Tuesday 22nd October 2013
As I write this I’m reflecting on the fact that this time last week I was still sitting on a coach which was by then 3 hours late getting from Bamenda to Douala.
I’m writing in the MAC (Midland’s Arts Centre) Cafe, one of my favourite places in Birmingham. I’m not the only one using this place as a writing haven, there are at least five other people with laptops and coffee.
Last night, at their request, I did a presentation of my experiences to my ACIM (A Course in Miracles) study group. An hour was nowhere near long enough to share more than the highlights. Even so it was enough for those who had not followed the blog to get the general gist of the organisation, their approach, my brief spell with them and what they have left me with.
I was able to share some of the videos with them, including the one of Fred (the director of SEREP) thanking them for their donation to the school building project. They were visibly moved and spontaneously applauded.
‘Your words drew us in,’ one member said, ‘but seeing the video of the children singing made them real for us.’
I’ve still to upload the video of which he speaks, but one thing at a time.
I had no idea how exhausted I was. I’m just now coming back to my normal levels of energy so it may be a few days still before I get the videos uploaded.
Sometimes I’ve lain on my back looking up at the ceiling re-running conversations in my head. One that stands out boldly and gets a few replays is the feedback session with Fred on my last day at the project. Particularly my feedback on the school.
There were three practices which I’d been very uncomfortable with from the start. These were;
- Use of the cane.
- The practice of calling children ‘criminals’ when they had committed a misdemeanour and also being ‘punished’ for their ‘crimes’.
- Being called ‘bad’ when they broke school rules.
Being aware of possible psychological damage these practices can have on developing minds I endeavoured to operate differently in my teaching methods as a means of demonstrating a different approach.
I therefore never called a child ‘bad’ or ‘criminal’ and I never threatened the use of the cane or any other form of corporal punishment. Instead I appealed to the children’s better nature, asked them to put themselves in the place of the other person if the misdemeanour was related to another person. If it was a refusal to participate in an activity or to carry out a request I would find out why and try to work towards a solution that was acceptable to all.
Of course it took longer to gain compliance this way. My approach was tested by some of the more challenging children, but eventually they realised that I was not going to revert to corporal punishment. They recognised that I was genuinely interested in them and their reasons for non-compliance, and that I care about them.
What I got in return was disciplined lesson which came from diligence to the task in hand rather than from threat of retribution.
I’m in no way suggesting that the current staff group do not care about the children – I believe they care very deeply, and I believe they use the methods they do to instil the discipline they know the children need in order to succeed. Indeed the school’s motto is ‘No success without discipline.’ The teachers were simply using the methods that were used with them.
I shared my concerns with Fred at that last meeting, because not only had he observed my methods, but had sent others to my classes to watch me teach.
I was expecting strong resistance to my suggestions that the use of the cane should cease, and at least some resistance to the use of ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ to describe children.
I was astonished by Fred’s willingness to agree to my requests once he understood the potential damage. As he is the main user of the cane (teachers refer misbehaving children to him) he was willing from that day to begin to look for alternatives to caning.
He would also be ceasing the use of ‘bad’ and ‘criminal’ and would be encouraging his staff to do the same. Although he anticipated some resistance there he was prepared to give it a go.
I suggested that maybe when I came next year that I could run a workshop for his staff on the issues I’d just discussed with him.
He reflected a moment.
‘The problem is that it isn’t just our school that uses these words about children, or that uses physical punishment. Calling children criminals is rife in the society, and also in other schools. Would you consider including other teachers from other schools in such a workshop?’
My mouth fell open. This was beyond my wildest expectations, and had I not been leaving the next day I would have begun the planning straight away.
I think it’s brilliant that Fred will be trying something different in his school. Hopefully by the time I return to run such a workshop he will have the evidence that this approach can work in African schools. When we teach from a point of love rather than from a point of fear anything is possible.
This is the same message I’m preparing to take with me to Barbados next month. Hopefully I’ll have the course for the polytechnic on effective parenting completed by then.