Many years ago I witnessed a class XI boy hurl a shard of metal at his teacher. The heavy metal had rusted, but its edges were still quite sharp. Had it not narrowly missed the teacher, her face would have been seriously injured, not just bruised. Did the boy want to see her injured and bleeding? I am not sure, but his general aim was to hurt her grievously.
After the class was over, I asked him why he wanted to hurt his teacher. He couldn’t come up with a clear answer, and two other boys sitting at his bench were equally eager to drop the matter. The teacher herself wasn’t too keen to punish the boys. She was a trainee. She knew she would get nowhere if she complained. I spoke to other teachers in the school, some of them senior and permanent. They also seemed unbothered. “These boys are like that,” offered one of them.
Teachers are generally aware of the dangers of casual violence they face. They are also aware of their lack of status and power. The boys who occasionally assault them also know that. One of my best trainees was told by a boy in her chemistry class: “What do you earn? My pocket money is more than your monthly salary.”
She knew he was right. She was a brilliant student herself with a broad perspective and it didn’t take her long to become the principal of a prestigious school in Delhi. She told me that it’s their home environments which make boys arrogant and incapable of self-control. Teachers are, of course, not the only targets of their aggression. Girl children are more vulnerable than teachers. In schools where the gender ratio is skewed, boys constantly bully girl students.
Most people want to know if something can be done to abate the culture of aggression and violence in many of our schools today. The murder of a small child and shooting of a principal are extreme instances of the type of news we are getting used to. There are people who hold teachers responsible for their loss of status and the respect their profession once enjoyed.
The belief that teachers were greatly respected is inaccurate. Neither in colonial times nor since independence, have school teachers enjoyed much social prestige. The market value of their work has been steadily declining. The view that it is a good career option for women because it is compatible with their role as housewives is substantially true. Their training is outdated and weak and the institutes where it is imparted have acquired the reputation of being both corrupt and academically hollow.
On the other hand, male children continue to be groomed for aggressive behaviour. While girl children are being told that they are equal, they seldom get respite from the anxiety and vulnerability they feel all the time. For a short while, in the 1980s, it seemed as if social norms were changing. But then, during the 1990s, the old rules of patriarchal dominance acquired renewed power and sanction. Television and popular cinema, advertising and role-models, all turned into active resources for boys to learn that aggression is normal male behaviour.
On the other hand, girl children were targeted by the global cosmetics industry. Their upbringing returned to the old norm of preparing them for matrimony. The new media culture induced them to cheerfully participate in their own consumption. Sensitive parents became a minority, and teachers trying to inculcate gender parity began to feel lost. No effort has been spared to make gender equality a core component of the curriculum, but schools and colleges find it increasingly tough to make male behaviour gentler towards girls as well as women teachers. Both state and society need to spend more time to reflect on possible ways for humanising malehood.
As for teachers, their professional vulnerability must be addressed if we want them to improve their engagement with male and female children. The ethos of schools must change for teachers to believe they are in charge and trusted. This larger agenda requires time and attention which governments can seldom spare. Search for quick fixes has repeatedly proved futile, yet it goes on.
A good starting point for solutions is in developing the type of schools where teachers don’t feel vulnerable to student violence. Among the schools of this type I know, nearly all have benign and thoughtful principals. The presence of someone in authority who understands the complex ways in which our schools are affected by the culture of violence which pervades the larger social ethos, makes a big difference. This doesn’t require principals to be vocal or exercise leadership in overt ways. Rather, it requires tacit empathy to be communicated to teachers, that makes a difference.
Together, a principal and teachers can create an ethos where students appreciate the effort their institution is making to make their lives and education worthwhile. Once the students know what their school is trying to do for them, they are likely to find inner resources to control their behaviour.
(Dr. Krishna Kumar is former professor of education at Delhi University and former director of NCERT)