To hit or not to hit: The use of the cane in schools in Sierra Leone

4 December 2007 at 06:42 | 2181 views

By Eddy Tedson, London, United Kingdom.

Many years ago, when I had only a few days left before starting school, I lost many hours of sleep in anxious wait for the great day. My imagination about school was crowded with great thoughts and dreams of the glorious and fabulous thing the learning experience was all about.

Hardly a week of school attendance had gone however when I was not faced with the brutal truth that school was really not altogether the sweet paradise and bed of roses that my innocent imagination had led me to believe. I enjoyed the singing, the infant rhymes, and the “repeat after me “ teaching methods of our teachers. The dark side however was that, even among our peers, there were bullies who made school hell for us the very little and vulnerable ones. The darker side however was our very teachers who it seemed had been licensed to knock our little heads with hard dusters and lash our tender backs and buttocks with canes all day for reasons we never understood.

My first bitter experience was in my very first week when my class teacher used a massive rod and administered six cruel lashes on my buttocks for ringing the school bell when not asked to do so. The truth is that, our teacher had asked one of the bigger boys to ring the bell to announce the end of our lunch break. All the children in the school enjoyed ringing the bell and once I heard the teacher ask one of the pupils to ring it, I dashed off and rang it. The teacher saw me and ordered the older boys to carry me to him. I was quickly carried in the air by two strong pupils and in no time, my tender buttocks had received six cruel whacks.

The pain was so intense that I could not sit properly on the hard seat which I shared with two other pupils. I was only six years then. Did my teacher really consider that it hurt ? Before the end of the first week, I told my mother one morning that I was not going to school. When she demanded a reason, I feigned illness for I could not have told her at that age that by sending us to school, they (our parents) had conspired to condemn us to a reign of terror like cattle led to the slaughter by their owners.

As I progressed in school, it became clearer to me daily that our teachers were being guided or perhaps misguided by the adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” I got older and watched with keen interest as well as painfully witness how dozens of rods were spoilt on our backs daily for the so-called “making” of the child.

To use or not to use the rod in schools has always been an emotionally charged subject in many societies. I am a great believer in discipline. Children need guidance and boundaries, and school, like home, has a great role in this. However, having gone through the school experience in my country and worked in Education, I have not been able to resist the urge to ask whether using the rod in our classrooms is a positive learning experience and whether it develops moral character in our children.

I attended faith schools in Makeni, the northern headquarter town of Sierra Leone. Today, the more I reflect on many of the reasons for which our backs were lashed, the more I see reasons for the system of discipline in our schools to be revisited.

In primary school, my siblings and I travelled approximately four miles daily to go to our school. We used to leave very early and walk (some times barefooted) through stony, thorny bush paths. On many occasions, we went to school on empty stomachs, and if we arrived at school even 5 minutes after the bell had gone, we would receive between six and a dozen lashes on our backs. I still recall how on one occasion (I was 9 years old then) my senior sister and I arrived at school just as the assembly had started. The punishment for each late pupil that morning was eight lashes. My sister nervously and painfully received her eight lashes. Then it was my turn. I could not stand the pain and after only four whacks, I fell flat on the floor. My eyes appealed to the teacher for sympathy, but he only laughed and said, “I am ready when you are ready.” My poor sister, God bless her, softly asked the teacher whether she could receive my remaining four lashes. In his “wisdom”, he agreed and quickly transferred my quota to my sister. What a morning for my sister: a four mile walk from our village, an empty stomach, twelve lashes on her back and a “hot mental” test awaiting her in her classroom. What an amazing way for a child to begin a school day!

Did our teacher think that by beating us, he was teaching us a lesson? If this was the case, I only received four lashes and my sister received the other four for me. Was it ok for my teacher if I learnt only half of the lesson he wished to teach? How ridiculous! Did any one care to know the distance we were travelling every morning? Was anyone interested in knowing some of the social circumstances of many of us?

I know many will wish to crucify me should I attempt to advocate an end to the use of the cane in our schools. At this point however, I would like us to review some of the reasons for which the cane is used. In our days (and it is still the case), teachers caned us for failing a test or giving wrong answers to the questions they asked us. Did this not make the learning environment intimidating? It made us look stupid and it damaged our self-esteem and confidence.

Many students had, and many today still have, real difficulties paying school fees or meeting other school charges. Our teachers used to send us home for not paying our fees on time. However, in our quest for learning, we sometimes returned to school without the fees. Most of our parents genuinely did not have money to pay. Our teachers would then brutally cane us before sending us home again to collect the fees. What an experience!

I am left handed through and through. My Class One teacher considered it inappropriate to write with my left hand. He told me it was a filthy hand and ordered me never to write again with that hand. I never knew what he meant by this. I am naturally left handed and even though I tried using my right, I went back again and again to my left. He caned me each time he saw me using my left and he branded me a stubborn child. By the end of the first term, I got tired of the caning and decided (much against my liking) to practise using my right. When I got promoted to Class Two, I reverted to the left. My Class Two teacher did not insist that I used my right though she did say it would have been better for me to use it. I was happy to once again enjoy my freedom to use my beloved left hand. Unfortunately however, we went to school one day and we were told that our teacher had fallen very ill and had to go away for immediate treatment. She was replaced by the same teacher who had taught me in Class One and detested my left hand. My problems started again and after a few days of being flogged, I gave up and went back to using my right hand. I only started using my left hand again when I went to Year Three. I have remained left handed since. But to this day, I have had no satisfactory explanation as to why I was being beaten for using my left hand? Was this a way of disciplining my mind?

We had a teacher in our school who became very popular ( if popular is the right word ) for two things: firstly, he made a reputation for flogging school children, and secondly, he was so addicted to our local brew of wine called “poyo” that he earned the nickname of Teacher Poyo. Our parents and school heads knew he drank a lot but no one questioned him. He was a nightmare for us because the more he drank, the more he flogged us for no good reasons.

In our Year Five, almost everyday after our lunch break, he would return to class and ask us all to bow down, place our heads on our desks and go to sleep. He would tell us the devil was about to transit through our class and we must not see him. He would then go round the class and randomly pick on one of us to hit on the back, and would say, “you are not sleeping.” The unfortunate child would wriggle in pain and cry out loud, “teacher I am sleeping.” Teacher Poyo would then say, “I was right. You were not asleep because a sleeping person does not talk.”

Teacher Poyo came to class one morning and asked, “who has seen thunder?” One of our peers said he had. Teacher Poyo then asked him to describe thunder and the boy said, “it is red and it looks like an axe.” Teacher Poyo said, “very good, and can you bring thunder to school tomorrow?” The boy smiled. The following day, Teacher Poyo asked the boy to produce the thunder he had promised to bring. We all thought Teacher Poyo was only joking. He gave the boy three lashes on his back and said it was for failing to deliver a promise. He ordered the boy to bring the thunder the following day. Our friend came to school the next day without the thunder and Teacher Poyo gave him six whacks on his buttocks. This happened again on the third day and on the fourth, the boy failed to turn up in school and, as far I remember, we never saw him again in school. I have never seen that boy since.

When one afternoon Teacher Poyo handed a piece of chalk to me and asked me to stand by the blackboard, I smiled and quickly went to the board. He liked asking us to go to the board and write down a few words he would read out. I was good at spelling so I felt comfortable. He then asked me to draw a short tall man. I was baffled and my first instinct was to say, “teacher, there can’t be a short tall man. People are either short or tall.“ This angered him and he said I was telling the class that he was a liar. He then said to me, “Now quickly draw a short tall man for us before I get mad.” I felt intimidated and started the impossible task. I drew a man with very tall legs and very short arms. Teacher Poyo burst out in hysterical laughter, and said, “I have never seen a child that could tell a lie like you do.” I received three whacks on my buttocks and he told me not to practise telling lies.

I attended a reputable faith secondary school in the same northern headquarter town. Our English Language teacher in Form One would never come to class until our class prefect went to fetch his leather briefcase from the staffroom. He would then walk leisurely to our class brandishing a long cane in his hand. If however for any reason our prefect failed to go and fetch his bag and remind him that the bell had gone, he would always come to class in the last twenty minutes of the lesson. He would then punish the prefect by administering four lashes on his back and the rest of the class would receive two lashes each. This was how he would use the rest of the lesson. Yes, what a way to teach children a lesson in time-keeping.

All these might sound, to many readers, like tales from Fairyland, but this was reality for many of us in our school days and reality for many of the children in our schools today. I visited my home town in February this year and I thought I should wander to my old primary school. I arrived there around midday and since the school has no fence or gate, it is used as a passage by people in the area. No one noticed my presence and I watched a teacher ruthlessly flogging a girl in the very classroom that Teacher Poyo taught us our lessons in “moral decency.”

I wholeheartedly support the view that proper school discipline should be instilled, but this should be done through the mind and not the behind. The manner in which the cane is used in our schools is abusive, degrading, psycho-damaging and it teaches wrong lessons. The frequency at which the children are beaten and some of the reasons for which they are beaten can only breed anger in them and make them revengeful. Children learn to hate the adults and the systems that inflict unnecessary pain on them. Above all, with daily floggings for reasons like not having the right learning material, children develop a hatred for learning. In my experience, there were dozens of my peers who abandoned school because of the pain of the cane.

Clearly, I do not think using the rod is a positive learning experience neither do I agree that it helps to develop moral character. It does not engender respect or teach children how to solve problems. The pain inflicted by the rod, or fear of that pain, does not clear children’s minds and make them better learners. In fact, it imprisons children in an eternal world of terror.

For improved disciplinary standards in our schools, authorities should emphasise positive reinforcement in which teachers praise or reward hard work and good behaviour. Teachers should set achievable goals and have realistic expectations of the children they teach. Lessons are better understood through teachers who are firm but are seen by the children as caring and loving as against those who think that their lessons must be understood at all cost and use the cane.

Children can be punished by detaining them in class or in the head teacher’s office for half the period of the lunch break for instance. They love being out with their friends during free periods and would hate to be detained.

Children can also be given extra academic work to do as a punishment. While as a matter of fact the aim is to punish, it keeps them focussed on their work as well as keep them occupied and out of idle play or trouble.

It would also be a helpful thing if parents and teachers can liaise very closely in order for teachers to learn about the family backgrounds and other relevant circumstances of the children. Parent-teacher meetings should be prioritised and parents should show interest in the education of their children by visiting their schools as often as possible and having close talks with the teachers. In my experience as a teacher, I observed that the more a parent contacts the school, the more the teachers develop an interest in the child of that parent. Parents who visit their children’s schools protect their children from unfair treatment.

While clearly it would take a lot of effort to banish the cane from our schools, I do dream of a day in which our schools in Sierra Leone will talk about the cane as a thing of the past, a day in which teachers will target children’s minds and not their backs and buttocks like Teacher Poyo did to us.

Perhaps we can start with policies that ensure schools have only a few designated teachers who can use the cane. We can also review the reasons for which a child will be caned and set a reasonable maximum of whacks a child can receive.

Yes, I have a dream of a day that our children will go to school and return home without the physical pain and emotional stress that the cane brings. Yes, that era will be called the era of LEARNING WITHOUT TEARS and on the mind of every teacher in Sierra Leone will be inscribed: DON’T HIT, IT HURTS.

Photo:Dr.Minkailu Bah, Education minister.