On discipline, 'vermin' and 'assholes'

Wednesday, August 5, 1992 - 10:00

A recent dispute in Casino, NSW, involved the expulsion of an Aboriginal high school student for calling "asshole" a teacher alleged to have used racist language, including terms such as "vermin", in regard to Aborigines. Former teacher ERIC EARLY offers some thoughts on the issues.

In 1951, at a Wellington High School assembly, I heard the duty teacher order the pupils to straighten the lines; they were "like a mob of Macquarie blacks". An Aboriginal pupil headed one line. A few years later I had a job convincing the Teachers Federation executive that the paternal labelling of Aborigines as "blacks" in the school magazine should stop.

This is 1992 and the Casino High School teacher, however upset or frustrated, should have known that no self-respecting pupil or pupils want to be rubbished in front of their peers. When racial terminology is part of the process, insult is added to injury. The teacher might have got away with it in the '50s and '60s, but in calling the teacher an "asshole" the Aboriginal youth was taking part in his people's fight for cultural survival and identity.

No doubt Greiner's educational cutbacks in all areas exacerbate the tension within the school and classroom situation. There is also the fact that many teachers enter teaching via college or university and go straight back to school. They have little experience of the rough and tumble of the workplace or the big outside world that leads to a maturity of outlook and ideas conducive to human relationships.

This is not meant to disparage them; no doubt many of them are excellent, dedicated teachers. But like all teachers they too are locked within an educational system that regiments pupils — be it uniforms, rules or a curriculum that caters largely for university entrance.

Frequently it is the school administration that is responsible for much educational maladministration. That is one reason I spent about 15 years in small schools: I was my own boss. At Comelroy Road School we got rid of timetables, classes, exams and all such archaic paraphernalia. The pupils worked in groups at their own level and interest. I had arguments with a few inspectors, but they had the insight to leave me alone, as the pupils were happy and making satisfactory educational progress. Needless to say, discipline problems were few and far between; the school council helped me run the school.

Early in 1972 at Granville Boys High School, year 12 pupils complained they were tired of me "ranting on" about Lear. Much of my ravings were meaningless to them. We talked. I didn't "teach" any more that year. The pupils, in groups, worked through the English program, gave their interpretation of a Joyce short story or a scene from Lear. I listened and added the odd comment. One pupil, a part-time music student, educated me in a lecture he gave on the s' poetry. We had no problems with discipline, interest or assignments.

In 1976 I was the principal of Palmalmal High School in New Guinea. It was a new palm-thatched mud floor boarding school. The staff and reps from the school council made the few necessary rules and were involved in all decisions affecting the school. They had made the decisions, so they carried them out. Senior pupils could take a work parade group to help local carpenters mix cement and build new dormitories. Others worked copra, the school garden, trade store or on a cattle project. This was survival on a boarding school fee of a dollar a week, and of course we had no problems of discipline.

In 1977 I returned to Australia and had to teach at Holder High School in Canberra. The pupils called it "Holditz". No wonder: bells, regimentation, and I found myself having to teach parsing and analysis, hated grammar hammered into me at primary school in Belfast in the 1930s. Half a dozen "larrikins" bailed up. I told them I wasn't paid to make them learn: they could sit at the back of the classroom, do what they wished and leave the rest in peace. Near the end of term we gave grammar away, and pupils designed and made their own individual magazine. The "larrikins" decided this was worthwhile and asked if they could join in. Success.

The final straw that made me decide to get out of Holder High School and teaching was when a pupil, taller than me, asked if he could go to the toilet, "please sir". I put it to him, "Do you ask your mother if you can go to the toilet?" He grinned. I added, "If you want to go to the toilet you bloody well go". Half the class got up and walked out! The boss at recess instructed all staff that no pupil was allowed to be out of class in lesson time.

Over the years I have found that even within the system teachers can have few disciplinary problems if they try to get into the pupil's shoes, to be innovative and make the most boring subject interesting and relevant to the needs of the pupil. Most principals subscribe to the theories that we must cater for individual needs, that each one is different. Many only pay lip service to them and sometimes hound those enterprising teachers who try to implement them. Perhaps when we realise that the human relationships and needs of youth are more important than the job then such things as "vermin" and "assholes" will no longer crop up in the classroom.

From GLW issue 65