Principals in a pickle

WITH increased student pregnancies, secondary school principals are finding themselves in a tricky situation — trapped between the need to help and the possibility of sending out wrong signals.

SECOND CHANCE: Pregnant teenagers should not be pilloried because of one mistake.

Educating pregnant and post natal students as well as guiding them to maturity is no child’s play. Often, it is a case of doing a little too much and a little too little and whichever way the school heads turn, the prospects look bleak.

Principals Wong, Chai, Lee and Norma (not their real names) concur that the future of these students should not be irreversibly jeopardised by just one mistake.

They make it clear that they are, first and foremost, imparters of knowledge to all who want to learn, regardless of their situation.

While all out for second or even third chances, they are also aware of the need to consider the other side of the coin.

“There is always this nagging fear we will be sending signals to the others that it is all right to be pregnant,” they explain.

Adding salt to the wound, even with all their training and experience, these principals and their teaching staff are not geared towards tackling such delicate and sensitive personal issues.

Besides, a normal school environment is not the most conducive for these students who, in the time of their predicament, will be suffering from low self-esteem and self-worth.

That will drive them more and more into the protective shell of reclusiveness and eventually lead them to academic failure.

While the principals are educationists dedicated to ensuring students get the best education there is and what comes next is secondary, they are also quick to admit a normal school is not the answer to meeting the educational needs of pregnant and post natal students.

These students, they emphasise, need a special school that caters to their needs and is thus in a strong position to give them better second chances.

Relating her own experience, Wong says such students normally prefer continuing their studies — after delivery — in the same school.

When she comes across such a case, she will take it on personally.

In most instances, the student’s parents are not in the picture, so Wong will advise the student to tell them.

According to her, most of these students will discontinue schooling once their pregnancy becomes visible and they will be encouraged to enroll in other private schools.

If they are in the exam year, they can sit as private candidates in a private school or their previous school if they have been registered there.

“As much as I believe in giving second chances,” Wong says, “I don’t think these girls should go through the mental anguish of attending classes and sitting for the exam with their pregnancy in full view”.

She points out that these girls will be so consumed by shame that they will not be able to concentrate in class and this will inevitably lead to poor results and failure.

A fresh start in a new environment is good for them. Here, they can be confident and feel free — key factors in helping them to improve their grades.

Not a greater believer in the disruption of classes even when cases involve young and hapless ‘victims’, Wong says as there are now no viable alternatives, taking leave of absence is the only humane way to handle the problem.

Chai, a principal for a good six years, agrees with Wong.

“It will be even better if these students are placed in a school that caters for pregnant teens. This way, their studies will not be disrupted and they can continue till they are in their full term.”

However, she makes it clear she is not advocating teen pregnancy, saying usually, the problem is already there and what needs to be done is to take the bull by the horns.

“Putting them in another ordinary school after delivery is fine but the prejudice and stigmatisation will hard on them. Why not let them go to a school where they can be among students like them?”

In such a setting, Chai points out, these students can at least feel accepted.

“They don’t have to hide and most importantly, will benefit from a social and emotional support system. There won’t be any discrimination as everyone is the same. In fact, they will help one another out.”

Lee agrees wholeheartedly, saying it will be the most pragmatic approach to the situation.

“Let’s face it — the problem is already there, we can’t solve it by sweeping it under the carpet. We have to face it squarely.”

Norma, vastly experienced in dealing with such cases, strongly believes any form of support will greatly help the girls.

“For example, a special school for them will be equipped with a full support system. They need all the emotional and social care to help them through the hard times.”

There are now no schools for pregnant and post natal students in the state. The one closest to having such a concept is Taman Sri Puteri, a shelter for girls at Telaga Air.

A school for these girls was recently set up in Melaka — the only one in the country.

No doubt, normal schools have counselors and the principal, who has to be on top of everything, needs the right aptitude and desire to help pregnant students.

But Lee points out that expecting principals to go the extra two to three miles is a tall order because even though many of them are capable, their field of expertise may not extend to helping pregnant and post natal students.

“They can be the best principals education-wise but may fail miserably when it comes to helping these girls simply because they may lack the understanding and passion needed.”

Dealing with sensitive teen problems requires the know-how of specialists who can get down to the level of the young people they are helping. The same cannot be said of normal teaching staff who already have a full plate and may not be able to commit to the troubled girls.

Lee says it is not a question of the teachers shirking their responsibilities because from the education angle, the students who need help will fare better academically when they have the right people to guide them.

Dispelling allegations that principals are reluctant to accept such students, he says the former have totally no say in the matter but to comply if such students are transferred to their schools.

“Our personal feelings do not matter; the students’ education is our main concern.”

Personal sentiments notwithstanding, the principals all do their best to help. They cannot be judgmental, prejudiced or discriminatory. Their dealings with the girls are under scrutiny. Just one slip and they will be marked.

According to the principals, pregnant and post natal students are usually quiet and introvert. A handful is smart. They are not problematic but are ‘good’ students overall.

The problematic and “social butterflies” are too street-savvy to be implicated. They know how to wipe their mouth after having eaten, so to speak. The only problem they cause is to themselves but still, it needs special handling if and when it happens because of its sensitivity.

The principals say many of such students who resume their studies, continue to fare marginally. Only a few manage to scrap through the final exams with a weak pass.

Student pregnancy is on the rise in the state with a ratio of one student every year. The figure cannot be considered negligible and ignored, given the conservative nature of Sarawakian society.

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