When I was in secondary school, my vice-principal bullied me so much that I became scared to go to school. She was a church member and my mother’s acquaintance, and whatever feeling she had about my mum, she extended it to me. She’d call me to the general staff room and humiliate me in the presence of the teachers and students. She’d call me dumb and talk about how other students were more intelligent than I was, and how she’d never let me represent the school in competitions. After each episode of humiliation, she’d then call me to her office and apologise to me, telling me she didn’t mean what she said and she actually considered me a brilliant student. “Stop crying now,” she’d say, “koletoyen, it is not that serious.” But after each apology, she’d do it again.
I soon learned to avoid her. My school was a really big government school, so that was easy. Whenever I sighted her in front, I’d take a detour and whenever I saw her coming towards my class, I’d leave the class.
I cannot begin to explain how much this affected me, but I remember the fear I felt every morning before leaving for school, and the headache, anxiety and depression that often accompanied it. I also remember curling up at a corner on many nights, my arms wrapped around myself, crying. I was also confused, she’d hug me sometimes and be so friendly. Other times, she’d yell and humiliate me before others. I wasn’t sure of what she felt towards me, and because I wasn’t sure of when next she’d humiliate me, I avoided gathering – like the assembly ground, the staff room or anywhere I thought she’d be. One of my mathematics teachers was my saviour – he’d say “don’t worry, it’s not you, it’s she who has a problem.” But that didn’t stop the fear.
When I left secondary school, I heaved a sigh of relief while vowing to never forgive her.
As kids, whenever we moved into a new school or class, our parents taught us about bullies and how to handle them. While many of us knew how to handle our classmates who were bullies, nothing prepared us for teachers who bullied us, and yes, teachers bullying students is way more common than we think.
I saw a lot in secondary school. Some teachers hated some students because they were assertive, outspoken, or stood up for themselves, because they were from very rich homes, because they were beautiful, because of the aura around them, or simply because of who they were.
It was common to hear statements like, “is it because your parents are rich,” “you think you are brilliant, abi?” “Because you’re fine, you think you can get away with anything.”
Some teachers are simply sadists who derive joy in bullying students. There was a teacher in my secondary school who we used to call “read your book.” He had a long rope-like whip, would randomly enter a class and whip students who weren’t reading their book at the moment while cackling eerily. His whip once tore into my neck until blood trickled down my white collar.
When we were little, we heard stories of how teachers instilled confidence in their student, encouraged them when they felt they couldn’t move on. We heard tales of students building houses or buying cars for their teachers to say thank you for all the years of service. It doesn’t seem like that anymore; the Nigerian school environment, for many students, is extremely toxic. An environment that is meant to build future leaders is fast becoming one where students are constantly being intimidated, demoralised and broken in many ways.
University lecturers are deriving joy in having fewer students pass their courses – “A is for God, B is for me, C is for my wife and kids and D is for you.” Lecturers are bullying students in many ways and we are raising a society where it is getting increasingly difficult – as a student – to fight for your right or speak up for yourself within the walls of the school. We move from school into the “outside world” and this fear follows us, holding on to our waist so tightly.
From being in an economically-poor country, to teachers not being paid well and being owed salaries, stress, lack of training in proper discipline techniques, there are many reasons why teachers bully students. Teachers who feel bullied in the classroom by students may be more likely to bully in retaliation. Teachers who experienced childhood bullying may also turn to those tactics in the classroom. Some are just mentally ill or defeated. Still, it is not okay.
Bullying from fellow pupils/students is bad but there’s nothing as terrible as a teacher who is on your case, who is hell bent on drawing your blood and who seizes every opportunity to tear you down – whether in primary school or in the university. At this point, it is imperative for every parent to pay attention to how their children are treated in school, especially by teachers and lecturers. Speak up whenever your child is being bullied. Be on their side, fight for them.
It is also important to pay attention to the quality of teachers we have in schools. I cannot even stress this enough. Look around you, substandard schools with unqualified teachers are springing up everywhere. Many of these teachers have very little to pour into their students.
We must try to create a learning environment that is safe for children and even adults. One where we all can speak up when things are not right. One where confidence is instilled in every child. One where teachers are builders and not breakers. That is the only way we can build future leaders.