Here’s a thought experiment:
You teach a first grade class. There are two brothers in your class who are very quick at maths, so you’ve taken to offering them extra problems to solve. They usually lap this up, but one day you hear one brother cautioning the other that if they have more homework their mum will hit them both. You think you might have misheard so you don’t think much of it. But just in case you emphasise that the extra work is for class time only, not for homework.
Fast forward a week or so. One of the brothers comes to school with a not insignificant cut above his eye. One of the local staff asks him what its from. He says his mum kicked him because he didn’t know one of the letters. You’ve no reason to disbelieve him. But practically you’ve no ability to access government services that might intervene in this family, as there aren’t any.
Should you keep setting the brothers homework?
The issues we deal with
You may have guessed that, sadly, this is not just a thought experiment, but a real situation that some of the other volunteers have been dealing with. After consulting with local staff the conclusion was, yes, you keep setting homework like normal. There’s a strong cultural expectation of homework – called tareas here – and parents use it to measure whether their kids are learning anything at school. The brothers might just as easily be abused if they come home without tareas.
But we’ll redouble the questioning about how things are going at home, especially the process by which homework is done. Apparently the only next step available to us would be talking directing to the family.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling to know that your actions as a teacher could have violent consequences for your students. One preescolar was especially misbehaving one day and was sent home with a note to his parents. He was conspicuously absent at school the next day and his step-father is known to be abusive. His big sister reported that he had been suspended . That wasn’t the outcome we were looking for. And we worried that ‘suspension’ was a euphemism.
We’ve limited sight into the homes of the kids we teach and next to no influence over them. It seems like the best we can do is model an environment where violence isn’t a component of discipline. Hopefully it occurs to the kids that they’re sitting in time out, waiting for glitter to fall to the bottom of an upturned soda bottle full of water, rather than being struck.
If the kids report this back to their parents though, they’ll probably think we’re balmy. The anti-corporal punishment norms we grew up with are the polar opposite of those here. One parent came to pick their son up on a day when he’d made all sorts of mischief. A volunteer told her so. “Well” said the mother to her son “you need to be careful because if you misbehave at school again they’ll hit you. Very hard.”
Um, no we won’t.
*Alternative title considered and discarded: It’s not okay. But it is okay to blog about it.