Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Thomas Schoch
I teach English and Mathematics with thirteen other teachers at a government school just off the paved road, across the river from Angola, in northeastern Namibia.
In the past eighteen months I have gotten to know many of my colleagues and their families well. They have welcomed me into their school, their lives, and their homes. Babies have been born and parents and children have died. When I came here I thought I was putting my life on hold for a year to try something new; instead, I was surprised to find myself leading a full life here.
I had been at the school for a month before I saw a student hit by a teacher. It was a hot February afternoon with looming dark clouds promising a cool rain. I had come out of the office and saw a colleague sitting across the school yard under a palm tree with two female students in front of her with arms outstretched. She raised a long, flat metal rod and hit each of their arms in quick succession. My heart stopped at the sound.
I had been told about the prevalence of corporal punishment in schools here. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did. My initial euphoria deluded me into thinking this didn’t happen at my school. Not by my colleagues. Teachers whom I connected with, who had been so helpful and warm and welcoming.
It was the teacher I was closest to who was hitting these two girls. I was shocked. She was young and hard-working and bright and funny and a good teacher. I couldn’t imagine she was the kind of person who hit kids.
After a month that seemed like six, I had been lulled into thinking that Namibia wasn’t so different from what I knew. I didn’t have many expectations about my school before I got here. I was pleasantly surprised to find desks in every class, government-issued notebooks for every student, at least one textbook for the teacher, and thousands of sticks of white chalk.
There was also a comprehensive course content for each grade and subject. There were exams three times a year that tested the students on this content. There were numerous professional development workshops for teachers. The teachers spoke a discourse that was very similar to that of teachers back home. In those first four weeks of the school year we had devised action plans to improve student performance, set up schedules for extra classes after school and identified slow students in our classes. The principal had a calendar to observe teachers and check their student’s work against the learning content. From all accounts it looked like a well-maintained school with a thoughtful, dedicated staff.
I returned to the office shaking. It was empty and I cried. Big, overwhelmed tears. I had just come from spending five years teaching kids with autism, many of whom struggled to communicate their basic needs. I had students who had been in situations where they had been physically abused by a teacher or caregiver. In the world I knew where it was the job of adults to advocate for and protect kids, this was unforgivable.
Those first slaps woke me up. Hitting students seemed to be in direct contradiction to what all the teachers had been saying about teaching and learning. Sure, their teaching style was different than the ones I was used to. Teachers stood firmly at the front of the class copying summaries from books silently onto the board; students sat quietly in their seats, recopying the summaries. Discussion was limited, but kids knew the system and did what they were told and teachers seemed to cover their content. It seemed like the system worked.
On that first February afternoon I didn’t go back out and grab the rod from the teacher, I didn’t try to talk to her, I told myself to be patient. Three days later I spoke to the principal about it. I was calm and diplomatic and tried to exude open-mindedness. He likewise was honest and willing to hear my concerns. There was never any question about the legality of hitting students. It is not allowed. It was not my burden to import these ideas and convince my colleagues this was wrong. The Ministry of Education policies clearly state that corporal punishment in schools is illegal. I left the meeting feeling guardedly optimistic. The principal reminded the staff about the policy on corporal punishment and gave them ideas on alternative ways to punish students.
That afternoon students were hit again.
Then the following. And the following.
They were hit for things like not lining up to run during track practice, arriving late to school, not doing homework, answering incorrectly. My diplomacy started to falter. I stole teacher’s sticks and broke them, I took metal rods because I needed them as chalkboard rulers for math class. I confronted teachers one on one and in staff meetings. If the government didn’t want this going on in schools why was I, the outsider, the only one enforcing their policy?
I didn’t know then what I know now.
After another year working in Namibian schools I have begun to see beyond my students and my lessons. Now I know the refrain from the Ministry of Education and their obsession with improving exam results. I know how this gets translated in weekly “pep talks” by the principal:
“You need to pull up your socks. Teach extra classes, work with slow learners. Do your lesson plans. If you’re not preparing, why are you coming to school? You should stay home.”
While these words appear to pack a punch, I’ve seen that it’s inaction at every level that cements the status quo. There are no consequences for teachers or principals who blatantly disregard Ministry policies or more commonly just don’t come to school. The disconnect between many official policies and what actually happens in schools is huge. Why have a law prohibiting corporal punishment in schools if it wasn’t going to be enforced? My colleagues would say that’s just what the Ministry has to say. For whose benefit is unclear.
Furthermore, I was told corporal punishment was cultural. Time and time again I was looked on with soft eyes and a hint of pity from female teachers for not understanding that this is how we discipline our children. From the male teachers I heard about going to school during colonialism, when they were whipped for minor offenses. From parents I overheard teachers being asked to beat their children because they couldn’t control them at home. I read journal entries from my 20-year-old students about how they remembered being terrified to come to their first day of school because they didn’t want to get beaten.
While my fellow teachers would argue with me about their right to use corporal punishment, once I came out so strongly against it they no longer flaunted their use of it. Hitting kids was no longer done in the office or outside, but I still heard that distinct sound of metal on flesh from behind closed classroom doors.
It was a quiet morning at the end of October when a lanky grade 6 boy stumbled into the office with blood dripping from an egg-sized bump on his forehead. He cried and was unresponsive. Classmates were pulled in to explain what happened, but before they could one of their teachers appeared to claim responsibility. He had hit him repeatedly on the head with a wooden chalkboard eraser because the boy had gone over the answers of his homework multiple times in pen, creating a page in his exercise book that the teacher deemed illegible and messy. Others students in the class had been hit as well for not completing the homework at all.
The principal hadn’t been seen at the school in six weeks and the teacher in charge did not share my outrage or need for urgent and immediate action. I called the principal. I wrote a letter to him and his supervisor and in a moment of utter frustration and helplessness I yelled at the teacher responsible until I was blue in the face.
“No. This is not okay. It’s never okay. I don’t care what they did or didn’t do. It is illegal to beat children,” I shouted at him as my voice cracked and tears destroyed any illusion that I could fit in here.
“I did nothing wrong. Look at this,” he said waving the exercise book at me.
“Look at what he wrote in his book. He is not respecting me. Kids now a days don’t have any respect for teachers. I have the right to punish learners.” His voice was firm and he lines of his face were hard with the certainty of knowing he was right.
Neither of us appeared to understand where the other one was coming from and my venting only reinforced my feelings of powerlessness. I spoke to the only captive audience I had– the kids. I desperately wanted them to know they deserved better than this. I walked into my grade 8 class and sat on a broken desk at the front of the room. My face was still blotchy and the kids quieted in anticipation of what I was going to say.
“Today, several learners were hit here at school by a teacher.
It is not okay for that to happen.
The Namibian government says it is not okay.
Think about when you began school.
What did you think about the teacher?
Learning shouldn’t be something you’re afraid of.
School should be a place that children want to come.
Teachers should be people who treat them well and listen to them.”
They sat quietly, looking nervously from my face to my dangling feet. I told them I wanted them to tell me if anyone hit them at school. They were still quiet. I asked them if they had questions.
“No questions,” they repeated in unison, like they often do. My rant betrayed my cultural background and their reaction, theirs.
It has been a year since that incident. The boy dropped out of school, along with another one from the class. The teacher is still teaching at the school. There was an investigation against him not because of his actions with the students, but because he wouldn’t sign the written warning he was given by the principal. He was given a misconduct by the Ministry of Education and told not to do it again.
There are fleeting moments when I can hold all of Namibia in my head. The past, the present, the future. The layers and layers of contradictions that we take for granted in our own societies but scream out loud when we enter another. There is room for the poverty, the wealth, the vast economic inequities. The relatively recent independence and the deep scars from a long history of colonialism. The poor health care, lack of clean water and constant battles with defeatable illnesses– malaria, TB, AIDS, intestinal worms. The hunger and the reliance on a few months of predicable weather to dictate a year’s food supply. In the moments of supreme clarity I can see myself in the midst of all of this. I can understand the limitations of my role as an inherent visitor and the small ways I can help create sustainable, positive change. I manage my expectations and have patience with Namibia and myself.
On most days, though, I can’t keep it all in my head. How can the latest cell phones connect to the internet in a village where there is no clean water? How can teachers leave classes unattended for a full period every afternoon to watch a Mexican soap opera on TV? How can a country with such a stable government not enforce it’s own laws to protect its children? After two years of being patient, talking, yelling, writing letters, I have, in order to keep my sanity, resigned myself to the fact that change happens slowly.
I never found an alternative to just showing up. Day after day, walking into class after class, regardless of what other teachers may or may not be teaching, shaking off my sand-filled shoes, and doing my job to teach kids multiplication facts, irregular verb conjugations, and the notion that they have the right to learn.
Some days, this feels like enough.