Time to incorporate relevant legal training in our teachers colleges

Ziporah Boyani, a Grade 4 classteacher at Royal Metropolis Academy in Nyamira. [Stanley Ongwae, Standard]

A few days ago, a disturbing video got viral. It was a video said to have been taken somewhere in a school in Kisii County. In the video, teachers are having a field day, laughing, cracking jokes, and directing, as four boys demonstrate an abominable indecent act.

Literally, the teachers are seen to have turned their own pupils into characters in an amusement park. To say that their conduct is despicable is to understate it.

From the various public opinions expressed about the video, two issues emerged. One is the legal issue, another is the moral or ethical issue. In his book, 'The Law', French lawyer and legislator, Frederic Bastiat, writes: "When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law." This is not the case in this matter. In the case at hand, the law and morality do not contradict, and can therefore be used to complement each other without making the citizen conflicted.
Unfortunately, because of our tendency to moralise and to want to sound socially and politically correct, we have gone ballistic, bashing the teachers - which is justifiable - but in the process lost sight of an important aspect - what role might basic legal learning have played in making the teachers in question avoid the scandalous activity?

Predictably, have quickly and conveniently jumped onto the moral and ethical questions, which as I say is okay - but that should not cloud our visibility to stop us from seeing the legal dimension of the matter. The moralists have whipped out religious arguments and said how against God's commandments the teachers acted. Other moralists have brandished the cultural question and argued that the teachers deserve punishment for making the boys do things that are un-African.

Of course, we are aware that there are instruments that are at the disposal of teachers, including the Teachers' Service Commission Code of Regulations. What we forget is the idea that owing to the sometimes adversarial relationship between employer and employee the world over, regulations given by the employer are sometimes seen as some of putting the employee in his or her place. There are so many teachers who have gone through the profession to retirement without reading a single sentence in that document. In fact, the most number of times when teachers read the document is when they are going to attend interviews for promotion, or when they are faced with a disciplinary case.

Owing to the foregoing, it is high time a legal component was incorporated into teacher training curricula in our universities and colleges. Preferably, we should review the curricula to have a stand-alone course in let's say Basic Education Law, with relevant references to children's rights and labour law, Education Act, and what the Penal Code says about certain misdemeanours that are likely to occur in a school set up.

If claims that the teachers in the case under scrutiny had asked the children to demonstrate what they had been caught doing elsewhere is true, gross as it is, then a basic understanding of the law might have prohibited and for in this case, the prohibitive function of the law will have saved both the teachers and the pupils.

Further, the prohibitive function of the law, or at least, the prohibitive function served by knowledge of the penal code, might have mitigated the damage caused to the boys and their families. One of the things that made the situation worse than it already was, is the taking of the video and circulating it. We can guess with certainty that the person who took the video and began the chain of distribution is a teacher.

If this teacher knew that they were also committing an act that is acceptable law; which is not only a criminal offence, but one that can lead to a civil case if the parents and guardians sued, then the boys would not have been exposed in the fashion, and to the extent we witnessed. This can be mitigated by knowledge of children's rights, for among other things. For what we saw was indecent exposure of minors without consent - if there is such a thing, and if ever children could grant consent in such a matter.

In another separate case, a teacher was dismissed for allowing a sick pupil to cook a meal in the teacher's kitchen. Beyond the moral and ethical question, and beyond what the TSC code of conduct is, it is presumed ignorance of the law which yields fertile ground for such cases. During training, teachers need to be made aware that there are other implications to their actions beyond losing their jobs. Knowledge of penalties associated with wrongdoing, in fact, prohibits more wrongdoing, than knowledge of what is ethical or moral.

It is laudable that at least two universities have acted in time to have a legal component incorporated into their curricula. In one of these universities, faculty in their law school has been invited to offer this invaluable component to their teacher training regimes. Because of the need for informed service delivery by teachers, and because of the litigious nature that their society has become, states in the US have it as a requirement for colleges to train teachers in educational law.

Besides, it's for the good of the teacher as a person to understand educational law. Benard Moswela, in 'Knowledge of educational law: an imperative to the teacher's practice' notes that the work of the teacher exposes them to civil and criminal liabilities. Beyond this case, is for instance the issue of what punishment should be used in schools. As such, "Without knowledge of the legal implications of their actions, inadvertently they (teachers) may find themselves on the wrong side of the law," he observes.

If we think that there is already too much to teach in education, then it is also good to appreciate another thing: It is a disservice to the academy, and to society, to imagine that it is better to study the history of Education - and recount the story of education since Plato's academy, and fail to expose teacher trainees to educational law.

Dr Wesonga teaches Literature at the University of Kabianga - Kericho

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