Recently, on a blackboard in a very public corridor used by students for good-natured but generally anonymous graffiti, something like the following had been neatly printed: SMILE WHEN YOU USE COMPUTERS IN THE COMPS LAB – YOU'RE UNDER CCTV. This was in response to measures like a log register being placed in the lab to keep a check on who was using the computers and for how long. Several weeks later, at a farewell event for outgoing students, I found myself remarking that I hadn't had much time with some of them in the past year—unless they'd gotten into trouble and been marched to my office. Both graffiti and remark were probably intended to be taken less than seriously, but they stand at the two ends of a crucial pole in any school—the way that students and teachers see each other and the way that students, especially, feel that they are being watched.
Instead of 'see' or 'watch', I had in an earlier essay (Reading Children—a Perspective from Poetry in Journal No. 13) used the word 'read', and suggested that there were parallels between reading poetry and 'reading' children. But I had also suggested that there was a more prosaic way in which children need to be read; this essay is concerned implicitly with the latter, and especially in relation to behaviour and'disciplinary' matters. It is less about the poetry of seeing than what you might call the prose of keeping watch.
Which makes it appropriate for the title to be borrowed from that consummate master of prose, George Orwell. 1984 is full of darkly arresting slogans, one of the earliest that occurs being 'BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU'. Like the image of Big Brother himself, on posters and on telescreens, the slogan's presence is felt all through the novel, and you realize straight away that there is nothing avuncular about it. You are being watched, all of the time, and you had better toe the line. If this is a troublingly dystopian message generated by the totalitarianisms of the 1930s and'40s, the invasion of privacy even where you have the illusion of freedom is hardly unknown to us today. Technology makes it possible to keep tabs on people as never before, without their quite realizing it, and it is being done regardless of the form of government.
On the face of it, neither the grossly intrusive watching of Orwell's creation nor its more concealed versions in today's 'free' societies accurately reflects the situationin our schools. Where the analogy holds truest is perhaps in our assumption that for the school's vision and ambience not to be undermined, it is reasonable to expect that we know what the children are up to, indeed that it is our prerogative to ensure that we are 'in the know'. This does not sound dissimilar to a state's ostensible reasons for watching its citizens. On grounds of state security, for instance, or public morality, governments have had no qualms about prying openly or by covert means into people's lives. Replace 'state security' with 'children's safety' and 'public morality' with something that sounds less priggish ('acting responsibly'?) and this can feel a little like some of our reasons, possibly the more prosaic ones, for keeping an eye on children in a school.
The difference of course—and it makes all the difference—is that a state is generally a jealous state, concerned more with perpetuating itself than with the wellbeing of its individual citizens. In fact, as Auden satirized in The Unknown Citizen, the state is not concerned with individuals at all (except to assure itself that they conform) though it expends considerable ingenuity in gathering information about them. With all this mass of data it does not pause to ask the questions that in a school we would consider fundamental, questions about freedom and happiness, for instance, that the speaker in Auden's poem loftily, or blithely, dismisses as being 'absurd'. To these we might add questions of learning and spiritual growth. In a school our watching of children is not merely tempered by our commitment to their freedom, happiness and growth, as individuals, but is directed towards making these possible. Watching, in other words, is less about preserving the status quo than about preserving a climate that supports learning.
'Preserving' is a less regressive notion than its implicit anchoring in the past might suggest. Isn't there something of such value to a place, something so intrinsic to it, that we would not risk losing it? If a 'climate that supports learning' is one such, an alertness to anything that vitiates it must follow. Since this essay is primarily about the way teachers 'keep an eye' on students, it seems appropriate to focus on those aspects of student behaviour that would, if unchecked, rock the learning boat perilously. In a residential school like Rishi Valley this could include the proclivity amongst older boys and girls to form exclusive relationships, or for students to keep banned items such as cell phones or cigarettes with them. A widespread preoccupation with these, and with keeping such things hidden, can distort their experience of school. And when it clouds the relationship between students and teachers anything can feel suspect, including, on the one side, innocuous friendships between girls and boys and, on the other, the claim that students in our schools face 'consequences' rather than'punishments', a legitimate distinction (as I hope to show, since it is relevant here), but one that tends to be perceived by students as an instance of Orwellian doublespeak.
Indeed differences in perception are sometimes the nub of the matter. An illustration from 1984: the protagonist realizes that he is being eyed and followed about by a girl. He is convinced that she belongs to the sinister Thought Police and is out to trap him for his heterodox views, whereas she is in fact attracted to him but is wary of declaring it because of the risks involved. What is relevant here is the miasma of fear and suspicion in which actions are liable to be misinterpreted. If fear on the one hand and suspicion on the other inform the way children act and teachers see, there is little space for clear-sightedness.
What, then, would bring about an ambience in which evasiveness and 'keeping tabs' are the exception rather than the norm? One in which, to put it differently, students do not feel that they are constantly under surveillance and teachers do not consider their prime duty as being to watch that students keep out of mischief. Although teachers have a greater share of the responsibility to bring this about, a school provides rich opportunities for students also to learn what it means to be responsible not only for themselves but for things of which they form a part— including the ambience of the school.
If students feel disconnected or alienated from this responsibility, it ought to concern us: surely the school is less of an abstraction to most students than an impersonal state might be to its citizens? The school is a human and physical space which, over time and for its myriad associations, many children grow attached to. It is also a space for learning, alone and in relationship, not least learning about oneself and learning how to look at another in an undistorted way. If as teachers we were capable of seeing misbehaviour less as a departure from defined norms than as a hindrance to learning, in a place whose existence is predicated on learning, we would approach disciplinary issues differently. We would more readily see children as partners in preserving the integrity of a space that they share with us. Our primary concern would be with what facilitates their learning (and ours) and what hinders it. To be anchored in this rather than in the rule book would bring a different quality to the way we engaged with students on 'disciplinary issues'.
If the rule book has its place—as it surely might do, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay—it is incumbent on the teacher body to understand its contents. Policies are not arbitrary: they evolve contextually, and it is both instructive and fascinating to follow the process by which they do. To periodically re-examine policies is to increase the likelihood that rules are implemented not merely because, like Moses' tablets, they exist, but because we have come together in appreciating their relevance. It follows that students should be drawn, wherever possible, into this process of examining policies and the rules that emerge from them. Learning is diminished when we become merely ruleminded: if obeying rules in an unexamined way were to become the focal point of our relationship with students, it would undermine the learning possibilities therein, and narrow our field of vision drastically.
The teacher's task, not just in ensuring that norms are followed without being obsessive about them, but in understanding why they are there in the first place, is not an easy one. One way by which it is both enriched and made easier is when teachers are together in watching, and watching over, children. It hardly bears stating that what we see is partial, not only because each of us has a limited and distinct kind of interaction with a particular child or group of children, but also because we don't see with the same degree of acuity, and how we see is distorted, or occasionally enhanced, by prior experience. We also have different temperaments, are culturally conditioned in different ways and are sometimes unsure whether what we've seen warrants action of some kind. Further, we might not be equally committed to deliberating over either the school's rules or its vision, and we might not relate with the same ease to all of our colleagues (which can inhibit the process of sharing what we observe of student behaviour).
Nonetheless, being in a school gives us the opportunity to learn about watching children, attentively (but non-intrusively). This watching, embedded in our relationship with students, is a wonderfully rich end in itself (as Reading Children attempted to show) but it also has a utilitarian aspect, and sometimes calls on us to share what we have seen with colleagues or with parents. To do so in a fair-minded and timely manner requires us to be aware of our limitations as observers. It is disconcertingly easy to assume that what we've seen is the most important aspect of the picture, or to make hasty inferences on the basis of the little we have seen. Impression hardens rapidly into certitude. Seeing, and sharing what we have seen, entails a patient willingness to suspend judgements and conclusions until we've seen further and seen together. Since we know that our seeing can be fuzzy, it is better to err on the side of understanding than of disapproval, while remaining alert to the possibility that there is more to a situation than meets the eye.
In our judgement about what to take note of and how to share it, it can be useful to distinguish between concern for the well-being of individual students, of students as a group and of the school as a 'place of learning'. Ideally there should be considerable overlap between the three, and there generally is, but there are situations where one or the other might take, or appear to take, precedence over the others. A child's right to free expression may need to be curbed if it is vitiating the atmosphere in a hostel. But even while we curb him, if our emphasis is less on the curbing than on engaging with him so that he begins to understand the impact his actions have on others, this individual's well-being is in fact being served. And a growth in one person's self-awareness must surely be good for the group, and for the space they share.
But what about the other end of the seeing/being-seen spectrum? Students sometimes remark that they are being 'watched' all the time. While in a certainsense this is true, and perhaps needs to be, the problem has more to do with perceptions, balance and, ultimately, with relationship. Not unnaturally students aremost aware of our watching when there is something they do not want seen. This might be different if we were equally appreciative of the positives, not just the public achievements that children would expect to be commented on but the little touches, actions or signs of change that might have passed unremarked. If we were as attentive to these as to the things considered undesirable, our watching would be a more joyous affair, and being watched would be less problematic.
Likewise with sharing what we have seen amongst the teacher body: children sometimes feel that teachers only share 'negative' observations. It is up to us to ensure that our sharing does not end, or begin, there. And neither should watching children, evaluating what we have seen and possibly sharing it become programmatic. This can make us less ourselves, less spontaneous, in our relations with students. Another aspect to this is that children sometimes sense, or grumble, that teachers speak about them loosely, with little basis for what we are saying and, what is worse, in a gossipy manner. Whether or not, or to what extent, this is true, there is an implicit caution here: discretion (and even reticence) has its place, and sharing might best be on a need-to-know basis.
Even where we need to probe a possible misdemeanour—by 'interrogating' students, for instance, or checking their bags or lockers—tone and emphasis are all. Superficially, these actions might resemble those of a police state, but if they happen exceptionally rather than as a rule, in a manner that allows students to disclose whatever is concealed before it is discovered (even if it happens on the verge of discovery, self-disclosure is less humiliating) and if, above all, our grounding in the larger context of learning and our affection for the children remain unshaken, these actions would have a rightness that students are likely, over time, to appreciate. This might be easier said than done—in the heat of the moment more superficial or importunate considerations come into play—but it is not impossible.
This is where the distinction between consequence and punishment becomes relevant. To face the consequences of one's actions allows for a feeling of agency, for the possibility of self-awareness and growth. To face punishment, however justifiable it might seem, is more likely to result in fear, evasiveness and resentment. The former has much to do with learning, the latter with submission to control. From the outside it is not always easy to distinguish whether an action is the one or the other: the real test is where the action is coming from— with what objective and in what depth of relationship—and where the student senses it is coming from. What is the quality of our seeing at the time that hard decisions are being taken? What is the quality of our relationship?
As teachers we sometimes take the rightness of our attitudes so much for granted that it surprises us when we discover that students are 'on a different wavelength'. To engage with one another and with students, to re-examine policies that seem self-evident and open up difficult questions for discussion, is not only to test and refine our understanding, but to bring students into a more active engagement with the school. Indeed it provides teachers and students a shared context for dialogue and learning. This would strengthen relationship and reduce the incidence of fear and misunderstanding, of suspicion and resentment. By learning how to watch together, students and teachers can continually recreate the space that they have come into.
Thus relationship is at the heart of it, even (perhaps especially) in the prosaic realm of discipline. Indeed it is worth reminding ourselves that Krishnamurti repeatedly associated 'discipline' with'learning'. If a teacher feels, as I ruefully did at the farewell event, that his relationship with a group of students is being weighted towards issues of discipline (in the narrower sense), it is his responsibility to redress th eimbalance. He might not teach the class but can always, especially in a residential school, find happier ways of engaging informally with them. If he were to do so, his gimlet eye would be less minatory and the prospect of CCTVs would remain a cheerful witticism.