As educators we do our best but those of us who are honest know without a doubt that we sometimes make mistakes. Hopefully when we do so we are willing to admit our errors and redress them. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen in our educational system. Children are sometimes unwittingly hurt and nobody does anything to step forward and change things. It’s difficult to upend the system. Most of society is unwilling to do so for fear of being thought of as rebellious or troublemaking.
I recently heard of a young man who was being egregiously humiliated by his teacher. He is good boy, an A student who is generally one of the best kids in his class. This school year he had a teacher whose main classroom management tool was yelling, screaming, and insulting the students. She even told her pupils that she disliked them intensely as well as teaching in general. She spent a great deal of time iterating how her job had changed over the years and how miserable she was. She ultimately let lose on the aforementioned young man one afternoon in front of the entire class. She threatened him with dire retribution just for snickering at the joke of another student. She warned him and his peers that she wasn’t afraid of any of the parents and that if they wanted war then the game was on.
The poor boy felt so intimidated and frightened that he cried at home and begged his mother not to make him return to school. He suggested that they consider another school or even homeschooling. He was terrified of this woman. His mother decided to engage in the situation and went to visit the principal. She was shocked when the school leader sided with the teacher even while admitting that the offending educator had a very unorthodox and toxic way of dealing with kids. She suggested that the woman and her son simply play along until the end of the school year. She felt that there was little point in making waves because the teacher wasn’t going to change.
The administrator had met her match. The mother was willing to fight for her child whom she believed had been seriously wronged. After several email exchanges, conferences, and informal meetings the principal continued to maintain that she didn’t want to rock the boat with the teacher. The mom had to consult with lawyers and publicize her efforts with other parents who one by one came forward with horror stories of their own. She ultimately took her case to the superintendent of the school district. Eventually the teacher apologized to the entire class and became much more subdued in her management approach. The little boy made it through the remaining weeks and even received an award for being on the all A honor roll all year long, but he has been permanently scarred. His mother is still angry that this ever happened. None of the parents or teachers really believe that the teacher was sincere in her pleas for forgiveness. Everyone worries that the teacher will continue to harm a new group of kids next school year. Incidents such as this leave education with a huge black eye.
I wonder why those charged with the care of children do not understand just how important their influence is. When I was studying to become a teacher one of my professors warned us that we had a power over our charges that required us to be very careful with them. She pointed out that we would spend so much time with the kids that we would know their sensitivities and their hot buttons. She urged us to never use those things to hurt the children. To do so she thought was professional malpractice.
The teacher that I just described was angry and miserable and she focused her irritation on the children rather than taking steps to improve the environment or to admit that perhaps teaching was no longer the career for her. I’ve heard too many stories of teachers devastating youngsters with ugly remarks that should never have been uttered. All too often they get by with this behavior because in most cases students believe that they have no right to complain. The truth is that those who harm kids either with words or actions have no place in a classroom.
I ended my career in education as the Dean of Faculty. I have little doubt that most of the teachers with whom I worked would agree that I supported them to the utmost but there were times now and again when I had to correct them. I remember students coming to me with complaints that a male teacher was telling them to F— off! I was actually incredulous so I spent time outside of his classroom just listening. It happened so often that I was shocked, not because I don’t let the F bomb fly now and again but because it was a horribly unprofessional way to correct poor behavior. I did my best to encourage the teacher to halt the habit but he was adamant that the kids deserved his impolite remarks. I had no alternative but to tell the principal about this gross infraction. Eventually the horrific behavior ceased when the principal made it clear that he would not accept it.
There are times when teachers are truly being unfairly judged. There are also times when members of the teaching corps are an embarrassment to all of us. To simply look the other way or to say nothing is unethical no matter how supportive we wish to be. Our relationship with our students and their parents will be more collaborative and strong if we are willing to really listen when a complaint is made and swallow our own pride in dealing with the situation.
I saw something happen this week that was heartbreaking. The little girl who was involved is likely to remember the principal of her school as an unfair and insensitive person for the remainder of her life. She will move beyond the slight that happened and probably even become a stronger person but it quite simply should never have taken place.
At an awards ceremony at her school the principal announced that many students were going to receive Presidential Academic Excellence Awards. There were two levels for the presentations. The Gold level had strict guidelines to which she had to adhere. This year the school was given some latitude to give more students Silver level certificates. It was up to the members of the faculty to decide what constituted Academic Excellence for those awards. They decided to use the STAR test scores as the rationale for receiving one of the certificates from President Obama. The counselor compared the Reading scores from fourth grade with those from fifth grade. Those who improved were given points based on how much better their scores were. Anyone who stayed the same as last year received a zero.
One little girl had made all A’s for all of her six years at the school. She was in the Gifted and Talented program. Her end of year averages ranged from 98-100 in all subjects. She had received a medal for reading over two million words this year. She had also received special awards for an end of year project that took countless hours to conceive and execute. In other words she was exactly the kind of student that President Obama intended to award. Unfortunately she did not qualify for the Gold level certificate in reading because she was one question shy of reaching the Advanced level on the STAR test both this year and last. In other words she made an outstanding score on the test but she did not improve so she received a score of zero from the counselor in spite of her exemplary grades. If the school had used mathematics as the indicator the child would have been fine but it was their choice not to do so because most students had done poorly on the mathematics test this year and the state of Texas had decided not to count the results. So in the end the little girl did not qualify for one of the Presidential awards.
The principal began calling the students to the front. As the stage filled and the seats emptied she boasted that so many of the children had earned the certificates. Among those who got them were even children who had failed the STAR test and would have to attend summer school but happily they had improved from last year. The little girl sat almost all alone realizing by the alphabetical recitation that she was not going to be honored, not for her good STAR scores, nor her reading, nor the many A’s that she had earned over the years. She felt stunned and humiliated and began to cry. It was a horrible thing to watch. Nobody stepped forward to comfort her until the child’s mother finally burst from her seat and embraced the little tyke. In one moment the school had hurt the student in the most horrible of ways. She sobbed that she was stupid and that she didn’t know why she had done so poorly on the STAR test. It was quite sad and only the P.E. teacher stepped forward to attempt to find out what had happened.
The counselor was adamant that grades over a span of six years did not constitute a reason for receiving one of the certificates nor did a good score on the STAR test that did not improve. The rules were the rules and she could not change them. My thought was, “Are you kidding me?!”
When I was still in schools I always worked to defend injustice whether it was aimed at the teachers or the students. I admitted my mistakes to my students and did my best to rectify them quickly. When a parent yelled at me for forgetting to send her an invitation to her son’s National Honor Society induction I admitted that I had made a huge mistake and that there was no excuse. If I had checked and rechecked the roster and the invitations it would not have happened. So it should have been with this little girl. Someone in the loop should have noticed that one of the top students was being left out because of a statistical loophole and the error should have been corrected long before the public assembly. The fact that nobody did anything even after it was discovered is a sad commentary.
One of the little girl’s teachers told her that the certificate was only a piece of paper that meant nothing. She urged the child to believe that she is awesome and that time will bear out her true worth. The kind educator’s wise words finally brought a smile to the girl’s face but the reality is that a wrong has been committed and somebody somewhere should advocate for her. It doesn’t look as though that will happen. It is the end of the school year and her hurt will be lost in the rush to begin summer vacation.
Injustice often begins in small doses that seem insignificant to the rest of us. If we let even one wrongful incident slide by we are contributing to the build up of even more horrific situations in our society. We need those voices who are willing to put themselves on the line for even the lowliest among us. I for one plan to follow by seeing what I might do to set things right for this child. I want her to grow up believing that the people charged with caring for her are fair and compassionate, not slaves to bureaucratic rules. Of course this will not be the last time that she encounters such situations but I also would like for her to know that there will always be heroes who will do their best to stand by her when she needs them. This is what good educators do. This is what good people do.