Thursday, July 17, 2014

Corporal Punishment in Schools: Can it be Justified?

Kevin Donnelly, the co-chair of the Australian Federal Government's national curriculum review has backed the use of corporal punishment for ill-disciplined children in schools as long as the local school and community supports it. Not surprisingly, there has been widespread comment in Australian media.

I'm old enough to have experienced 'corporal punishment' in the school. In fact as a young child I had been caned 39 times by the time I reached 3rd grade. I have interesting memories of it. First, my most vivid recollection is of the keen rivalry I had with another boy who was caned almost as much as me (he was the school principal's son!). I saw each episode as another increase to my tally. Second, I recall that it had very little impact on my behaviour.

My behaviour began to change in grade 4 when I had a male teacher who took an interest in me as a person. He saw a child with potential beneath the grubby appearance and belligerent attitude. He set about engaging me as a learner. He made me the monitor for all sorts of jobs like being the incinerator operator (couldn't do that with health and safety rules today). But eventually he tried to engage me as a learner. He knew I could read, was good at spelling and found maths easy but he also knew I was a great underachiever and when distracted was a pain in the neck.

When the school purchased an aquarium and tropical fish that were placed in our classroom. I can still recall Mr Campbell handing me a book on tropical fish one day and saying, "I'd like you to study the book, and when you're finished come back and give the class a talk on tropical fish". This was my first public presentation and the beginning of a deep interest in creatures of the waterways and oceans.

I was caned once that year, late one day when the principal was wandering down the verandah and spotted me through the window as we packed up to go home for the day. I was jumping about and messing around with his son as we waited to file. He pulled us out and caned us both in front of the class. I think this was the last time I was ever caned, but it wasn't fear of the cane that changed me, it was Mr Campbell seeing potential in me and engaging me as a learner.

I'm thankful that corporal punishment had no long-term impact on me. Other children have not been as fortunate.

Above: Awaba Public School where I taught in the 1970s when it was a one-teacher school
When I grew up I became a teacher and I think my childhood experiences helped to me make me a better teacher. One of the life lessons I carried into the classroom was that no discipline should ever be done in anger. Anger always needs to be kept under control. But more than this, if you need to use physical punishment with a child you have probably lost the battle to teach them self control. Just as important as this, you may have lost your ability to nurture and engage them. I didn't use physical punishment with children. I'm glad that receiving it myself as a child helped me to see that is was less helpful and effective than my teachers and parents imagined. By the 1980s and 90s in Australia it was no longer allowed in any form in classrooms within public schools. The major exceptions to this are that independent schools in many states are still allowed to impose corporal punishment with the approval of parents, and in the Northern Territory there are no restrictions.

I think Kevin Donnelly has it wrong.  Good teachers change children as they develop love and respect for their students and want the best for them. It seems to me that this is the starting point for effective teaching and parenting not corporal punishment.

You can read more and listen to Kevin Donnelly's comments HERE

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