Corporal Punishment: One Teacher’s Dilemma
What creative ways does a Peace Corps volunteer find to maintain discipline in her classroom?
As much as I enjoyed teaching the core subjects, I had more fun doing "extracurricular" activities. It goes without saying that students' favorite activities were not math or French or even history.
For my part, I found it fascinating (and thought-provoking) that the first five lessons in the history book were exclusively about weapons. (Chapter One: Knives, spears, axes. Chapter Two: Firearms. Chapter Three: Weapons of war). Instead, the kids really loved art, singing and sports.
Art was revealing because schoolchildren in Burkina Faso have a very limited arsenal of objects they know how to draw. In first grade, they are taught how to draw “un canari” (a clay water container) or “une case” (a hut), copying exactly what the teacher draws on the board.
But they quickly become lost when it comes to imagining something to draw for themselves. One day, I had the fourth-grade students copy down a poem called “Mon Village,” and then told them to illustrate it.
"What do we draw?" they asked. "Your village, of course." "But what do we draw?" They just couldn't imagine an original representation of a village. Finally, I did a quick sketch of a house, a tree and a pond on the board.
"See? A village! Now draw your own!" I then erased what I had drawn on the board. That led to general consternation. They all wanted to copy my “village” exactly. Some of the kids approximated my village from memory. I was proud of the few students who came up with their own ideas.
Sports were another enjoyable activity, and one I usually did for 30-45 minutes every other morning to help the kids get rid of their excess energy. I would have the kids start by running around the “field” two or three times and then get them into a big circle to stretch out.
They were particularly entertained doing jumping jacks and push-ups. After that, sometimes all the kids played a game together, for example “le renard passe passe” (like duck duck goose, but more aggressive, since it involves throwing a shoe at someone as hard as possible to tag them out).
Another favorite option was soccer. It is also played with a shoe, since the school didn't have a ball. (I have since acquired one.) Since there was bound to be some tension between boys and girls, I would often let the boys do their own activity — and do exercises with the girls separately.
Their favorite activity was when I had them race each other two by twos, but with little variations on the races: running, skipping, hopping, running backwards, jumping.
Singing took place at the end of the day for the last ten minutes or so before they went home. The kids already knew the words to a good many songs, so I'd just have them suggest the names of songs — and get them all to sing together.
I usually waved my arms in time to the music, and they would all belt out the words to the song as loudly as they possibly could, often with hand-clapping and foot-stomping. The result was usually cacophonous, to say the least, but it was a great way to end the day's lessons.
All in all, I would have enjoyed teaching, if discipline hadn't been such a problem. Despite laws in Burkina Faso banning corporal punishment, teachers often enforce order by hitting the children with their hands — or with a rubber strap.
While I was horrified when I witnessed this, the children expect it, and actually have more respect for a teacher who hits them. The kids quickly realized that I was incapable of striking them, and they shamelessly took advantage of that to wreak havoc in the classroom.
They made noise, hit each other and so on. Just yelling at them and banging on the desk with a stick had no effect, but I hated the idea of turning to one of the other teachers for help in restoring order. They had no qualms about hitting the children — and in any case, I wanted to take care of this problem for myself.
In the end, I appealed to the children to ask how I could keep them quiet. Some told me to start hitting them to calm them down. Others suggested I should have them do “pilori” — squatting all the way down to the ground and all the way back up, a certain number of times (50, 100…). Just not a thousand.
I decided this was like making them do jumping jacks, so I started to use this when the noise got out of hand. I also introduced a new “punishment” when the kids got into fights, or when one kid hit another.
Whenever this happened, I made the offending party apologize to the other, and the two would have to shake hands. I didn't think this was much of a punishment until I saw the reaction: The kids hated saying sorry.
Instead, they would cross their arms — and refuse to shake hands. As a next step in the dance, I would have to threaten to take them to one of the other teachers.
But once they did finally make peace and shake hands, both victim and offender would usually laugh and feel better. It was probably much less effective than hitting them would have been, but a lot more satisfying for me — and presumably less painful for them.
Teaching was a fascinating experience, and I don't regret having done it. But I was also pretty relieved when I was told, over December break, that a new teacher had been recruited and would take over for the rest of the year.
I know I learned a lot, and I hope the children learned some too. Now somebody else has taken over the formal teaching and the punishment and whatnot, and I can spend more time doing the informal activities like soccer and drawing!