By VIVIENNE WONG and CLARISSA SAY
BULLYING happens. We all know that. We’ve got the statistics, the anecdotal evidence and the news reports to back it up.
The problem we’re seeing now, however, is that bullying is happening between students and teachers as well.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a case of a teacher punching four students, a teacher forcing students to wear cow bells and eat grass, and a student sending a rape threat to a teacher.
There seems to be a growing disconnect between students and teachers in our schools. Most students we interviewed said they would never speak to a teacher if they were bullied, because they didn’t feel they could trust them with such sensitive information.
The secretary-general of the National Union of Teaching Profession (NUTP), however, said it is the students who are becoming increasingly difficult for teachers to deal with, causing them to occasionally act out in frustration.
We’ve heard lots of opinions on both sides of that divide, but one thing’s for sure – to put an end to the bullying culture in Malaysia, which already drove 13-year-old T. Kavinraj to kill himself by consuming pesticide two weeks ago, students and teachers need to connect.
Are teachers bullies?
Even before the recent cowbell and punching incidents, the issue of teachers bullying students had been raised by The Star before, in 2011.
Back then, it was reported that a girl was told by a teacher to quit school and become a prostitute.
Another case saw a student who was assaulted by a trainee teacher being given RM50 to not report the case.
Personal assistant Angel Ong, 24, said it was something that used to happen to her in school as well.
“This teacher used to have something against me. It was like she didn’t like my face or something. If I didn’t hand in my homework on time, she would hit me on the head with a file so hard I’d have a bruise the next day. She called me lazy and rude,” said Ong.
KDU Penang student Qua Mei Rei, 20, said she too had witnessed bullying from a teacher. “When I was 16, a classmate’s parents had just gone through a divorce. One of our teachers was really inconsiderate. She kept asking her questions about it and verbally assaulting her. My friend didn’t show up for school for months after that.”
Speaking in defense of the teachers, National Union of Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary general Lok Yim Pheng said these cases often happen because the teachers involved are under too much pressure.
“Sometimes, they suffer from depression and unintentionally release their stress on the children,” she said.
“To me, I feel that it’s not really bullying. Maybe they’re just not emotionally stable at that point in time.”
The problem is, sometimes it takes just one lapse in judgement from a teacher to affect a student for life.
“Even the smallest form of bullying can leave a scar on the victim and alter their perception towards the person, especially if it’s physically and emotionally damaging like the recent cases,” said educational and clinical psychologist Selina Ding, who works mainly with children and adolescents.
Are students to blame?
There are many who believe that part of the problem is that students today are becoming too spoilt.
Recently, a memo said to be from the Ministry of Education went viral on social media, containing the list of punishments that teachers are not allowed to use on their students. Apparently, teachers today are not allowed to ask students to do their homework while standing, run around the school field, go for detention during recess, or stand for a long period of time inside the classroom.
There were a total of 23 items in the memo, divided into physical and mental/emotional punishments.
Lok said: “The problem we’re facing is that children nowadays are not like they were in earlier times. Now some of them don’t even respect the teachers. With lists like that going up online, the teachers know what they cannot do. They don’t even dare. They have to follow all the regulations when they want to punish a student.”
HELP International School counseling psychologist Dr Gerard Louis, however, feels that as much stress as a teacher is under, and regardless of whether that stress comes from the students’ insubordination or not, there should be no excuse for the kind of violent outbursts and mental bullying we’ve been reading about in the papers.
“Any sensible adult – and I’m not talking about teachers only – will tell you that (the bullying of students) goes against common sense. Punishment in school is meant to be rehabilitative. You want children to respond to punishment. Humiliating a child won’t help the child change. If anything, it damages the child,” said Louis.
Moreover, teachers have support systems – including the NUTP – to help them if they are under stress. In fact, Lok urges teachers who feel they are stressed out to get in touch with the NUTP. On the other hand with students, especially those who are being bullied in school, the teachers are sometimes all they’ve got.
But at the same time, Louis was quick to remind students that despite the few teachers who slip up, there are in fact a lot of “very sensible teachers who know their boundaries and treat their students with respect”.
“It’s important the kids realise that just because you’ve been hurt by one teacher, that doesn’t mean all teachers are bad. When they learn that distinction, then the trust between teachers and students won’t be affected.”