Monday 27 August 2012

Much ado over a bad haircut

By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 26 Aug 2012

About a week ago, sales manager Serene Ong got all upset and went to the police after a teacher gave her 12-year-old son a bad haircut.

The story was unusual in various ways. But first, the facts, gleaned from newspaper accounts, because apart from going to the police, the mother went to the media too.

Her son Ryan Ang is dyslexic and has been getting $60 haircuts for several years. His school, Unity Primary in Chua Chu Kang, has school rules about hair length, and he was caught flouting them.

On Aug 14, he was given a letter to take home, telling his parents he needed a haircut by Aug 16, the day of his PSLE oral exam.

He did not show his parents the letter. He did not get a haircut. On Aug 16, just before the oral exam, form teacher Belinda Cheng hauled him up along with two other boys for long hair. She then gave them a haircut herself.

Ryan's mother was furious. Nobody had told her beforehand, she said. The boy could not leave home for two days because of the way he looked and she spent another $60 to fix the bad crop.

According to The New Paper, she found out about the school's letter only when the reporter asked Ryan about it. That's when he produced it from his bag. His mother's response: The boy is dyslexic, and dyslexics are forgetful.

The story of the boy, his $60 haircut and the police report gives us all food for thought. It provides what educators like to call "teachable moments".

In September last year, newly minted Education Minister Heng Swee Keat pledged to focus on values and character development. He gave some examples: respect, responsibility, care and appreciation towards others.

This episode highlighted some of those values, or the lack of.

First, what happened in school. Ryan is neither the first boy picked out for having long hair, nor the first to be threatened with a haircut.

For years, schools have been known to bring in barbers to fix their students' hairstyles when reminders and warnings fail. These days, it's not only the length of hair, but colours too.

What was unusual at Unity Primary was that the teacher turned hairdresser herself.

Schools may be fighting a losing battle in trying to maintain their rules on attire, looking smart and discipline, if 12-year-olds are sporting $60 haircuts and parents react with horror when their children are dealt with.

For me, it does not really matter how much the boy's haircut cost and I would not criticise the mother for that. What she is prepared to spend on her son's hair is irrelevant, even though my teenage son and I are perfectly content with our $10 10-minute express cuts every three weeks. To each his own.

What does matter, I think, is whether schoolchildren meet the standards set by their schools and parents are prepared to support the schools in their efforts.

Singapore schools have rules - on everything from haircuts to behaviour in and out of the classroom - and these are a key part of what they set out to impart. If schools yield, discipline will go.

On that score, I think Ms Cheng deserves a cheer for trying to enforce the hair rule and teach her pupils the importance of looking their best on an important occasion - the day of their oral exam. But the school is not entirely off the hook either. It could have given parents more than two days' notice that their sons needed a haircut.

Ryan's forgetting to hand the school's letter to his parents is probably typical of many youngsters. I have lost count of the number of times my son has left me exasperated by similar forgetfulness. And he's not dyslexic.

Maybe schools can be more creative, and contact parents directly via SMS or e-mail. And surely a crackdown on long hair ought not happen right before an exam, given how parents can be as anxious as their children at such times.

I am glad that the school and teacher have taken responsibility and apologised, so let us be magnanimous. This is a value worth pondering too.

What about Ryan's furious mother? I am troubled that she was angry for more than a week after the haircut, and remained livid about the teacher's actions when she spoke to reporters.

As a parent, I understand her instinct to protect her child, especially one who is dyslexic.

But what I cannot fathom is her going to the police, as well as the way she apparently swept aside her son's forgetfulness on discovering he had not shown her that letter from the school.

Had she been aware of it, this entire episode might have turned out differently.

As teachable moments go, children do pick up signals from watching the way adults respond to various situations and crises.

I wonder what Ryan's takeaways will be from this blaze of publicity over his haircuts, and whether he might have learnt something different if his mother and the school had managed to sort things out sooner, more amicably and privately.

It surely is something we parents ought to think about, in our interactions with our children's teachers and principals, especially when we disagree with what happens in school.

In my view, the teacher had good intentions, but lost her teachable moment by acting the way she did. And had the parent chosen a different response after getting over her initial fury, much unpleasantness might have been avoided too.

Instead, there has been such a storm over a bad haircut.

When a haircut becomes breaking news -Of Kids and Education

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