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How Ambroise Stood up for Students

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“Students used to expect that when they came to school, they would be beaten.”

The class Ambroise is teaching in a school in Kayonza, Rwanda, is a lively one. Students’ hands shoot into the air as they jump to answer questions before their peers.

Children at the school weren’t always this excited. Just a short time ago, students were far more subdued and passive, if they even showed up for school at all. The frequent use of corporal punishment meant many were more afraid of being hit than interested in learning or participating.

But since Ambroise stopped using corporal punishment in his classroom, the tone changed first in his classroom, and then in the whole school as he convinced his fellow teachers to stop using it as well. The change has helped create a safer, more joyous environment for students, one where they can focus on learning instead of fear.

Ambroise and his fellow teachers have stopped using corporal punishment. Watch their story.

“You cannot constantly hit a student and expect to have a positive relationship with him or her.”

Corporal punishment, like spanking or beating with a cane or belt, is theoretically illegal in Rwanda, but the law is rarely enforced, and many adults find it acceptable because they were subject to it as students. One in two Rwandan students report the use of violence in schools, and it’s repeatedly been cited by studies as a major reason why children avoid school, drop out, and underperform in class.

Rwandan teachers don’t want to hit children. But for many, it’s the only way they know to maintain order in the classroom and get students to pay attention to lessons.

“Most of us grew up studying in classrooms that used this system for discipline, and we thought that if a student is not beaten, he or she cannot study effectively,” says Aurore, one of Ambroise’s fellow teachers.

Ambroise has been a teacher for 32 years, six of them at the school in Kayonza. He teaches grade six classes, the last year of primary education. He grew up with the idea of corporal punishment being a normal part of school, and brought those beliefs to his practice as a teacher. “I believed that without a stick, a child could not understand or behave."

Over time, Ambroise realized that the use of violence in class had the opposite effect to what he and his fellow teachers were hoping to achieve. It wasn’t helping students pay attention and learn more, it was terrifying them into sitting silently in class or skipping school.

“Students used to expect that when they came to school, they would be beaten. You cannot constantly hit a student and expect to have a positive relationship with him or her,” he says.

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Ambroise’s work abolishing corporal punishment is based on his strong belief in the value of positive relationships with students.

“We can give them small gifts of encouragement to motivate them to love school.”

Ambroise grabbed hold of a more effective way of treating students when he went to a Right To Play training session. He learned how to use games, activities, and positive interactions to support his teaching and excite students into paying attention.

He and the other attendees learned how to start classes with games like “Cats and Mice” to get students excited about lessons. The game has students run from circle to circle on the ground, and gives them a chance to be physically active and playful before sitting down to learn.

Ambroise also learned how to design lessons to be interactive, and to encourage students solve problems themselves instead of sitting passively while he lectured. When students acted out or lost focus, he learned how to bring them back on track using praise and focused conversations instead of corporal punishment.

After the training, Ambroise went back to his school and tried some of the techniques. They were so successful that before long, other teachers were asking him to share his new knowledge with them. They were eager to find a new, better way to handle their students, too, and they all committed to stop using violence in the classroom. Ambroise invited Right To Play to come to the school to provide training for the group to help the teachers live up to their pledge.

“Right To Play has taught us how to build positive relationships with our students. You cannot play with someone you have just beaten, and now all our lessons involve play,” he says.

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Ambroise encouraged his fellow teachers to abandon corporal punishment and replace it with positive feedback and playful engagement to help students grasp their lessons.

“Now we all come with courage, confidence, and eagerness to learn.”

When the school stopped using corporal punishment, word spread quickly, and students who had dropped out started coming back. Teachers went from being disciplinarians to champions. And classes went from being hard to sit through to energizing and participatory.

“Before they stopped using corporal punishment, I would skip school fearing that I would be beaten harder than ever if I didn’t perform well. But now that it has stopped, I come to school expecting to study in peace. I have succeeded in my lessons, and I emerged as the second in my class,” says Flora, a student in Ambroise’s class. “Now we all come with courage, confidence, and eagerness to learn.”

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Aurore, one of the teachers at Ambroise’s school, has seen how students’ attitudes have changed since corporal punishment stopped.

The training that Ambroise participated in is part of the Gender Responsive Education and Transformation (GREAT) program, which is made possible thanks to the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. Active in Ghana, Rwanda, and Mozambique. Since 2018, the GREAT program has used Right To Play's play-based learning approach to remove barriers to education, especially for girls, and to build teacher capacity to improve learning outcomes.