Former NCERT director Krishna Kumar has -- in his response to the Betul tragedy in Madhya Pradesh (published in The Hindu, Dec.18, 2012) -- given voice to my apprehensions each time I read about violence against schoolchildren. Many such incidents happen all over the country; some are reported, most go unnoticed.

In his article in The Hindu (January15, 2013), Mr. Yogender Dutt has initiated an analysis about whether the teachers are culpable in the death of a small boy in a school in Madhya Pradesh. Who is more culpable — the individual or the state — seems to be basis of the argument. As Mr. Krishna Kumar pointed out, there is a legal and a moral issue, neither of which can be swept under the carpet. He terms is a collective responsibility.

Multiple factors both social and cultural have contributed to the prevailing violent mindset.

Ask a Class 12 student if he/she would opt for a teacher’s job? What do you think the answer would be? Obviously very few answer positively. This is because teaching has become a profession for those who are not good at anything else. There is no glamour in a teacher’s job. Most people are apologetic or ashamed about being a teacher. There is no joy or pride in their profession.

Being a teacher seems to be a profession of convenience, not choice. Anybody can be a teacher... I teach my child at home, so I can teach at school. I have lots of spare time; I don’t know what to do, so I can be a teacher. I don’t require any special training or skills; I don’t need a temperament, an orientation, I need not be tested for aptitude… This is what most people think.

This situation is made worse by low salaries and poor training. It does not help their already damaged self-worth and self-esteem. A good salary that puts them on par with other professionals will enhance their self worth. Good training will give them competence, increase their confidence and nurture their self-esteem. In the absence of these, teachers are frustrated leading to outbursts of violence. Why would anyone in their right senses beat a boy to death for breaking a bucket?

Who gives this authority over the mind and body of the student to the teacher? Is it the state? Or is it the school ? Or is it the society?

It is a cultural mind set. In India, the teacher is venerated; is the most respected person in a student’s life once the child enters school. The authority is not given; it is vested in the position.

Being a teacher is the most responsible job. A school teacher is a child’s first love. Many parents relate instances when their child refused to go to school because his/her favorite teacher had left school or because she/he had been assigned to a different class! The child turns to the teacher for security, comfort, reassurance, encouragement and care. If this trust is compromised, so is the child’s well being. Today, children are sent to school as early as two years and the responsibility for his/her physical and mental health rests entirely with the teachers.

The immense power of the teacher over the student and a firm belief in ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ makes a virtue of punishment. Parents, in their ignorance, disinterest or anxiety for the child’s educational success, endorse the physical pain and downplay the mental trauma that this engenders. Many parents often say that the methods employed by the teacher do not matter as long as the child passes the exam. This is not exclusive to parents of underprivileged children; one often finds ‘well-educated’ parents whose children study in the so-called elite schools echoing this opinion.

The incident in the Betul government school led to the death of a small boy. The teachers appointed by the state government have consummate authority over the child’s body and mind. The process of law will – hopefully – take its course. But who will take responsibility for the enormous damage to the child’s physical and mental health?

So where do we fail? Is it faulty training? Is it teacher selection? Or is it the failure to understand the purpose of education? I think it is all of this together.

One can take a diploma in teacher training after class 12. This empowers one to teach children between the ages of 6 and 11 in primary school. At the end of this training, the teacher is hardly 20 years old.

Does this diploma train her (I say ‘her’ because most primary level teachers are women) to cope with the demands of such young children? Often emotionally ill-equipped and with no hands-on experience, she finds it a humungous task to deal with the problems of a primary school environment.

Add to this, distance education programmes and poor quality institutions; what we end up with are teachers who have degrees and some theoretical knowledge but no actual skills to teach.

A school needs policies and practices to function, but these do not make a school. It is the people involved that make the school. The philosophy and vision must include a statement that protects the child. If the policy makers have fewer don’ts and more dos, it will create an atmosphere of positivity.

The belief that strict discipline is a prerequisite to good schooling is fallacious. What drives this thought process? Both parents and educators believe that children who go to schools that enforce strict discipline are successful in their career. They get better grades and therefore have better possibility of lucrative jobs.

The word success is a multidimensional. I am not going into what constitutes success. This is purely an individual issue, and can escalate into a philosophical discussion. I am restricting myself to success in education. Unfortunately we measure success in education only by the marks and grades awarded at the end of the year. The school becomes a factory and the child a commodity in the production line. The product is quality tested at the end of the line, which is the examination, stamped passed or discarded as failed. Therefore parents are eager to admit children into schools that have an efficient system of producing perfect products.

Forget corporal punishment, who cares for the child here? What is expected of them is to be trained like a circus artist, to do a triple jump and make a perfect landing on the IIT campus. The parent’s day is made, but the child is abandoned.

While discussing the parents’ indifference to child abuse, we must admit that it is difficult to monitor or control abuse at home as this may be considered an intrusion. If schools become a safe haven we can then transform the attitudes of the society towards violence against children.

Breaking down of communication between and children and parents has affected the child’s comfort levels. The child is in an environment of fear at home, in school and lives through life waiting for that day of freedom. But what does freedom mean to him? Dominance and oppression. The cycle repeats generation after generation.

The joint family system had one positive for children. There were others at home that the child could talk to without the fear of being admonished; there were people willing to listen; those who would soothe their pain; who really cared.

Why are children not heard? Who initiates this dialogue and shows concern? Who includes them in conversation? Again it is the teachers and the parents who should be made to see the importance of the children’s voice. To accept the child as a person with individual needs and aspirations and dreams.

When this perception is missing, what use are discussions or communication with children? Their ideas and opinions will be shot down mercilessly by the adult or rubbished as being redundant.

Where is the voice of the child then?

How do teachers become the harbingers of this change? What is their role in effecting this change for a brave new world of vibrant youthful society? What will make them the initiators of change?

It is the passion to want to be a teacher that feeds the energy for change.

It is this passion that drives you to excel in the area of your choice; that propels you to forge ahead uncompromisingly; that feeds the energy to be creative; that gives you the courage to be different; that makes you sensitive to every child’s needs; that prevents you from behaving brutally; that pushes you to push your boundaries.

A teacher needs boundless energy, immense patience and undivided care. It is crucial that we formulate a method, draw up a framework to assess one’s readiness to teach; to evaluate the teachers beyond academia; to sensitize them to the dreams of the children.

This quote from Yeats’ says it all: I have spread my dreams under your feet;/Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Teachers, tread softly; the children lay their dreams at your feet.

(Prema Rangachary is principal advisor to Vidya Vanam, a school for tribal and under privileged children in Anaikatti, Tamil Nadu, run by the Bhuvana Foundation)

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