Violence in/of schools - Sandro Spiteri
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Violence in/of schools - Sandro Spiteri

Shock headlines and misleading surveys risk being counter-productive

'The answers to aggression in schools are not technological or administrative - they're educational'. Photo: Shutterstock

'The answers to aggression in schools are not technological or administrative - they're educational'. Photo: Shutterstock

The way the whole business of violence on teachers has been mishandled makes me despair. Let’s start with the numbers: we currently have at least 12,000 teachers and others in teacher support roles (the last time the NSO published such data was for 2007-8) in primary and secondary schools. The Malta Union of Teachers received fewer than 200 replies for its survey. You do the maths.

It’s true that the MUT said in passing that this was not a ‘scientific’ study (but why conduct a study and then present data which you know is methodologically flawed?). That did not stop the media headlines screaming: “Majority of teachers experienced aggressions in schools”. Honestly, when I see how the media sometimes makes a complete pig’s breakfast of statistics in my field of interest, I start doubting whether I should take with a pinch of salt statistics on other subjects I know nothing about.

The first problem is not that the MUT study makes a library out of a pile of copybooks. The numbers I mentioned previously do not ‘prove’ that the problem is either large or small. They simply prove nothing at all. Any depiction of schools as mini-Chicagos of violence against teachers from within or outside their walls will not ring true to both teachers and parents. By projecting a very real problem beyond the boundaries of statistical validity, it risks unleashing an eventual counter-reaction of disbelief and lack of action.

That would be disastrous because there really is a problem. I was myself a victim of a physical attack by family members in my own office. But anecdotal evidence suggests, and the MUT president recently confirmed in a radio interview, that violence coming from outside the school is by far the lesser of teachers’ lived experience.

The answers are not technological but educational

Most teachers live with the possibility – in many cases, the probability – of having to handle violent verbal or physical behaviour that is addressed to others or to themselves, on a scale that would be unacceptable in many other professions. Some Learning Support Educators (LSEs) are particularly vulnerable because of the particular nature of their charges, exacerbated by the lack of training and resources to address such situations.

This leads to the second problem in the national debate about violence on teachers: it is barking up the wrong tree. The question is not whether schools should be furnished with armed guards or ninja receptionists. The debate should be about what measures need to be taken to reduce the prevalence of violence, and the causes of such violence, within schools. The answers are not technological (more surveillance cameras?) or administrative (stricter disciplinary codes?) but educational. It’s a school, duh.

There is solid evidence, also in Malta, that when schools develop holistic positive education strategies that combine academic success with self-worth and mutual respect, the atmosphere that is created benefits both learners and teachers. Although children do bring in their social and psychological baggage with them to school, there are tried and tested ways how the school can provide a second chance to help them develop their emotional and psychological resilience.

Additionally, teachers and LSEs need to be better trained and the school provided with particular resources so that they can successfully address children with special needs that exhibit violent behaviour.

Finally, the causal link between the segregation of learners, increased disparities in attainment, damaged self-esteem and violence to self and others has been established long ago. The best-performing schools in Malta are inclusive. If you go now on the MUT website you will find the link to Education International’s first World Education Day, that among other things campaigns for quality inclusive education. Yet this government in 2014 reintroduced various segregationist measures with the enthusiastic support of the MUT.

Unless the debate on violence on teachers in schools focuses on these structural issues and on educational solutions, it will end up doing more harm than good to both teachers and students. 

Life after Drew

Drew Abela was a good friend of our son. His sudden death at the age of 20 three years ago caused ripples of shock and pain that radiated from his loving family to his friends. But through his foresight and his family’s incredibly altruistic spirit, Drew’s death has also radiated life. Seven lives were dramatically improved or even saved through the transplant of Drew’s organs.

Drew’s family have now set up the Life After Drew Campaign to raise awareness on organ donation. Its tagline is ‘Be a Hero: Become a Donor’. Currently just three per cent of the Maltese population are registered organ donors in Malta – one of the lowest rates in Europe.

Registering your intention to become an organ donor is one of the easiest and most effective acts of generosity. Just sign up on organdonation.gov.mt. I have just done so.

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