Published — Friday 15 June 2012
Last update 15 June 2012 8:38 pm
HOW CAN teaching persist as a transmission of knowledge, guidance and mentorship from one generation to another if teachers’ wellbeing is increasingly at risk from those very students they are teaching? The outbreak of violence against Saudi teachers at the high school and university level seems to be escalating, with teachers falling victim to verbal threats, property damage and physical assault. Very often, these have been pre-meditated and deliberate, and sometimes in retaliation for perceived wrongs. While the threat of physical peril is naturally the foremost concern, the social danger is, arguably, even greater: This development threatens the breakdown of a vital social relationship. It is the job of teachers, along with parents, to nurture and guide the next generation and teach them to value learning. This is, also, the message that the imams try to impart to young adults. Respect for knowledge and for those who facilitate it is both a traditional value and a social and economic necessity. One must question, then, whether this message is going astray. It is no exaggeration to say that the fabric of society hinges on our ability to offer students a solid foundation of values and knowledge. Interference with this process is a most ominous symptom of a social degeneration.
Naturally, teachers, like any other member of society, need to be protected from harm. At the most basic level, this outbreak of violence threatens the safety of the educational institution itself. It is up to administrators and law enforcers to make sure that this does not occur. The need for safety is fundamental, and inherently much stronger than the need for self-actualization — which might include the teaching of values and morality. Providing safety by any means necessary, even measures some might deem undesirable, like the metal detectors might be a good option.
But I would urge us most strongly not to stop there. The assault of a teacher by students has a different psychological and social profile than other acts of violence. We have to consider the messages inherent in such an act, or, sadly, we will probably find that it is perpetuated and repeated. Viewing the involved students as the criminals that they indeed are is understandable, and to a degree necessary; but it is not a solution. It is time, perhaps, to employ a little psychology, and to ask ourselves what the students are expressing by acting out in this wholly unacceptable manner?
There have been suggestions that they are taking ‘revenge’ on teachers who have treated them harshly. Yet discipline methods have not changed substantially, and previous generations of students seemed more inclined to respect them. So what has changed, and why? Are we in the middle of an unresolved social shift? Or is it simply the pressure of increased competition for university seats and jobs that is swelling the student ranks and making them intolerant of perceived injustices?
Attempting to understand is not capitulation. If we are always acting in reaction to perpetrated wrongs, we risk perpetuating a situation in which opposition grows and nobody can possibly win. It is my belief as an educator that absolutely nothing can be achieved without cooperation and trust between students and teachers. Ensuring safety is the necessary first step, but attempts to heal the relationship must be ongoing.