In Jordan, school violence begins at home

AMMAN, Jordan — While corporal punishment has been a longstanding practice in most Jordanian schools, the case of a 12-year-old boy who lost his right eye after his teacher hit him is raising questions about whether it’s time for Jordanian teachers to find a softer approach to discipline.

For the past month, 6th-grader Saleh Dweikat has grabbed headlines across the kingdom as he underwent various treatments to save his eye. The ordeal came to an end when doctors discharged him from the hospital after finally removing his damaged eye due to concerns about infection.

The teacher, who has since been fired and deemed “unfit” to teach in Jordan, slapped Dweikat for trying to drink out of the teachers’ water cooler. The boy fell and hit a closet.

While few Jordanians would support such heavy-handed techniques, those trying to bring an end to violence in the classroom say they often face resistance from parents who view corporal punishment as the only effective means to control a classroom. Aside from physical abuse being an accepted form of discipline, teachers in Jordan receive no official classroom management training, adding an additional challenge.

“Teachers are part of our community and we all know that we have people in our community who believe that abuse is part of discipline,” said Samia Bishara Rizeq, the child safety program manager at the Queen Rania Family and Child Center, a part of the Jordan River Foundation. “We have to change concepts, beliefs and attitudes towards abuse.”

Throughout Jordan, violence is still seen as an acceptable form of discipline for children. A U.N.-sponsored report published in 2007 found that the amount of violence inflicted on children in school did not differ dramatically from what kids experience at home. At school, 57 percent of children were physically abused, while 71 percent were verbally abused. At home, 53 percent experienced at least “mild physical abuse” and 70 percent received verbal abuse.

Additionally, at least 70 percent of parents supported teachers hitting students if they misbehave, don’t do their work, or get bad grades.

Rizeq’s center has been working to on a variety of programs to educate families, teachers and students about how to prevent corporal punishment in the school system. While a number of other efforts have focused on teacher training to curb physical punishment, Rizeq said that a holistic approach that addressed each link in the chain was necessary in making a larger cultural shift away from violent disciplinary techniques.

Although Queen Rania is personally involved with the issue, making a permanent change in Jordanian society will take time, said Rizeq.

National law in Jordan prohibits teachers from hitting students, but it still happens in many classrooms throughout the country.

Nadel Abu Ahmed, a teacher outside of Jerash, says that he stopped hitting children after the rule went into effect, but now he laments that he cannot effectively control the classroom. Conduct issues that previously could have been solved with a quick swat now require him to discuss problems with children or call their parents to come in and resolve the issue. In many instances the parents arrive and immediately dole out their own brand of corporal punishment, but many parents don’t take these behavioral problems seriously.

Unable to administer the same level of punishment that children receive at home, Ahmed says it’s difficult for him to gain the respect of his students.

When he could hit his students, “they became afraid and more organized. I could control the class and teach very good,” said Ahmed. “As teachers we are suffering so much because of this rule. The students have become very bad with teachers and … it’s very difficult to control our classes.”

As groups like Rizeq's intensify their efforts, some Jordanians accuse them of implementing Western standards for the treatment of children that may not be relevant in Jordan. “There are still people who say that the Jordan River Foundation created this problem, that there was no problem until they started to talk about it,” she said.

Still as the dust settles around Dweikat losing his eye, many children’s advocacy groups are seizing on it as an opportunity to teach parents about why the system needs to change.

“These cases make people realize that violence can be extremely detrimental to the child’s health and well-being,” said Maha Homsi, an early childhood protection specialist at the United Nations International Children's Fund in Jordan.

Aside from changing attitudes within the community, a major step toward reform could come from providing teachers with better training. Presently, teachers can begin working in the classroom directly out of college without any official training about how to teach.

Jordan’s education system is also structured so students with the highest standardized test scores are funneled into prestigious fields like law, medicine and engineering, while the lowest achieving students are sent to study education. Additionally, education courses are largely theoretical, not practical.

As a result, Khalil Elaian, a professor of education at the University of Jordan, said providing new teachers with even a basic orientation to prepare to control a classroom could make a big difference.

“If teachers are not qualified and well-trained the problem will remain,” said Elaian.