The shock surrounding the recent incident in Chennai, where a student stabbed his teacher to death after she repeatedly pulled him up for not doing well in academics, has worn off somewhat. The initial outrage has given way to hand-wringing about recklessness, indiscipline and egotism of an emerging generation and the state of an education system that once revered teachers but now appears to have stripped them of their exalted status.
Indiscipline or cheekiness towards authority figures is not new. But while earlier generations tended to be deferential towards teachers and contented themselves with the occasional prank, things now seem to have gotten out of hand with violent student-teacher conflicts emerging in schools. Many worry that parenting and teaching have become so child-centric that it is now politically incorrect to say that a child behaves badly. Teachers who reprimand students could now be accused of discrimination or abuse even if the child is genuinely disruptive. It is no longer fashionable, it seems, to demand good behaviour.
Take the case of the Class 11 student who grabbed his teacher's neck at school in front of several students. Two decades ago, a child like this would have been expelled. In this case, he was simply let off with a reprimand. The student got of lightly while the teacher felt humiliated.
Some incidents are the result of the youthful inability to express negative feelings in a socially-acceptable way - as in the case of the student who threw a cloth mop at a hated teacher. Others are a result of a new phenomenon within a society that traditionally looked to gurus for guidance - disrespect for teachers. Nothing else can explain the attitude of the Class Six child who flaunted a statue of a nude woman in class despite repeated warnings. Sometimes, as in the case of the unfortunate teacher in Chennai, this disrespect is manifested in violent ways.
"Even a simple rebuttal elicits instant remarks like 'You have humiliated me in front of the entire class," says Aarti, a teacher at a prominent Delhi school, who has been in the profession for three decades. She fears forcing the issue could lead students to hurl threats like "See you outside school after 1.40!"
What could have caused this attitudinal shift that transformed teachers into targets of abuse? Social commentators hold up everything from rapid social change to over-indulgent parenting, lower standards within the teaching profession and its transformation into just another paid service shorn of reverence.
"Kids now see their relationship with teachers as an 'I pay-you teach' sort of interaction," says Poonam Batra of Central Institute of Education (CIE). Not surprisingly, this attitude has emerged as India zipped through 20 years of rapid economic and social growth, and old certainties were replaced by new realities. Add to this the distractions of social networking, television and handheld devices and a young person's life appears unbearably complicated. All this has changed not just attitudes towards teachers but also the Indian nuclear family. While some continue to be strict with children often unconsciously imitating the style that American Chinese author and Yale professor Amy Chua delineated in her Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, others have become overly indulgent. There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that children who aren't appropriately corrected go on to commit graver offences. For instance, the two young carjackers who were arrested in the capital recently: apparently, one of them first caused trouble as a class 7 student at a prominent school when he stole from his teacher's purse. Though he was caught, Ayush escaped punishment as his parents manipulated the situation. The child got away after promising not to repeat the offence. Those who know him believe his later adventures stemmed from that first realisation of his invincibility.
Education experts and counsellors believe aggression among children isn't surprising in a society that unabashedly admires machismo in its most blatant forms. "What kids do is merely a reflection of our society," says Naveen Kumar, a psychiatrist with Manas Foundation who also counsels children.
The great Indian family isn't the only one at fault. Teachers too are occasionally unsympathetic, leaving children feeling unappreciated and even victimised. Kusum Jain of Parents' Forum for Meaningful Education believes that when parents become too involved with work, teachers need to strive to understand the emotions of the children in their care. "After all, why do kids rebel? Listen to the kids' version. Even in courts, opposing parties are given a chance to present their case," she says.
Parents might be uncomfortable about being put in the spot but teachers cannot be held responsible for the child's failings. "The role-models the kids see plays a role," says Chetana Kohli, Project director (education) at UNICEF. She also adds that the country's teacher training apparatus is faulty and obsolete. "Teachers are not being updated properly," says CIE's Batra, who adds that parents who are quick to blame teachers don't even attempt to make their professional roles fulfilling. "Teachers are treated like labour; they have to do what they are asked to," she adds. Much of the sense of alienation evident in teachers today is perhaps a result of working within a purely market-driven system. "There is no scope for personal touch. It's like an assembly line system of production," says Kohli.
This sentiment is echoed by Preeti, a teacher in a government-run Sarvodya school. "We are just servants, paid to get humiliated," she says bluntly. She might not be too far off the mark. The rising incidents of misbehaviour directed at teachers can only be seen as a result of their sadly devalued status.
Perhaps it's time to take a leaf from Chua's book and drop new lenient standards of parenting and teaching for old tough ways, for methods that ensured intellectual toughness in the contemporary Indian. "The system which produced the likes of the Murthys, Kalams and IIM-IIT exports was more or less the result of a sort of Tiger mom phenomenon," says Preeti who believes 'Tiger teachers' too played a part in India's growth. Perhaps the only way to ensure the next generation too prospers is to teach them the values that Chua advocates and that countless generations of Indians, parents and teachers alike, shared. And that means a return to the era when the guru reigned supreme.