I went to a girls’ football game at my son’s high school, and we ran into his middle school Language Arts teacher. As always, I was struck by how at ease students here are with their teachers. The same way we were with our professors when I was doing my postgraduate in Belgium. A shock after Naija, where save for one professor, any show of familiarity was easily misconstrued as disrespect.
At Nsukka, our lecturers were gods to be feared. You had to keep on the right side of them or your education was in jeopardy. They could do and undo. It was even rumoured that a classmate had been warned by a professor that he (the student) ran the risk of failing his exams if the professor ever caught him holding hands with a female student again. What? Did he think his parents sent him to school to be messing around with girls? Try me if you think I am joking. Nonsense! It was also said that that professor – a married man to boot – had his eye on that same female student. And so, he considered it disrespectful that a young man like my classmate had the effrontery to go after the same ‘chick’ as he himself was eyeing.
There was another professor who once brought a crate of soda to the exam hall and enjoyed torturing us by drinking in our presence while we sweated and thirsted from the heat. I recall that we weren’t allowed to bring any drinks to the hall with us. And it didn’t occur to any of us to disobey the prof.
You only know what you know right? And you’re formed by your environment and so on and so forth, right? So the first time I stepped into my classroom at the KU Leuven (Belgium), and saw students drinking soda during class, I stared like a veritable mgbeke. As a professor, the first time a student asked me – politely and respectfully- if they could miss a class to go for her boyfriend’s graduation for which his family was also going to be around, I thought na wah ooo! I imagined asking my Nsukka professors if I could miss class to attend a boyfriend’s graduation. Not husband oo. Boyfriend. Fear wouldn’t have let me. I’d have been accused of disrespect. I tried to appear unperturbed. For a minute, I thought my Naija socialization would catch up with me and I’d say no because how dare she want to skip class for a man? I didn’t. I gave her the day off on the condition that she caught up with the work she was going to miss. What was one class after all? She was thankful. I had to remind myself that fear and respect are two different things. In Naija, I feared my professors. I must have respected them too but in many cases, my fear was bigger than my respect. And the professor I really, genuinely admired and respected, I never feared.
Of course, it’s not only in our universities that instructors depend on fear as a means of keeping students in check. In our Naija educational system, fear of teachers/forced respect is one of the cornerstones of pedagogy. From anecdotal evidence, it would appear that in every primary and secondary school, there are teachers for whom it is important that they are known to be the ones to be feared. Every school has those teachers who call attention to their cruelty. You are warned not to get into their wahala if you know what is good for you. At FGGC Abuja in my time, there was a teacher whose MO was to sneak around during night prep. She’d stand outside a window like a ghost, taking note of everyone making noise, and when she’d had enough, she’d make her presence and her punishment known.
I am not saying teachers shouldn’t find ways to keep particularly unruly students in check but creating and upholding an atmosphere of fear (and violence) is not it. Google “share any beating experience with your wicked school teacher.” The stories are sobering. The teacher who caned students while making them carry chairs on their heads; a teacher that once gave a student 52 strokes of the cane; another one who had the reputation of flogging students until their bladders misbehaved. In January of this year, 11-year-old Izuchukwu Onwualu was flogged to death by a teacher at St. Valerian Secondary School, Onitsha. In 2013, four-year-old Elizabeth Wanogha allegedly succumbed to the injuries she received from her teacher at Falaye Memorial Nursery and Primary School Akure who flogged her for being ‘stubborn.’ And there are more stories but I lack the heart to do the research.
Schools shouldn’t be a place where ego-tripping teachers abuse their power by ‘failing’ students for whatever assumed disrespect from said students, it shouldn’t be a place where our children go to be flogged for whatever reason (you all know how I feel about corporal punishment) and it shouldn’t be a place where respect is forced. Our children should be able to study without the burden of trying to sidestep sadistic instructors added to their lives biko.
By the way: if as a nursery school/ primary school teacher, the only way you can control your pupils is by beating them, then you are most likely in the wrong profession.