Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Shuqin Secondary Incident : My Take

Since the video on the 'bullying situation' at Shuqun Secondary School ran viral, much have been said, commented, dissected etc by many people. Having taught in schools in the Western region for most of my four decades as an educator, here are my thoughts on this incident.

The School
Among the cluster of about 10 schools in the Bukit Batok/Jurong East/Jurong West region, the perception was that Shuqun had never been a top choice or even as a choice for PSLE pupils around this area. It is unfortunate that they were thought to be a 'problem' school, compared to the rest even during its time in Chun Tin Road, Bukit Timah.  I am sure that the dedicated staff had long been doing their best. They have portrayed themselves as a caring school through its pastoral programme since Principal Chua took office in the 2005. Their success stories with challenging pupils were highlighted often. At least I was aware of them when I was teaching in a nearby school.
Some school resorts to changing their uniform to shed off their unpleasant 'past histories' to be renewed, repackaged. Some used their forced change of location or PRIME project to repackage themselves. No matter what schools do, it would take years just to gain some positive reputations among the neighbourhood. Once you are down, the market talk will be, 'you are not my choice'. Very difficult to rise from the ashes, though not impossible.

The Incident
I believed that the 'bullying act' was not a spontaneous one or an one-off incident. The kids are in Sec 3 now. They could have been classmates for 3 years already. Thus there could have been unreported incidents before. The 'weaker' boys have been through it all, in various manner, before. How they suffered. This incident was highlighted only when one of the classmates recorded it secretly and used the social media to make it known (maybe he/she wanted to stop it but too cowardly to confront it). This did not appear to be a case of gangsterism as 'gangster' usually does not bully this way. They do not target such weak pupils ('gangster' got their 'dignity') themselves but would ask their 'runners' to do it. It was more as a case of playfulness and mischief gone wrong when no one corrected his behaviour from the beginning.
Does this happen in other school? Yes...definitely. No school should adopt an 'holier than thou ' attitude to say that 'it didn't happen here'. As a DM before, I had handled many so-called 'bullying' cases before, which mostly happened in the N classes. The E classes usually gave less of such behavioral problems, mostly tardy in handing in assignments.
Most of the time, the bully's home background has a significant part in influencing/forming their act. There were acts like 'donkey kicks' 'one time punch and go', 'out of my way push', 'stomach pinch', 'elbow knock' , head knock',etc. It usually comes suddenly even though the victim anticipated it. It was always the plead case of " Cher, I didn't do it intentionally", "Just playing lah", "Accident only, he so sensitive". "He so act tough" etc type of excuses, though you know from their look in their eyes, voice tone and posture that it was just the reverse, not so simple. Deep down, if you questioned and probed further, there lies a sense of uncertainty, insecurity, past failures and prejudice in thoughts gleaned from their experiences outside school and they might not have realised that they were bullies.
The girls were more into 'look intimidation', 'hurting words'., 'names calling'.  They seldom resorted to violence. If they wished to, their bf would be involved.
Handling such issues are not straight forward...cane, go away and don't let it happen again!! Alas, nothing of that sort works as the bully will continue with greater gusto if they did not understand the punishment! The victim will continue to live in fear (thus some joined gangs to be protected). What can work will be to let the protagonist and the victim meet face to face to sort out the 'problem' AFTER talking to the individual parties separately. The protagonist must truly realise his action being a mistake, accept the punishment and move on. It is not an instantaneous solution. At least there is some kind of closure on the incident for both parties. I must admit that I had once allowed a fight to continue for a while as the victim was fighting back and winning! Secretly, I was urging the victim to teach the bully a lesson!! To stop the fight, I would intentionally hold on to the victim. Psychology?
Through experience, a teacher would be able to 'sense' what works.

It is a given among DM that you cannot imposed your authority through your position. It must be cultivated, carefully built up. Many of the challenging pupils 'give face' to you once they have fathomed you to be fair, a listener though you are tough/stern. They are always evaluating you through your daily actions and interactions in and outside classrooms. They are very discerning people, so don't underestimate them! I have seen teachers building up this TSR through informal means as they do not like to be 'preached' in class. Some teachers came to school early and mixed around with pupils before assembly. Try stationing yourself in a place/kerb around the assembly area. If no pupil approach you, approach a few and start a conversation....listen with genuine concern. Outside school, if you meet such pupils, have a short conversation with them. Soon, some of them will highlight problems or even potential problems in and around the school to you without you asking. (Cher, today something will happened at the Lion Dance area..) It was much more colourful when they spoke in a certain dialect.  In my experience, I came to know of potential meetings/fights between different groups of pupils BEFORE they happened (Cher, got gathering at Lot One after school) Note what they told you without being too obvious as they did not want any attention ('pau tho' or 'snitch' in English) Together with the OM, we managed to stop the incident from happening by hinting that I knew about such potential incidents (eg Why do I always see a group of our pupils at Lot one after school?) or be at the scene before it happened. Once you gained the trust of the pupils, they would always speak from their heart and head. However, don't betray them in any way because such pure trust are precious and rare and could not be regained.
Another teaching moment is through play. Join the pupils in games if you can, even though you cannot better them. You can also be a referee in the games. When pupils see you as a fair human being, they will respond accordingly and respectfully.

Teacher in class / Adjunct Teacher
The Shuqun incident highlighted the presence of an adjunct teacher in class, noting that he took no action to stop the commotions in class (loud music, dancing on table, etc) No knowing the full account of it, I presumed that the ADJT allowed some movements/free play among the pupils as there was no teaching taking place. However, like 'broken windows', once not mended/controlled, it will escalate into more movement and then problems. However, as an ADJT, how much do you want to act on it? You come and go after 30mins/60 minutes, no incentive to do better,,,,that might be the thinking. There was no time for him/her to establish even a little TSR. Not an easy job as you think! Would a full time teacher do a better job, establish order and prevent incidents from happening?
As a DM, there were times when I have to come into some classes just to calm them down so that lessons could carry on...this happened to trained full time teachers as well. At the same time, I was conscious as not to undermine the teacher's position in class as he/she would be facing the same class day in day out for the term/year. Other strategies to engage the class would have to be in place.
I have seen some of these teachers ended as NIE lecturers after some years!! Maybe they have gained experience and became better in managing classes after the experiences in a normal school.
The trick to solve class disruption problem was usually to identify the main 'actors' and try to talk to them. The recalcitrant ones would not be so easy to handle but if they saw some success in what they were doing, things could be make it happened to them. There is no straight forward answers, thus teaching is a dynamic vocation. Teach content is easy......

Having taught in so called neighbourhood schools (most of my life) and in a couple of 'branded schools', I was often asked by colleagues to state the differences in environment and pupils.
To me, deep inside, the kids are just as pure and simple. The only thing is their home and societal experiences which shaped their behaviours. They brought them into the school and expected it to be the same. When there are more 'alikes' in the midst, a certain culture is prevalent and borned. Schools tried to teach them values through play and interactions. Whether they learn is not evident instantly. I am one who would leave out any 'star players' not conforming to the correct values and lose rather than succumbing to their whims and fancies to be in a winnable position.

I did have the wicked thoughts in "Will the teachers in the latter schools 'survive' in the former?" "Will those 'scholar teachers' be culturally shocked when placed in the former?" "What about those teachers who have been through the system in elite schools all their life?"
Now, there are two NT specialist schools and two for academically challenged pupils to go to after PSLE. It is like putting birds of the same feathers together. Will they be better cared for and become better birds? Will they be alienated from the main stream finally? It would not be a proud moment to proclaim that you are from a NT specialist school. Only when one had achieved something tangible would one be proud. I am sure that the people involved would want to see the scheme succeed but there are many future repercussions. Those who stayed in the normal schools have a chance to interact with pupils who are not so challenged, academically. However, the reality is that in such school they are still differentiated, though some schools made it less obvious eg like in a case when a N pupil was selected to be head prefect or captain of a team.
What about some classes from elite schools twin with those academically inclined classes from a neighbouring school? My previous school tried once when a group of pupils from a top boys school came to learn sepak takraw from our boys who were mostly from the NT stream. They have had a few sessions together.  We could see that there were no lines drawn between them, seamless. Wish it could be longer. Final outcome? No one knows as we did not wish to measure it like an experiment!!

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