Another perspective on St Hilda’s
The situation at one of our well-respected high schools in St Ann - St Hilda's - where it is said that the elected head girl, Jade Bascoe, was removed from her post by the principal because of her supposed affiliation to the Jehovah's Witnesses, have earned a place of discussion and accusation in the media. There have been the involvement of lawyers giving opinions, the public defender weighing in, Gleaner editorials blasting religious bigotry, and so many other points of view. I have been following the swirling tide of judgements, and I am pointing out two perspectives of which we need to be aware.
First, as leaders in education in Jamaica, we all need to learn from this situation. We have to be careful to follow due process and ensure that we involve affected stakeholders in decision making before arriving at conclusions.
The principal, Heather Reid-Johnson, has been leading St Hilda's efficiently for many years. It is unfortunate that persons in the press are now branding her as a religious bigot and as incompetent. I believe we need to place this unfortunate situation in the context of the consistently good leadership that Reid-Johnson has offered the school over the years and allow her the chance to redeem herself.
Place for another perspective
The media have had a field day over the St Hilda's issue. Persons representing varied points of view have had their say. Public opinion seems to have come down heavily on the side of those who see the principal, and even the board of the school, as culpable. Before the dust settles on this issue, I feel there is a place for yet another perspective.
It seems to me that an important element has been missing from this whole controversy. It is not only a human rights issue. There is a wider context involving the nature of schools in general and the role they play in the society.
A school is like a living organism, whose lifespan often extends for generations. The school plays many different roles, mainly because it finds itself responsible for the care and training of the nation's children for the best part of each day; most days in every year; during a crucial period of the child's development.
Teachers are often called upon to play many parts: that of parent, nurse, nutritionist, and counsellor, among others. I learnt to trust my teachers, and in one way or another, each teacher became my role model, my mentor, my guide. What an awesome responsibility! Teachers, therefore, need the empathy, support, and gratitude of every thinking adult in the society. Every aspect of the country's life benefits from the work of our schools.
Teachers make mistakes; we all do. When they do, we must avoid the bull-in-a-china-shop approach. There is so much at stake. Mistakes can be learning opportunities. An unwise, merciless and overintrusive reaction to the mistake causes harm instead of healing.
I also want to raise a concern about the public defender seeking to use this situation to give the view that persons in authority in schools should only interview students with their parents present. Not only is this view impractical for the efficient and effective functioning of schools, it also speaks to the danger of using a single occurrence of an action as the basis on which to make wide-sweeping conclusions that would have far-reaching impact on schools. Such a judgement would undermine the ability of teachers, counsellors, deans
of discipline, and administrators to run schools. If this view were to be accepted in our nation, where indiscipline is so widespread and entrenched, it would be better for parents to educate their children at home, where they alone would have the authority to correct them.
According to the law, teachers are in loco parentis, that is, they "stand in place of parents". It is on this basis that teachers in our schools guide, educate, intervene in students' lives to assist them in reaching their potential. Yes, we have teachers who abuse this authority, but a greater number of principals, vice-principals, and other administrators and teachers in the over 1,000 public schools that we have in Jamaica have been championing the development of our youth in this nation.
Imagine a teacher conducting her class and an altercation develops between two students, as is often the case in our schools, and she intervenes to stop the conflict. She then cannot question either student until she has sent for the parents. What would happen if this were how we should operate? How many parents would be able to immediately come to their child's school multiple times throughout a term whenever a teacher needs to question a child?
At present, the practice in most schools is for teachers and administrators to question students whenever there are conflicts. When it is determined that the matter is serious and might involve consequences for those involved, the parents are then asked to come in to discuss the situation. Is what the public defender proposing a better alternative? I think not.
- Esther Tyson is an educator. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org