, an eight-year-old was beaten up so badly by a principal that he died.
Baran, Rajasthan: A 16-year-old hanged himself to death after corporal punishment in school.
One wonders how excited children would be about Teacher’s Day when they go to school every morning fearing that oiled cane. What does Teacher’s Day mean to students who’ve suffered a permanently damaged ear drum, or landed in hospital or silently suffered sexual abuse that may traumatise them for the rest of their lives?
You might say these are isolated incidents. Not all teachers go around beating up little children for not doing homework. Consider this: In 2012, a survey across seven states by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights found that 99% students had experienced some form of corporal punishment. In the three-to-five years age group, 60% students surveyed said they had been caned. The most extreme form of punishment, electric shocks, was reported by 0.4% respondents.
Changing the culture of fear and violence in our schools should be a priority of the government. Sadly, the government is only exacerbating the idea of authority by making the ultimate authority, the president, teacher for a day.
It seems that what our teachers are teaching young minds is that we are a violent society. Those in power will use violence to tame the powerless.
If we agree that teachers are the most important people in nation-building—which is the premise of Teacher’s Day—then we must also hold them responsible for violence in society. In recent years, there have been arrests of school teachers not just in cases where the child has died, but also for the usual corporal punishment with canes. Yet, the practice continues to be rampant, indicating that along with law enforcement we need social change.
For such social change to take place, it is necessary to begin by abolishing Teacher’s Day, and perhaps converting it into student-teacher day. This should be a day when the nation should advocate a healthy relationship of trust, respect and equality between students and teachers. We need to move on from the homilies that we have been hearing about teachers every Sept. 05 for decades now.
On Teacher’s Day, children worry about buying greeting cards for teachers, and competing with fellow students in giving them fancy gifts. Instead, we should make them look forward to it as a day when they discuss with teachers how to make their school a better place, free of violence and bullying.
Instead of rote learning Rabindranath Tagore’s Where the Mind is Without Fear, students and teachers should together think about creating a world without fear, starting with their classroom. They should be imparted skills to deal with child sexual abuse, with failure and success, and together ask how to recover the homework that the dog ate.
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
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