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IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Principal’s authority must be respected

Roy R. Morris

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Principal’s authority must be respected

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JUST SO no one comes to the conclusion I have been influenced by any of the comments that have been swirling around the airwaves since this story broke, let me point out that everything you read beyond this paragraph was written before 10 a.m. last Friday. I felt so strongly about the issue I had to put my thoughts down early.

Apparently, a large number of Barbadians believe that what appears in a newspaper is the opinion of, or is supported by, the editor. If that was the case it would be more appropriate to call him or her dictator rather than editor. When a newspaper becomes the personal plaything of the editor its utility to the larger community can become quite dubious.

In last Friday’s Weekend Nation we published a story on Page 5 under the headline: Daughter’s Punishment By Principal ‘Not Fair’. I feel sufficiently strong about the content of that story to say publicly I support the principal of the Springer Memorial Secondary School, Pauline Benjamin, in this instance.

Instruction given

According to the story, a 14-year-old student was instructed by her year-head to pick up some kind of food wrapper than was on the ground beside her. The story did not indicate that she had dropped it and I am tempted to conclude from what was written that she was not guilty of littering.

However, as far as I am concerned she was guilty of rude conduct. She may not have intended to be rude, and may in fact be the most polite student in the class – I don’t know. She might have been just “cheeky” like any other teenager would be from time to time.

But there is no way, as far as I am concerned, for a child to tell a teacher, “My mother did not send me to school to pick up any garbage!” without being rude. Worse than that, doing so in the presence of 30-odd classmates can only serve to undermine discipline in the classroom, especially when the person in charge is a senior member of the staff.

Her refusal to carry out a similar instruction from the principal when it reached her level would have compounded the indiscipline in my book. Now let me be clear: up to this point, and given the context of some of the horrible things that go on in our schools these days, as far as I am concerned it is still a relatively small matter.

It’s just my opinion, but if Springer Memorial is one of those schools where principals still administer corporal punishment, I don’t think the infraction merited such. But every student, even while asserting his or her strong sense of conviction on any subject, still must know in the end who is in charge.

I believe any child of that age should be able to ask a principal for permission to speak freely (but respectfully) and use the opportunity to defend his or her position – but still recognise in the end that if their position is not accepted that the authority of the head has to be respected.

Therefore, based on what I have read, and what was explained to me by the reporter of her understanding of the situation, I also support the suspension of the child – it is one thing to ignore the directions of a teacher; it’s another to ignore the principal.

Mother’s reaction

My real problem though is with the reaction of her mother, Elecia Weekes. Clearly she believes she has a duty to defend her child, and I could never quarrel with that, but visiting the school and insisting, like her child, that she was not sent to school to pick up garbage is plain wrong.

Such an approach, even if done with the greatest of civility, only serves to reinforce in the child’s mind the belief that challenging authority in such a way is okay. What she needed to say to the child, in my view, was: “I did not send you to school to behave in a manner that would get you suspended!”

If it had been my daughter there would have been no doubt in her mind of the extent to which I frown on being rude to a teacher. It just does not happen in my house without consequences. This is not to say you can’t disagree with your teacher – but you need to know when to stop and when to turn it over to a parent to represent you.

At the same time I have no difficulty, in principle, with the mother objecting to the punishment meted out to her child. But then you have to be prepared to respectfully negotiate an alternative with the school – and not in the presence or to the knowledge of the child. In any event, I don’t see what harm there is in picking up trash in a controlled school environment.

Okay, so we have advanced and we are living in a modern society, but there was a time when children scrubbed benches and tables, washed the cups in which milk was served, helped to sweep the classroom floor and it did not scar them.

For the sake of the child, I hope both sides can discuss the matter like adults, in the process providing a valuable lesson for the child, and that very soon the girl would return to the classroom to benefit from the education that will be so vital to her advancement.

We really do have our priorities wrong when a simple instruction to pick up a wrapper from the floor escalates – or perhaps more accurately, degenerates – into this.