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School CP - August 2000, Singapore, 7 August 2000

Monday with the Editor: School Discipline

Put the cane in the teachers' hands

National Day is two days away. It is time now to ponder the future of Singapore - in particular, our children's future. Many of us are now in our thirties and forties. We have children who are still attending school. Because we do not have much time to spend with them, we tend to be slack with them. We let our children have whatever they ask for - perhaps, out of guilt. We also do not discipline them and leave it to the school to do it for us.

Therein lies the problem with the children of Singapore nowadays. Many of us leave the disciplining of our children to the schools and many schools are reluctant to discipline their students. In secondary schools, discipline is getting from bad to worse - even in good schools. Boys and girls are more difficult to control in class. Teachers are now at a loss as they find it difficult to handle their charges in class. Teachers cannot use the cane. They cannot impose corporal punishment on their students. That privilege lies with the principal. And more principals are reluctant to use the cane on their students, preferring instead to counsel them.

A principal of a Top-Ten secondary school does not believe in the use of the cane. Teachers in his school lament the deteriorating discipline among these bright young boys - in vain. Older teachers look back to the seventies when they could take their students in hand with a whack or two. There was hardly any disciplinary problems then - students toed the line and accorded their teachers due respect from fear of being punished. Back home, these students of the seventies received the cane from their parents who would not hesitate in exercising such forms of punishment. Parents then did not think twice about bringing the cane down onto their children for the simple fact that they had too many children. 

The end result - students brought up in the seventies learnt discipline and respect the hard way - through caning. Now, I wonder. Is that such a bad idea after all? Nowadays, we are reluctant to use the cane on our children. Our principals are also reluctant to use the cane. Students know that teachers cannot cane them. So, what happens? They are braver in breaching the limits of discipline in class. And many get away with such breaches. Is that why more and more teachers are leaving the teaching profession?

Having taught in primary and secondary schools, I can see where the problem starts. Secondary school students do not become rowdy and undisciplined overnight. They picked up these bad habits in primary school - particularly when they are in the lower primary levels. Let's look at the this scenario. Primary two students, for example, do not get punished at home because their parents are away at work and leave them in the charge of the maid or grandparents. These kids are used to getting what they want - just by crying or sulking. They learnt that they need not do things they do not like if they cry in front of their parents or grandparents who will relent and let them have their way. And they get away with it. After all, the modern Singaporean family has only one or two children - a far cry from the old days when parents had to bring up five or more kids. So, parents are more likely to pamper their children nowadays.

When primary two teachers try to take some of their charges in hand, what happens is - their charges refuse to bulge from their seats. These children think that they can practise at school what they normally do at home and then get away with it. The teacher, on the other hand, short of complaining to the principal and the parents, has no way of getting such children to comply with instructions except by shouting at them. Even then, shouting, in most cases, do not yield lasting results. The children will revert to their old selves again after the scoldings and shoutings have died down. There is no lasting effect at all. However - picture this - if the teacher is allowed to cane the naughty students, such students, I am sure, will never forget the painful lesson learnt!

This brings me to another important question. If, in sparing the rod, we spoil the child, what happens if the school authorities relent and allow teachers to effect corporal punishment on their students, and some teachers are too "cane-happy" and inflict punishment needlessly. In such cases, abuse of privilege will have occurred and students unfortunate to be under such abusive teachers will have a hard time. But, I believe such black sheep are in the minority.

To return discipline to our schools, and to help our students' parents control their children, I believe that we need to put the cane back in the hands of our teachers.

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