x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Discipline isn't the only thing that has changed in schools

In the past, some teachers were like second mothers. Today's schools have lost that "second-home" feeling.

Whenever my old teacher would say, "no discipline, no manners", I would cringe, because that line was usually followed by some kind of physical punishment.

One recent day, as I listened to some of my friends who are teachers, they had a common complaint: "Students are undisciplined and we can't do anything about it."

Unlike students today, many people from previous generations had teachers who did more than talk to rowdy, undisciplined students. There was the formidable wooden or plastic ruler, chalk to be thrown at you - with amazing precision - plus books, erasers, pens - anything and everything could be used as a weapon by a teacher.

In the UAE, many decades ago, when students failed to complete their homework, the al falqa would be waiting for them. A contraption consisting of a thick log and a rope, it would sit in the corner of the classroom until needed. The misbehaving student's feet, held in place by the rope, were hit by the teacher's stick. Anyone who experienced it never forgot it.

Luckily, I never experienced that kind of punishment. But I recall going home countless times with swollen hands after being beaten with a ruler by one of the teachers at my all-girls school in Saudi, since I tended to be the class clown who always had to be "disciplined".

I first wrote with my left hand, and for that I was picked on by the teachers. One of them poked my left hand with a pen, leaving blue dots all across it. It was her way of dissuading me from being left-handed. "The right hand is the good clean hand," she would tell me.

One day I broke my left arm playing basketball, and was forced to use my right hand. Eventually, I switched permanently.

So what happens at school can truly alter your life and set the foundation for your self-esteem, manners, critical thinking and basic behaviour. It was a comment by a teacher that encouraged me to write poems and short stories. Just a simple comment in passing was enough to put me on my career path.

Negative comments can be powerful too: they might cause you to hate a subject because of a teacher, and miss out on discovering it properly.

When I sat in on a class at a Dubai high school recently, I was shocked at the amount of disrespect towards the teacher. Students would talk back, or just get up and leave the classroom without asking permission. Where were they going? The washroom? And for so long?

Throughout the class, several students played with their smart phones even after many glares and warnings from the teacher that she would confiscate the phones.

Overall, standards at schools have improved, I believe, giving a student many options to excel and to explore different sides of themselves, such as music and art, things that were rarer in my school days.

Back then, just being allowed to play basketball at break time was a big issue; we had to fight for it almost every month. Sports for women was a highly debated issue. In Saudi, in fact, it still is.

As for the question of discipline, I am not sure that fear of punishment was the best way to control students back when I was one.

But perhaps schools have become too lax nowadays. Maybe it has to do with individual teachers: some know how to win the respect of their students while others struggle to make that personal connection.

When the principal would pass by, back when I was in school, we would move out of her way. We were in awe of her, and we all dreaded going to her office, even though all she did was talk to us.

Schools were our second homes. A few of my teachers became my second mothers. They knew things my own mother didn't, and gave good advice to me and others. Years later, I still keep in touch.

Today's schools have lost that "second-home" feeling. Some of the factors, I believe, are larger school size, a curriculum that is more intense and demanding, high turnover of teachers and staff, and the decline of discipline.