Taste of small victories
This is a short story of a small, privately run, English medium school in Bangalore. Nestled in the middle of an ethnically mixed, peaceful, albeit a little dirty (especially when it rains) community, the school actually has some really good practices. They have a running contest for class decorum and cleanliness everyday, and the monthly winner class can choose their own prize from some options. They have weekly extra curricular activities for the whole school which give the kids a break and a chance to explore their interests outside academics. The staff members are warm and helpful and have a deep sense of understanding of the community and the children’s parents. The school coordinator is really invested in the education of the children. And the children themselves are habitual of speaking in English (however broken).
But since this isn’t a dream, we ask ourselves – what’s the catch? It is that fear has been the common tool used by the teachers to drive discipline and (so they hope) learning in students.
In the short time that I was there, I could see a hundred things that could be the impact of that “strategy”. Both behaviorally and academically. And not just in my class. The conduct of some of the senior students, especially those with a strong build had an uncanny resemblance to their teachers. The sad part was the children themselves expected to be beaten. More than once they suggested caning as a consequence to me. Even in the absence of a teacher, when certain kids start “minding” the class, the common protocol was writing the names of unruly children, with the threat that X Sir or Y Miss will come and see the names. [I must shamelessly add that this last part was also a little funny, because most of the kids cant spell other children’s names. But somehow all parties know whose names are there on the board.]
Anyway, when I started using all my newly acquired BMC wisdom and pulled out some basic team trackers and started putting points for class behaviour, it seemed to stir things up a bit. For one, the children knew they wouldn’t be hit. As mine is a first year intervention class, this is the first time a teacher is not threatening the students into submission. That sense of relief and freedom also brought in some chaos. And this has been the topic of many of my conversations with my co teachers. They’ve remarked – sometimes jovially and sometimes like an elder sisterly advice – that I should not refrain from using a stick; or how teachers who didn’t used to hit have now resorted to it because “these children” don’t learn otherwise. So far I’ve just confined to stating that fear will, at the most, make kids sit still; they will perhaps mug up some answers, but will not understand. In the interest of building relationships at school, I have held back on asking the most pertinent question – what kind of adults will they grow into if our conduct as teachers only demonstrates the use of fear as a method to doing everything.
On one such particularly tiring day, after another one of those well intended conversations, as I was coming back to my class after a free period, I saw these girls at the board giving points to the different teams. One team had been given a bunch of 20’s and another team seemed to have responded with a few 100’s under their column. I dismissed the whole event almost irritably and continued with the lesson as best as I could and managed to finish the school day. It was not until the next day on my way to school that I saw the difference that my BMC, however ineffective I had thought it to be, had made. The kids who had been inadvertently calling out unruly kids were now trying to use rewards as the means to drive good behaviour.
And this has been my breakthrough! My kids, who were so used to fear, that they were using it inadvertently to hold their own friends to task, are now using rewards.
This, of course, is not a story which has ended. BMC continues to be a challenge in the classroom. But I hold in my heart that one example of mindsets being changed. Gradually, we will have more such stories that we will be able to share with the school staff so they will know joy is more potent than fear when it comes to managing and teaching impressionable little minds.