For most of us in the western world, the use of the cane in school as a punishment is a thing of the distant past. Maybe it is a story our parents or grandparents have told us that we laugh about but have never really considered seriously. It was first made illegal in Australia from 1888 in some states, in Britain in 1986, the ban started in 1977 across America and another 128 countries have followed as of 2017. This includes Kenya in 2001. In Kenya the use of corporal punishment in schools has been illegal for 17 years, they have also signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1990) which states that discipline involving violence is unacceptable. So why is it still being used?
The first time I witnessed this in Kenya it was a simple small tap on the knuckles for students arriving late to school or having a dirty uniform. Although I thought this was not correct, it was small and something I could give feedback on. At the time I didn’t realise it got much worse.
One day I was in the staff room of a school, marking a student’s school work when I heard screams of a student coming from the head teacher’s office. This was followed by the sound of a stick slapping against a student’s back and then by yelling in Swahili from a male teacher and more screams and crying from the young student.
I was horrified, I felt sick, but what should I do? This was such a difficult situation to be in and I had so many things running through my head. Should I go in and intervene? Should I stay out of it? Should I speak to the teacher after? I didn’t know what to do but I thought I would either vomit or cry. The other teachers in the staff room did not seem fazed, I’m pretty sure one was even laughing about the situation.
I left the staff room to get away from the noise and clear my head. I decided it wasn’t my place, though I desperately wanted to save that child. It was painful to hear but I had to wait before I could speak to the teacher so that I did not make a scene in front of the student and damage their relationship or our relationship.
When I returned to the staff room it was much quieter and so I entered the head teacher’s office. There was a teacher in there who had been doing the punishing and another man. I tried to keep my cool but I was pretty upset, I asked the teacher what had happened and he explained that the student had been stealing things and he showed me the evidence: an old broken phone, a strapless broken watch and a set of head phones. The shocker here is that the student had stolen these things while at home and then his father had bought him to school to be punished! The parent wanted the teacher to do the punishing (caning) for him! WOW! I raised my voice about the situation, I can’t remember exactly what I said but I told them that they couldn’t do that, the child has rights and they need to find another way to teach them a lesson. I was too heated to have a calm discussion about it and too upset to stay at school and teach so I left for the day rather than saying something I would regret.
I desperately needed some advice, I had to do something, but how or what? Because of the time difference it was hard to get the advice I needed from home so I settled for my own research. 4 hours later I had 9 pages of notes and research and information about why corporal punishment shouldn’t be used and how it can damage the teacher- student relationship and what alternatives can be used to help teach the students a lesson and right from wrong.
I arranged to meet with the head teacher the next day to discuss the incident and what I had researched for them. I had learnt that:
The use of the cane on students has been illegal for 18 years
The practice was introduced by the British
There have recently been law suits against schools and teachers for corporal punishments and children
There have been recent deaths and injuries to students by the use of the cane
The mental impact it can have on a child
The promotion of violence with the students in society, in the school and in their future lives
Growing aggression towards teachers
Lowered self esteem and problems with anxiety
The students develop fear for their teachers which effects the teacher student relationship and their learning environment.
When I sat down with the head teacher- Lets call him Mr J, the next day to discuss the situation and how I felt about it he started by just laughing it off. He thought it was just another funny difference in cultures, he said that it is just a normal way to discipline a child. It was the only way that worked and if they don’t cane them they would just not listen and misbehave. They also thought it was the quickest, easiest and most convenient way to get them back in to class quickly.
This took me to alternatives to punishment and ways to manage the student’s behaviour and Mr J. started to agree. He loved the alternatives and thought that they would really work at his school.
I think the thing that spoke to him the most was the way it could affect the learning environment and their relationships in school.
I also explained how the teachers are role models and set examples for their students. There was one day I witnessed some of the young girls playing a game of teacher and students. The girl who was portraying the teacher called each ‘student’ up one by one and caned them all. She was then punished for violence against other students. But she had learnt this direct from her teachers! Her role models!
The main concern for the school was always the student’s grades. If they did well then the parents were happy, the directors were happy and more students would attend the school. This of course means more money and development for the school. The way they treat the students can affect the way they learn and once Mr J understood this he agreed that things needed to change.
Mr J arranged that the next day the teachers would all attend a 1 hour meeting where I would have the chance to have the same discussion. I was encouraged by his enthusiasm, although a little nervous about presenting my ideas to so many people with apposing views.
For the meeting Mr J had printed out a copy for each teacher of the notes I had given him the day before. Great!
I was not surprised that this meeting started in a similar way with the teachers finding my difference in opinion amusing. They were quite closed during the discussion while I talked about the effects of violence in the class room could have. They certainly had their disagreements in the end about how it was part of their culture, well yes but it used to be part of the western culture also. We talked about how the parents wanted them to use the cane and I urged them to speak to the parents about how they were forcing them to damage their relationships with the students which would effect their learning. I encouraged them to set an example for the parents to see improved behaviour and improved relationships at school so that they will want to follow their way at home as well.
We spoke openly about alternatives for behaviour management and came up with a tiered list together:
Time out in the corner or outside the door
Write an apology letter to the teacher or student offended
Run laps of the field
Clean the class
Pick up rubbish
Detention during games
I emphasised that a punishment should come as a last resort and should always come with an effective conversation. The students need to learn what they have done wrong and why it was wrong, how it will affect others and their own lives in the future.
We also spoke about clear rules and expectations which we would establish with the help of the students of each class. A reward system would also be developed to recognise positive behaviour as well.
I am so pleased to say that by the end of the week I had witness the method of writing an apology letter twice and the teachers trying to have a better conversation. I am excited for the improved environment for the students and the development and growth in the school.
A few weeks later I was invited by the Gathimba Edwards Foundation to speak at a seminar for another Kenyan school on similar topics, motivating students, class lessons and behaviour management. I guess it was perfect timing as I had some idea of the objections I could expect. The material had mostly been put together by another Gathimba Edwards Foundation volunteer, Lucy, who had experienced a similar situation to me in this school. She did a terrific job with quality content for the teachers and great discussions to learn from. I was grateful, no matter the circumstance to have my own experiences to draw from as well.
This seminar was very productive with the teachers all participating in the conversations openly and speaking about situations similar to the other school and possible alternatives we thought might work.
I would love to be able to do this as a long term partnership to help these schools develop through sharing of ideas that could work from the western world. I am always careful to take ideas from both backgrounds. The last thing I want to do is come in with a closed mind and tell them what to do. An open and effective relationship is essential for this to work.
Since these experiences I have been speaking to and learning more from teachers, parents and children.
One child told me that at the end of exam period each term the whole school gets the cane for not ‘doing good enough’.
Some young children- as young as 3, have been caned for having dirty nails. If this deserves a punishment then punish the parents, its their jobs to clean them.
Behavioral management needs to be implemented, not every situation requires punishment.
This began as a challenge I was not expecting and has turned into the beginning of some productive relationships and potential improvements for schools and students. My heart is full and I am thankful for all that I am learning here.