A teacher’s memories

You recently asked the question: were teachers taught how to use the cane or tawse as part of their training? A friend of mine saw this on the internet and I thought you might like to hear my recollections of this aspect of school life.

I started teaching primary in 1971 at the age of 21, so if your maths is up to scratch, you will know that I am now 69! After five initial years in the classroom, I took some time out to have my own two children. I returned to teaching in the mid 80s and took early retirement in 2001 due to health issues.

I must say that I enjoyed my time in teaching immensely and most of the time, the children were a joy to work with. However, maintaining classroom discipline is important and when I first came into the profession, corporal punishment was an accepted part of that. Consequently, I gave many children the belt, and in my view it did them a lot of good.

Going back to your question, the answer, I believe, is ‘generally no’. Most of the teachers I knew during this period had no training whatsoever in administering corporal punishment.

However, you must remember that in Scotland at least, those same teachers would have grown up seeing the belt administered in class pretty frequently, so I guess they just copied what they had witnessed (or indeed received) as children.

A very few teachers of my acquaintance told me they had been required to witness a belting given by another teacher before being allowed to ‘go solo’, as it were.

From all this, I infer that my own experience is unusual. I attended a teacher training college in Edinburgh and we did indeed have a couple of sessions specifically addressing the subject of classroom discipline. Most of it was ‘technical’ – tips for keeping the children’s attention, closing down potential disruption early on, that sort of thing.

But towards the conclusion of the second session, we did also talk about corporal punishment. I remember opinion even then being somewhat divided on the matter but our lecturer, a Mr McTaggart, said we’d at least better learn how to use the belt properly.

He asked for a volunteer (I can only remember it was one of the male students who went to the front with typical bravado) and produced a two-tailed tawse from his bag.

The proper technique, we were told, was to put the belt over your right shoulder (presuming you were right-handed) and stand directly opposite the child being punished. The child should then be instructed to hold out their hands, palms up, one underneath the other, elbows pressed back into their tummy.

The idea of this was that you had a broad, stable target to hit and it was difficult for the child to pull their hands away at the last minute. Then you brought the belt down sharply.

Mr McTaggart demonstrated all this with a single stroke to the male student’s hand. The latter grimaced a bit as the belt hit him but otherwise didn’t say anything.

After this, our lecturer produced a couple more similar belts and suggested we pass them round and try them for ourselves. One of them, a three-tailed ‘heavy’, eventually ended up in the hands of my friend Debbie, who was sitting next to me.

In one respect it was a bit embarrassing, but I think most of us felt it was only fair that we should have an idea of what we would be dishing out to the children. Consequently, I stood up, looking a bit sheepish, and held my hands out like a naughty schoolgirl. Debbie, with something of a glint in her eye, followed suit and put the belt over her shoulder.

She brought it down with real velocity and I let out a ‘bloody hell!’ Mr McTaggart came over at once. “Far too hard,” he told Debbie. “Let gravity and the leather do most of the work. Here – switch around.”

I took the tawse from Debbie (with a bit of difficulty, as my hand was still buzzing) and put it across my shoulder. Debbie held out her hands in the approved manner and I did pretty much as Mr McTaggart had instructed. My friend let out a little yelp when she got her smack but it was nothing compared with what she’d given me!

That experience left me a little ambivalent about corporal punishment for a time. Nevertheless, after I graduated, I did buy my own tawse, a two-tailed ‘medium’ from the infamous Mr Dick in Lochgelly. There was nothing particularly significant about this; as far as I was concerned, it was just part of a teacher’s ‘equipment’, in much the same way a nurse would buy her own fob watch.

My first post was as a first year teacher, and it would have been an extremely naughty five-year-old who needed anything as severe as the belt. So for my first 12 months in the classroom, my tawse never left its desk, except on one occasion to be shown off as a bit of a deterrent!

That’s not to say I didn’t use corporal punishment. Little children got their hands smacked pretty regularly and for this I used a 12in wooden ruler – bear in mind, by the way, that 1960s rulers were generally thicker and heavier than their modern counterparts!

The procedure for this was pretty simple. I would call the child out to the front, order them to hold out their hand, grasp their wrist and apply the ruler firmly across their palm at roughly 90 degrees. Then the other hand would be done.

These punishments hurt somewhat, of course, but it was rare for a child to cry. The embarrassment factor was probably the greater deterrent for most children, especially if they were normally well-behaved. I mostly used the ruler to suppress the ‘talkers’, so two or four strokes was usually quite enough to get that job done.

The next year, I was allocated Year 3. Any teacher will tell you that there is a big difference between five and seven-year-olds when it comes to behaviour, and it was only a few weeks into the new term that I found myself calling a boy to the front and retrieving the tawse from my desk.  

Every class has its resident ‘naughty boy’ and John was mine. He wasn’t a very bad lad, to be honest, but he was from a pretty rough home and constantly in trouble. I’d given him a few telling-offs and a couple of doses of the ruler already. Now, he’d hit another child during playtime and hurt him quite badly.

As I positioned John for his punishment, I remember seeing a look of insolence and defiance in his eyes and I decided to give him four firm strokes to ‘put down a marker’, as you might say. He cried a bit at the conclusion but in reality, I hadn’t hit him awfully hard.

This is something I really want to emphasise. Although for those who received it, classroom corporal punishment seemed dreadful and terrible at the time, the reality is that most teachers I know were quite merciful when it came to how hard they belted the kids.

Yes, it was intended to hurt, and produce a few tears. But generally speaking, it was by no means brutal. My point is that everything seems bigger and scarier when you are a child. However, undoubtedly beltings got harder as the children grew older and were expected to know better!

Although in the past some children were undoubtedly belted for failing tests etc, by the time I began teaching, that approach was generally considered very outdated and counter-productive. I personally only ever used CP for deliberate misbehaviour.

What I will say is, it worked. You could hear a pin drop in Scottish classrooms back in the day, as the children quietly got on with their work. By the time I returned to work after motherhood, I noticed a definite deterioration in classroom behaviour, and that was only a few years after the belt had been abolished.

Some of your readers may wish to know about how I raised my own children and yes, I did smack. However, although I sometimes had my belt at home with me, I only ever used it once on my own children that I remember, that being across my eldest’s bare bottom for stealing sweets when he was 10.

I should add that at home, I only ever smacked my children on the buttocks, which I’ve personally always considered to be a safer and more appropriate place for corporal punishment. I did normally take my children’s underpants down for it, by the way, to make sure it hurt.

Would I support the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools? Yes, though with some reservations.

For one thing, it would take some significant shift in the current teaching culture for this to happen, as there is a definite ‘liberal left’ bias in the profession now and many teachers today would, I am sure, refuse to administer it. Also, whether today’s children would accept such punishment as meekly as my charges did is another consideration!

I hope this has been of interest. If anyone has any additional questions, I will do my best to answer them honestly.

Contributor: Sheila

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