A thwack on the hand will never win teachers respect

Establishing authority over the classroom and maintaining discipline are among the biggest challenges teachers face. But these can be achieved without violence.

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I once had a maths teacher in primary school who would hit us on our hands with a large ruler when we failed to show up prepared for a lesson, or if we were unable to memorise the multiplication tables. I still remember the fear my classmates and I experienced before and during her classes, worrying that the thwack of her stick might come down on our unsuspecting hands.

Many years have passed since those days, and today the UAE's education system is moving away from this type of motivation. The Ministry of Education now prohibits teachers from using any kind of physical punishment as a disciplinary tool.

But that doesn't mean the tactic has vanished. And astonishingly, some educators like it that way.

Last week, a group of teachers complained to the Federal National Council that the ban on hitting students makes it "almost impossible" to discipline pupils. Those teachers expressed concerns over the weakening authority teachers wield in classrooms, saying that many of them decide to leave the profession due to the lack of respect from students and school administrators. Without corporal punishment, they said, their word in the classroom is meaningless.

These concerns are so strong that some schools continue to allow this technique, despite it being discredited in many parts of the world. For instance, teachers in at least eight schools in Dubai were found guilty of physical and verbal abuse in 2010, according to the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau. And as recently as 2011, researchers at the Dubai School of Government found that nearly half of all male students and a quarter of female students in public schools in the Northern Emirates reported having been hit at some point in school.

Schools are obliged to provide students with a safe and respectful learning environment, which excludes any physical punishment. But establishing authority over the classroom and maintaining discipline are among the biggest challenges teachers face. What they need is authority. And to get it they need to be given the right tools to manage their classrooms.

In Dubai and the Northern Emirates, a teachers' code of conduct was released in 2011 that prohibited verbal, emotional and physical abuse from staff and pupils. However, it leaves room for each school to develop a behaviour management policy. Any form of abuse must be reported to authorities and investigated.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council, meanwhile, categorises student misbehaviour into three levels with different disciplinary approaches. Those approaches include verbal warnings from the teacher, a letter home to parents, and a short suspension or withdrawal from school activities.

These rules are a solid starting place, but clearly, teachers need even more tools, and greater support. A female teacher said during the FNC meeting that "there is no real punishment for teachers to use", adding that rules about behaviour are directed at teachers as they are often blamed for students' poor performance in school. When teachers propose strict action, parents often succeed in convincing school administrators to back off. Without strong leadership at the principal's office, teachers have little leverage.

Being unable to use tough punishments - suspension, expulsion - to teach children how to behave means that many teachers have lost control over the classroom and opted to quit their profession.

There are stern but non-violent forms of discipline that could work, but for some reason two of the most effective are also banned in Abu Dhabi. For instance, Adec's class management policy prohibits assigning students more work or lowering grades for disciplinary reasons. But giving extra work or poor marks are two tools that should never be off the table.

There are also other international practices that have proven successful in many countries - school detention and summer study - that are rarely meted out. Perhaps it's time to ask why.

Still, those teachers who argue that only physical violence can keep children in line are wrong; maybe they should look for another profession. Moreover, teachers who don't follow these rules and use corporal punishment must be punished themselves, with penalties including pay cuts, suspension or termination. Teachers should be adequately trained to manage classrooms.

A good learning environment requires discipline and well-behaved students. Therefore, students must respect teachers and the rules they make. But this can't happen when teachers do not feel empowered.

On Twitter: AyeshaAlmazroui