Pupils Speak Out: Teachers need to be alert to problems pupils might hide

The article you are about to read is part of a weekly series of comment pieces written by pupils about the problems they encounter in their schools. The series offers pupils a chance to be part of the debate about South Africa’s education system.

Londeka* and Siyanda*, both 17 years old, were both raped by their uncles. 

Londeka didn’t go for counselling because she was afraid she might discover she had been infected with HIV.

Siyanda went for counselling and believes that, by sharing her story with other people and making them aware of the scourge of sexual assault, she could play a part in helping to fight rape.

Both girls found it very hard to concentrate at school. They felt betrayed and shocked that people they loved and previously felt safe with could betray and hurt them in the way they did. Anger and guilt grew inside them and they felt that if they had been better children this wouldn’t have happened to them.

They felt humiliated and dirty, and thought, if people who loved them could do something as terrible as what they had done to them, they must have done something wrong to them first to “deserve” it.

Their teachers didn’t pick up that something bad was bothering both girls. They were both very good at hiding what had happened and what they were going through. Sometimes when their teachers suspected something, they would deny there was anything wrong.

Some teachers didn’t suspect anything because they had not received training to notice behavioural changes in their pupils. These teachers simply teach, then leave.

It can be a problem as well when there is not much interaction between a teacher and his or her learners outside of the classroom, such as during extramural activities or camps, or even outings where the interaction is different to how it is inside the classroom.

Sometimes a teacher might feel that it’s not his or her duty or responsibility to get involved in the personal lives of learners.

Siyanda didn’t want to go see the school counsellor. She didn’t want people to say that she had led her uncle on, or that she deserved it.

Like her, some pupils think or feel that, when they have to talk to a school counsellor about a sensitive issue, the information will not remain confidential.

Siyanda’s behaviour changed and she started performing badly in subjects she had previously done well in.

The lessons from the experiences of these two girls is that teachers need to be more vigilant and observant of their pupils. They need to look out for any changes in pupils’ behaviour and attitude as these pupils may have experienced abuse.

These signs could include a previously talkative pupil who is suddenly quiet in class or one who was previously well behaved and is now misbehaving. This may be a cry for help from a child seeking attention. A drop in school performance can also indicate that a pupil is having problems outside of the school environment.

Both Londeka and Siyanda say that if only their teachers had shown compassion and love, or communicated regularly with them, they could have opened up and talked to them about their situation.

A lot of abused pupils go unnoticed. Young people are very good at hiding things from adults. They often show or say what they think adults want to see and hear.

*Not their real names

The pupils who wrote this article are participants in the Media Monitoring Africa Children’s News Agency project. This nonprofit media watchdog organisation, based in Johannesburg, aims to enhance participation of children in mainstream media by providing them with the skills necessary to report on problems that children face. 

The agency works with pupils between the ages of 14 and 17 who attend an inner-city public school in Johannesburg and are mostly from underprivileged backgrounds. The project participants identified problems they face in and out of school, interviewed other children affected by the same problems, then wrote comment pieces about what they discovered.

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