I could tell that something was wrong as my son strode towards me after school one recent Friday.
His face seemed more flushed than usual and his jaw was clenched tight. He was one angry boy.
The minute I was within earshot, my eight-year-old let rip. "My teacher hit some of us with a ruler for getting an answer wrong. Two of my friends cried. Mama, go with me to the general office. I want to tell them what she did."
I was more amused than surprised. He looked rather cute as he gave vent to his ire, gesticulating wildly like a tight coil of spring that had finally been set free.
I tried to calm him down and had him recount the incident in detail. I wasn't about to confront anyone without first getting the facts.
By the time we had driven home, I'd got a full account, as well as several text messages from concerned mums of his classmates who had heard that my son had been smacked by a teacher.
According to him, he was first rapped a few times on his forearm with a wooden ruler because he got the answer to a health education assignment wrong.
Then, when he went back to show her his correction, the teacher hit him again several times because he had written something else she wanted above instead of below the first answer.
"She didn't say she wanted it below the answer," he insisted.
After he gave his side of the story, I probed him to see if he had provoked her first. "Were you rude or disobedient? Did you talk back to her? Were you fooling around? Did you pay attention in class?"
It wasn't right of her to lash out at him and his friends over what sounded like minor and honest mistakes, but I thought there could be mitigating factors.
As a parent volunteer with his school, I've been attached to different classes for various activities over the past two years, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the teachers.
Managing 30 to 40 energetic boys at one go while trying to pump knowledge and, hopefully, some values into them is no walk in the park. It takes just one or two rascals to disrupt the lesson and throw the whole class into chaos.
My son denied misbehaving in any way, and I know he is usually more eager to please his teachers than his parents.
Besides, if he was guilty of any misdemeanour, I doubt he would have had the cheek to want to lodge a complaint against her. He knows a worse fate awaits him at home if he lies or tries to cover up any transgression.
I have, however, been hearing unsettling reports about the teacher from my son and his friends since the new school year started. These mostly revolve around how she shouts at them over seemingly trivial matters and sometimes uses hurtful words like "dumb" and "fat".
In the WhatsApp chat group for his class, several mums have also shared stories from their sons about this "very fierce" teacher, who has lessons with the boys four days out of five every week.
I had shrugged all this off as part of schooling and growing up. We can't all be blessed with gentle and caring teachers all the time, and even the most patient teacher can snap sometimes. The unwarranted physical punishment, however, was worrying.
I verified my son's account with some of his friends and decided to write an e-mail to the principal.
I know, I know. At this point, some of you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking: "Another one of those parents from hell who would kick up a fuss over the slightest thing."
I don't blame you. Today's mollycoddling parents have acquired such a poor reputation that any negative feedback from them is likely to be dismissed as an over-reaction or mocked as yet another example of over-protectiveness.
In fact, I did wonder if I should send the e-mail for fear of being labelled a monster parent.
But I wasn't so much upset that my son was hit as concerned about the teacher's behaviour. My son's case was not an isolated incident. Neither was the smacking confined to his class. Going by the feedback I'd gathered, this teacher seemed to have a volatile temper that led to angry outbursts nearly every day.
There is a clear difference between strict and erratic. If she could not keep her emotions in check, worse could follow.
The mums who heard about the incident were mostly shocked by the use of physical force. The question that often followed was: "Is that still allowed these days?"
I am in favour of corporal punishment in serious cases of grave or repeated misconduct, which I believe is the Education Ministry's stand.
I wouldn't complain either if my son was rapped for disobedience or insolence. I would think he deserved it. One of my biggest fears is to have my children grow up to be self-centred brats who are a liability to society.
In this case, however, the teacher was not dealing with a bunch of rebellious or recalcitrant teens,but eight-year-olds who are still getting used to the faster academic pace of Primary 3.
At this age, most of them still hold their teachers in awe and would not think to question what they do or say. Even if they sense inappropriate behaviour, lower primary kids might not be able to articulate their fears.
To them, the word "fierce" likely covers the whole spectrum from stern to psychotic.
I wrote to the school because I wanted a clearer picture of what went on in the teacher's class and, to be fair to her, hear her side of the story. If she was, indeed, wielding her ruler or hand too carelessly, we should find out why.
The school's prompt response was heartening. The principal replied the next morning, vowing to look into the matter right away.
Several boys, including my son, were asked to give verbal and written accounts of what had happened. That same afternoon, the principal called to say they had issued a stern warning to the teacher, who admitted to hitting the kids because "she lost it".
He stressed that corporal punishment cannot be carried out by staff without his consent and parents' knowledge, and promised to monitor the teacher closely.
All has been well since and, as one of my son's classmates reported, the teacher is "not so screamy" these days.
Some friends thought I should have confronted her in person or perhaps asked for her removal. But I believe there is a line that parents should not cross, and calls that are not ours to make.
While younger kids should be taught to raise the alert when teachers are out of line, we should also trust schools to handle any unhappy or unfortunate incidents once we flag them.
We parents have drawn enough bad press in recent years for our supercilious attitude and lack of respect for teachers, which critics say have caused student discipline and staff morale to suffer.
Just as we don't appreciate being told how to do our job by outsiders, we should also accord educators the same courtesy and respect.
But schools and teachers should also recognise that not all parents who voice their concerns are neurotic mother hens or insufferable know-it-alls who hold teachers in contempt.
Just as how there are kids with issues who require extra attention, some teachers may also face challenges that need addressing.
The stakes are too high these days for us not to work together. We do our kids a big disservice when parents and schools view each other with distrust and disdain.
My son now knows that his school and parents will always look after his welfare. But we have also stressed that he can expect no support from us if he acts up in school and risks being whacked.
Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.
This article was first published on January 25, 2016.
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