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What you lose when you 'buy' an education



The gruesome murder of a Chennai schoolteacher by her 15-year-old student should serve as a wake-up call to educators and parents to focus on what is missing in the way we approach schooling.

Shock. Outrage. Fear. The brutal murder of a schoolteacher by a 15-year-old student in a classroom is chilling to the bone. While this atrocious act evokes strong emotions and will rightly be condemned by educators and parents, we simply cannot give vent to our emotions and then carry on as usual. Rather, this gruesome and tragic incident should serve as a wake-up call for us to take corrective action collectively and collaboratively. Both educators and parents have to respond to this alarming and heinous act before another person becomes a victim of unchecked and uncontrolled teenage angst. If we fail to act in a constructive manner, a dystopian future where children have to pass through scanners and their bags X-rayed before they enter schools that have CCTVs surveying every nook and cranny is not so far away.
First and foremost, every school should have a qualified counsellor who is accessible to students, teachers and parents. While the counsellor may address problems when they arise, she must also be an integral part of the school — otherwise teachers and students are unlikely to confide in her. In order to facilitate this process, a school in Chennai has sagely allotted Value Education classes to counsellors. This makes sense as students can be taught valuable and practical skills to help them deal with their confusions and conflicts. Value Education curricula need to be revamped to address real issues that students contend with. Programmes on anger management can be introduced as early as Grade I so that children learn acceptable and unacceptable ways of expressing negative emotions. Through stories, role-plays and activities, schools may impart social problem-solving skills and inculcate empathy.

Teacher training
Schools should also invest more heavily and wholeheartedly in teacher training. One-time workshops are not as beneficial as ongoing mentoring programmes where teachers can give and receive feedback on specific strategies. More experienced teachers may also guide their younger colleagues through buddy programmes. Teachers should be trained to identify children at risk of various psychological problems. Teaching is, indeed, a very taxing profession that is not accorded the status it deserves. Instead of working in isolation, managements should encourage teachers to work collaboratively on lesson plans, behaviour management policies and co-curricular activities. If schools have regular and frequent staff meetings, problems are more likely to come to the fore before they grow out of hand.
Another aspect that is seriously lacking in many schools is an open channel of communication between parents and teachers. Parents are as much to blame as schools in this regard as parents often make unreasonable demands. Further, some parents view “education” as a commodity that can be purchased and expect their children to be served like customers. This consumerist view of education is counterproductive as teachers feel belittled in the process and do not receive the respect that is due to them. As child psychologist Tamar Chansky points out, “children will pick up on any conflict between the parents and the school and will side with the parents, thus devaluing the school...” Schools may also have a grievance cell where thorny issues between students and teachers are raised and addressed confidentially.
The fact that media have infiltrated every aspect of our lives is another issue that we need to contend with. While there are immense benefits to digital devices, parents and students need to be cautioned about their ill-effects too. In addition to limiting television viewing to strictly not more than 30 minutes on school days, parents should also encourage children to self-monitor the content they view. If children happen to watch inappropriate content, it is best that it is followed up by a discussion. Almost every school introduces Computer Science as early as primary school; if schools can allot at least one period a week to Media Studies, children can be taught to discern and critique the information that bombards them from various channels.

Shun the utilitarian model
We, as a society, have embraced a very utilitarian model of education. For most Indians, the main aim of education is to get a good job that pays a lucrative salary. As a result, parents put undue pressure on their wards and teachers to obtain stellar results on examinations. Schools have also succumbed to this unidimensional perspective and advertise the number of rank holders and professional college placements. In the process, education has lost its soul.
The cultural critic Neil Postman writes, “There is no question that listlessness, ennui, and even violence in school are related to the fact that students have no useful role to play in society.” We need to reinvigorate our curricula so that students see meaning and purpose beyond fulfilling parental ambition in schooling. Is the goal of education simply to balance chemical equations and factor polynomials? In addition to learning literature, mathematics and science, children have to feel empowered and not enervated by going to school.
Students also have to be equipped with skills and techniques to cope with life's strains and stresses. If we want a holistic education, we cannot ignore our interests and emotions as feelings are an integral aspect of being human. Both in word and deed, we, as a society, should learn to be more emotionally sensitive and responsive to each other. Our education, in turn, will reflect our humaneness and humanity.
(Aruna Sankaranarayanan is director of PRAYATNA, a centre for children with learning difficulties in Chennai and Bangalore. E-mail: arunasankara@gmail.com)

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