By Jayne Edwards
I agree with Cathy Nugent (Solidarity 219) that children need rules, just as adults — ones that make sense and that are logical.
However, if it is not reasonable to reduce adults to tears and frighten them it is not with children, who are more vulnerable; yet with children that approach is considered fine.
My argument is children shouldn’t be subjected to threats and punishment.
Young primary school children are at their most upset and frightened when they think they are in trouble. The thing they have done is nearly always a misunderstanding or trivial — but what overwhelms them is fear. Fear of what the teacher will do to them, fear that their parents will get told.
Working in a school, I respond by telling children not to be frightened, to not listen to the teachers if they are mean, that nothing bad can happen to them.
The fact is that some teachers and other staff will shout at children, and think it’s fine to frighten them. Others will make fun of them in front of larger groups of children and get them to laugh at those who haven’t followed an order.
These adults use their ability to be sarcastic and “clever” to humiliate children. This approach, which adults may think of as harmless and funny, can be just as damaging as threats. Often the same adults show one face to parents — all smiles and concern — and another when they are left in charge of children.
I don’t think that most teachers are bad or purposefully unkind but teachers do reflect dominant ideas about how children should be treated. Increasingly they think children need discipline and controlling and that they should show more respect to all adults. We need to be in favour of a different approach to treating children.
In his book I won’t learn from you Herbert Kohl argues that parents and school authorities are stuck on a single way to live and learn; any youngster who refuses to perform as demanded is seen as a threat.
He discusses how black children in America refused to accept being taught a racist view of history — most did it by refusing to learn, because having a thought-out alternative was too difficult for these children. Children should be advised to refuse to learn the nonsense they are taught about religion, politics, accepted sexism and approach to authority.
In John Holt’s book How children fail Holt argues that most children “fail”, do not achieve their potential, because they are afraid of disappointing the anxious adults around them, whose expectations “hang over them like a cloud”. They are bored by trivial demands and confused because they are given a world view that makes no sense.
The different approaches to teaching will come about when movements develop to challenge the way children and adults are taught. These movements will develop, as they have in the past, alongside class struggle and when teachers start to question not just what’s taught and how, but also how children are treated.
There are many teachers and support staff who try and do their best for children in an environment in which teaching is about targets, OFSTED reports, and teachers being disciplined for not enforcing uniform codes. We should view teaching as a subversive art in which socialist teachers try and undermine the system they teach in by, e.g., setting up Marxist discussion groups in Catholic schools under the guise of after-school clubs, try to get the working class kids access to the unaffordable extra-curricular activities and encourage them to speak out when they are treated badly.
But won’t getting rid of punishments just result in chaos? In my experience it results in less — children come and tell me if there are problems because they know I will help talk things through with them, not punish them.
Being against punishment in schools doesn’t create an ideal world or fix problems from home — but it does create a better environment in school and could help lay the basis for future movements which will radically change the way we treat children.