Bullying by teachers: How a generation suffered

alt="child abuse" A childhood defaced by canes (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

I don’t recall the year. It was one of those rare days when our class teacher took a leave. The entire class got a semi holiday. While we weren’t sent home, we got to do whatever we liked, provided we did it in silence.

Some took uncomfortable naps slumped on the desk. Others indulged in chit chats, discussing everything from the impending Christmas party at school to the new episode of What a Cartoon Show!.

A rambunctious lot did their rendition of Triple H vs The Rock vs Big Show on the teacher’s platform as the rest of the class cheered them on. Needless to say, there was a lot of noise.

Occasionally, the teacher next door would poke her head through the door and send out stern (yet futile) warnings.

Also on the prowl that day was the headmistress and her heat-seeking eyes. She made a beeline for the noisiest class on the floor — ours.

For a good 20 seconds, she stood at the door, waiting for the clamour to die down. Once we realised that she was staring down at us, we froze in our tracks.

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The headmistress and her heat-seeking eyes (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

“Kneel down in your places!” she bellowed and everyone scampered around to do her bidding. We were all of 11-12 maybe with little or no calluses on our knees. The rough, cheap mosaic flooring dug often dug through our tender skins.

On my right, I saw my classmate struggling more than the others to stay steady on her knees.

I knew her well. A few grades ago, she and I shared a bench. She was among the nicest kids in class. For a full year, she used to be my best friend.

Being an obedient kid who never got into trouble, she wasn’t used to punishments like kneeling down on a rough classroom floor. I fully understood why she struggled to balance herself.

I wish I could have said the same about the headmistress. For reasons that evade me, she took it as an act of transgression.

When nostalgia becomes pain

Like a menacing animal, she walked up to the girl’s bench and brandished what she was hiding behind her back all this time — a big cane.

What followed were the lightning-fast movements of the cane with that distinct “swoosh swoosh” sounds punctuated by the screams of the girl. A few stray lashings also landed on her bench partner.

The assault lasted for a good 5 seconds (it’s an eternity when you are being caned). When it was over, I saw that the girl was covered with big red welts all over her hands and face.

For the remainder of the day, she sobbed till she had no tears left to cry. It was not only the painful welts but also the shame of being caned in front of her friends and peers.

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Although I have seen many of my classmates getting physically disciplined over the years, this incident, in particular, stayed in my mind for years.

When someone talks about how much they miss school, I scoff audibly. Then this episode plays in my mind — how a sweet little girl was made to feel that day.

A childhood defaced by canes and words

Kids of today will be shocked by the amount of ass whopping we got at home and at school. If you grew up in the 90s, you may be familiar with cane discipline.

Once upon a time, canes were sold in general stores. Oddly, I remember accompanying my mom to the store to buy those.

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At the beginning of every academic year, schools will stockpile canes as the primary tool of disciplining kids. But it didn’t stop at canes. I have seen teachers hurl books, wooden rulers and even dusters at children for the slightest instance of indiscipline.

I have an early childhood memory of a teacher hitting my best friend on the soft part of her head with a heavy duster. She had a swelling that lasted days. No action was taken against the teacher.

Wooden rulers breaking into two, mid assault, was nothing new, and such instances often went on to build the legacy of teachers who perpetrated such acts.

Most punishments were disproportionate to the transgression on the student’s part. Kids were brutally punished for the most trivial of reasons — from forgetting home works to speaking out of turn.

One of the teachers I despised had the habit of cursing students as part of her lessons. I remember once during an economics class on unemployment, she emphatically stated that none of us will end up with jobs.

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During another lesson on air pollution, the same lady said that we’d die of pollution-related illnesses by the time we were 20. Thankfully, her predictions were as bad as her teaching skills. Most of my peers ended up with good jobs and luckily haven’t succumbed to any illnesses… thus far.

Name-calling was another stellar feature of pedagogy in 90s India. Insults like “Useless”, “donkey”, “idiot” and “stupid” were doled out with so much ease.

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Name-calling was another stellar feature of pedagogy in the 90s. (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

As if verbal and physical abuses weren’t enough, some would make us run errands in the middle of a school day. One math teacher came to class punch drunk at 9 am and took a nap slumped against the blackboard in the middle of explaining an equation. Talk about setting an example.

Teachers consciously contributed to discrimination in a class by treating the academically inclined kids better than those who weren’t as bright. It bred resentment and low self-esteem, at least in me.

When the teachers themselves stoke fear instead of respect, children end up loathing school and studies by extension.

Consequently, students find themselves trapped into an environment with no way out, such as an office or a classroom by an individual placed in a position of power.

 Finiki Nearchou, University College Dublin

Impact of punishment on children’s physical health

Calling corporal punishment an “archaic form of discipline”, psychologist Kasturi Patkar says that it is only detrimental to a child’s development.

Hitting children, especially in school, can cause every conceivable form of damage. There are plenty of studies that I will link to the article. Let us count all the ways.

When it comes to physical health, corporal punishment in childhood raises the risk of illnesses like asthma, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity, arthritis, neoplasia, reduced grey matter in the brain, frequent hospital visits.

Negative childhood experiences in school are associated with metabolic disorders in adulthood like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, high total cholesterol, low high-density lipoprotein, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and liver diseases to name a few.

Childhood trauma can also push people into alcohol consumption in adulthood. 

Impact of corporal punishment on children’s mental health

“Corporal punishment in schools can lead to a lack of self-confidence, chronic trust issues with strangers, excessive aggression, excessive need to excel in all things, people pleaser or problems with authority figures in adulthood, social phobia,  antisocial behaviours, sometimes chronic mental health problems,” says Kasturi.

Aggression is one of the negative outcomes of children exposed to abuse in school. This can transpire as delinquency and conjugal violence in their later life. Children can grow up to become antisocial; struggle with anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse or dependence issues; and face depression, mania and personality disorders.

It can also predispose them to poor stress regulation, the elevation of the stress hormone cortisol and even increase the risk of suicides. Negative experiences in school can also increase the chances of promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies, etc. in later life.

Beyond physical abuse, verbal or emotional abuse by teachers includes name-calling, sarcasm, ridicule, mocking appearance, insulting the family, etc. Abusive teachers fail to see that it erodes the trust kids repose in them.

Poor academic performance, disengagement from social activities and even drop-out are some of the negative consequences encountered by students that feel disconnected from their academic environment 

It’s a lot to unpack considering how normalised physical and mental abuse of children was back in the day.

Corporal punishment in Indian schools

Every once in a while, we read in the news about students getting subjected to ghastly abuse by their teachers in India. According to Plan International, a children’s organisation, 65% of children received corporal punishment in schools in 2010.

A 2007 survey by the Ministry of Women and Child Development noted that 62% of the corporal punishment in India was meted out in government and municipal schools.

A whopping 80% of marginalised children are punished in school. 43% were regularly beaten as per a report by an NGO Agrasar.

Most children faced corporal punishment at home and school alike, which means there was no safe space to turn to.

For a long time, teachers enjoyed a free hand in disciplining children.

I’ve heard parents tell teachers during the open house: “Nahi sun raha hain toh maaro.” (Feel free to hit him if he doesn’t listen to you.) The Agrasar report says that almost all parents (91%) approve of school corporal punishment.

They lived by the “Spare the rod and spoil the child” maxim back then. Does it justify stoking fear in young, impressionable minds?

Back in the day, limited avenues for employment meant people who didn’t have an aptitude for teaching or the patience to deal with children ended up taking up the job.

To cut the teachers some slack, many of them had to man a large number of children in a single class. Most teachers know that “asking nicely” won’t work in a class with 7o unruly kids. It’s only human to lose patience.

Add to this other exacerbating factors like low pay, poor school infrastructure and other stressors.

In 1992, India joined 128 other countries that reinforced the UN Convention of Rights of the Child 1989 that banned corporal punishment.

Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009 also helped prohibit physical abuse in some schools.

When I look at kids today enjoying school, I feel a tinge of envy, but I mostly feel happy.  So much has changed today in terms of child rights —  Smaller classrooms, more qualified teachers and increasing sensitivity towards children.

While having a chat with my old friend from school, I reminded him about how far we’ve come. After being discriminated against, called names, thrown out of class and physically abused, we didn’t end up being monumental failures as our teachers once said we would be.

But it hurts to know that some of us never reached our full potential due to discrimination, fear of abuse and constant negative feedback from the teachers. So many dreams were snuffed.

That being said, I did go on to meet some amazing teachers who managed to undo some of the damage. As I reached college, I finally understood how educators ought to be. I found myself thriving in an environment that treated students with respect.

I met Dr Shubhangi Karnik in my undergrad days who instilled in me a love for literature. While pursuing Applied Linguistics at SNDT University, my department head Dr Pratima Dave learnt that I was going through emotional turmoil. In a gesture of kindness, she gifted me a copy of The Secret by Rhonda Byrnes. I once told my professor, Dr Pusha Pai, how bad I was at math in school. She simply replied: “You weren’t bad dear. You were taught badly.”

A child should be able to attain learning in a stress-free environment.  Teachers should remember that they can either foster security or create feelings of uncertainty in children.

At the time of filing this story, I had a strong urge to name the lady who used to be our headmistress. But strangely, the day I finished writing, I saw a Facebook post announcing that she passed on September 10, 2021. Out of respect for the dead and out of general propriety, I decided against naming her.