Do you Speak of Difficult Things in Class



We went as a large family group to see the movie ‘3 Idiots’. The mood was happy, we were in the middle of a large wedding. Cousins and nephews and nieces, grand uncles and lonely aunts had all joined together. I was in charge of the children in the hall, sitting at one end of the row. And then came the ‘funny’ balatkar speech. The children of course turned to the one person who loved to answer anything and asked me: “What is Balatkar?”

I turned to look at the other parents at the end of the row. They had pretended not to hear the question. 

I looked at the children, looking at me restlessly. The hall was laughing uproariously and they wanted to join in the laughter. An awkward moment that lasts a lifetime. 

One, I believed that all questions must always be answered honestly, but with tact. So I had to respond. Two, I do believe that subjects like sex, violence and death are the domain of parental responsibility. These are things that trouble children if not handled well. And if there is a difference between what they hear in the house and what they hear outside, the dissonance stays with them. 

It is the same challenge that the parents of Prince Siddharth had – the very same who became Gautama Buddh. To shield the child from pain and suffering they chose to bind him in ignorance. When real life was seen, the dissonance was too much to bear. We, as parents and as teachers have the job of preparing them for real life with all the honesty we can bring to bear upon the subject.   

It is not easy to do something that we know is important, but not urgent and will clearly make us all uncomfortable. It is even more difficult to do this right thing when we know that it is likely to have a backlash. 

How many teachers actually do speak of difficult subjects at the right age?  

It is mandatory in many nations to have imparted sex education to children by the age of eleven. This is the age of curiosity when they need to understand their bodies and the changes that are beginning to affect their minds and their relationships. With knowledge comes control of the situation. A confused child does not have the tools to avoid being exploited or abused as much as an informed child does. 

Bullying, violence, sexual urges and the combinations of these make for very difficult sessions with teenagers in a classroom, especially a co-educational classroom. But just because it is difficult does not imply that it can be avoided. It is there, a part of the life of these children and is finding its way into their behaviours. If we were growing up animals, we could allow them to find their own way in these jungles. But education and civilization do mean that we are teaching them to first think and make choices about how they behave.  

If we do not teach our children to think before they act, then what is the purpose of their education? If we cannot show our children how they can use their intelligence to gather information, analyse it and then to chose a course of action that works for good – then all the rote learning and examination success is meaningless. This is a lesson that can only start at school, though parents and society have a very large role to play. 

Teachers often find themselves isolated in this even as they know what is the right thing for the future of their students. It is certainly not fair to expect teachers to have to do this on their own. Firstly, this has to be a decision on values teaching that is taken as part of school policy and implemented as a team. Secondly, the teachers must be supported in this with very clear guidelines on the ‘how should we say this’ so that there is a consistent approach across the school. Thirdly, the policy on these value based discussions must be designed keeping in mind the entire school community including the parents, while ensuring that the issues are not avoided.  

Should the teachers then be given a template to discuss difficult things in class? No, then the discussion would be lifeless and meaningless. Every teacher knows that each class needs things to be handled in a slightly different way, and there can be problems with fixed rules. Yet, is there a right way to discuss these? Yes, there are guiding principles that can help teachers with tactful and honest ways of having difficult discussions.Well designed resources always can help the teachers and students. 

Sometimes the opportunity presents itself to have these discussions. The recent tragedy of the girl raped and assaulted on a Delhi bus have shaken the nation and sparked national protests. No teenage student can be unaware of this, and is a natural opening to discuss the issues of assault, rape, violence and of course core values. A difficult discussion, but it must be done for the future of our students, their safety and to build a safer society. 

How many teachers have had the talk with their students? Will you do it now? 

Jan 8, 2013, Times of India Blogs