The Broken Teacher: Bullying From The One You’d Least Expect

Last week my second born, Monkey, came home from school deflated, again.

I saw the pain in his eyes as he quietly told what had transpired. I listened as my heart grew heavy, and while he recounted his day to me, my son’s face fell. He could hardly meet my eyes when he gave me the details. He had been teased. He had been mocked and in front of his classmates. Another case of bullying. This time it was after reciting an original poem, a riddle, as part of a larger project he had already completed last month that entailed researching a  career that most interests the student. My sweet-natured boy had selected without hesitation, to research firefighting. He had already been voicing an interest in becoming a firefighter for a few years.

Let me tell you a quick story. A long time ago when Monkey was only four, while playing upstairs in his room, he had spotted a burning tree in the field by our house from out his bedroom window. The tree, a dry juniper, which had been sparked by some older kids playing with matches quickly engulfed in flames. Those flames almost instantly grew out of control, and resulted in a sweeping brush fire that required a complete evacuation of our neighborhood, two fire trucks, a whole lot of commotion with people frantically trying to flee, gather pets and loved ones, and some who tried to use garden hoses to save their homes from complete destruction. There was some damage to the house just next to ours, and even a helicopter that flew overhead to dump water on the flames that threatened our home and frightened all of us to our core as we looked on helplessly. In other words, fire and how dangerous it is had really left an impression on my then young son. But even more so, the firemen, who stopped to talk with him before they left, showing him their hoses, how the truck worked, and thanking him for being such a brave boy who saved his family and neighborhood with his sharp eyes and fast reflexes; yes they had left an even bigger impression. My monkey had helped to spot something that could have been truly devastating, and with his keen eye and helpful spirit he had sprung into action and called for help at just the right moment. He was really proud of himself for that, and even at just four, he seemed to understand the magnitude of what his quick actions meant to the situation. That is the kind of child he was, and still is today. Monkey innately knows right from wrong, and when given the option, he wants to be a part of doing right, every time. This is the way he is wired. He doesn’t take short-cuts, doesn’t half-do anything. He commits fully to what is asked of him, or what he sets his mind to, in all areas of his life. Determination and dedication to do what’s good and what’s right are traits I am proud to say God instilled in him, and we as his parents, encourage in him.

Seven years later, my Monkey still recalls that story of nearly losing our home to a brush fire. And he continues to talk about how he would like to become a firefighter someday if pressed to answer the common “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question that most adults inevitably ask a child they are trying to small talk with while making casual conversation. He will tell you that he is a perfect fit to be a fire fighter; being naturally physically fit, astute, a great eye for detail, and unafraid of fire or of running head on into any danger, mixed with a love for cooking and helping others, he feels it’s the perfect job for him. I couldn’t agree more, but of course I believe he can do anything he wants in this life, that is my job, to believe in my children. So this career project seemed like it would be an enjoyable one for Monkey, maybe even one he wouldn’t have to struggle quite so hard with, being that he was already fueled with personal passion for learning more about firefighting.

 
So, back to last week. My son’s face fell as he spoke. Weeks of work flashing before my eyes, countless nights of him hand to forehead, pencil in the other, hovering over his report in frustration over the sheer act of reading through a single page of information in order to extract the important key elements to include in his research, and then the added bonus of not just writing a well-structured report, but using the information to construct an informative, “Guess Who I Am” rhyming riddle. I saw his hours of effort in my mind’s eye. Erasing incorrect spelling, adding back in missing words, over and over until the notebook paper before him had worn thin with rub marks and ghosts of shadowy pencil marks, reflecting hours of effort to complete what was asked of him; of an eleven year old, who struggles to produce work that looks not a whole lot different than a second or third grader most of the time. Tireless hard work to produce something that comes so easy to others, just another typical evening for him with his studies.  

Even when my heart wants to jump in and just do it for him, to make things easier, faster, get him off to bed quicker, lighten his load, I restrain. Even when he’s my last child awake, still fussing over getting something completed that might have taken one of his siblings a quarter of the time; I don’t intervene. I help him when he asks, but only to guide him to his own conclusions. Its at times almost painful to witness, like watching paint dry, to see him muster through what seems like a breeze to others, including many of his peers and even younger children. Do I know he probably needs to be tested for a learning disability? Well, yes. Do I want him to feel like he is anything less than anyone else? Never. I want him to get the help he needs and feel confident in his own abilities. We have moved a lot and he has had many different schooling situations. But unlike his other school-aged siblings, he is my only child who struggles to keep his head above the benchmark waters. Monkey is courageous and strong, but also very sensitive. He is also acutely aware that while he is very likely one of the most popular kids in the fifth grade; charming, kind, helpful, sincere, funny; he carries with him the stigma of being self-labeled the “slow learner” in each classroom he joins, year after year.

I am always in awe of how resourceful he is, managing to compensate by asking whom he calls the “smart” kids for help when the teachers don’t, or when they get frustrated with his lack of comprehension over skills repeatedly presented. Its a constant battle to reinforce his self-deprecating tendencies with all the positive reminders as to why he is special and unique and incredibly talented and skilled in other areas of life. And I remind him he is very smart too, it takes wisdom to identify, and then use any means we can devise (short of cheating) to improve upon our weaknesses. At home we patiently attempt to help reinforce concepts he has not yet mastered, and encourage him to use techniques to help them stick. Sometimes they do, often they don’t. Monkey finally met the benchmark for grade-level reading in the last quarter of fourth grade. That was exactly one year ago. We let him know the day he came home with that report card that we will continue to be so proud of him, always. But we are most proud of his character, not his abilities. This career project was just one of many that would be an opportunity for Monkey to prove to himself that he could accomplish something, even if it would require a great deal more effort than what he views his peers might have to exert for the same, if not better result grade. We have to constantly remind him, that it’s effort, and not always what that effort produces, that counts in life. Because from effort we uncover character, not from results.

As a parent, I choose not to dwell on my children’s short-comings or rub their noses in them, but rather encourage them in their strengths. That’s just my chosen parenting style. We don’t give any of our children a free pass to not try their individual best at what doesn’t come easily or naturally, or even what does; but feel it’s important to impress upon them that we don’t assume that everyone can achieve the same level of accomplishment in all areas of life. We are each given talents and abilities, and we are each given weaknesses, and I teach my children that the goal of life is to be the best you can be, using every ounce of effort you have to give. I have chosen to impart to these four young minds in my care, that If you feel genuinely proud of your efforts, then you have succeeded. That way, the result is that the standards while high, are uniquely their own. Taking pride in the effort is more important that the finished result, because sometime things don’t turn out as we had planned or hoped for them to.

 I asked Monkey what had happened, exactly. He described the events of his teacher in his fifth/sixth grade blended class, in what I can only describe was her getting a dig into him as he stood vulnerably, with all flaws exposed, and as only a speech can do to a child, in front of the class to recite his memorized career riddle. He had been practicing the riddle for days. I practically knew it by heart myself as I had heard it so many times as he practiced over and over.

Slow down, make sure to enunciate, that’s it. Speak clearly, nice and loud. (As clearly as he can, as he has a bit of a stammer-ish cadence to his speech that makes some words sound jumbled even when he’s not incredibly nervous.) He left that morning genuinely excited and feeling very prepared. Humor. humor has saved my boy. He has learned to take the giggles, the whispers and the taunting of some ugly-natured peers over the years in stride, by laughing with them while they laugh at him. I hate this for him, and am constantly explaining that he should never reduce himself to being the butt of a joke, but being the first one to the punch line is his chosen coping skill for the time being, and that is how he chooses to handle his self-identified deficits inside the classroom. I keep trying to build him up. That is part of my job as mother right? To send my children into the world with the proper tools to defend themselves from cruelty. To impart to them how to be brave, confident, and most of all kind. To teach them empathy and understanding because everybody is different, and there are all kinds of people in this world. I try my best. Just as he does. I can only hope that the teachers, the other influential adults in their lives, are doing the same. I am really proud to say that my children for the most part are all very empathetic people. In fact, this child of mine in particular, goes out of his way to defend and come to the aid of the underdog. That’s who he is. What I never expected was to be teaching my child how to protect himself from the cruelty of an adult, much less from a teacher. But last week, that is exactly what I did.

As my son told me that his teacher had scolded him after reciting his riddle, scoffing that it was goofy, and not up to grade-level, and why did he think that was ok? I could not help but wonder why she would verbally bash him? Him of all kids, I thought. The boy who stays back from recess or leaves a few minutes late to lunch, as the only student to help clean up the classroom, straighten the chairs, rearrange desks, or run an errand for her, his teacher, an adult he not only respects, but looks up to. He feeds off of the affirmations of being a great helper to someone he respects, as if to compensate for letting her down by not being able to answer most questions correctly during math, or generally any other time of instructional learning. As if his deeds of service can somehow erase from her memory the nuisance that he feels he is by being the student she has come to expect to shyly walk up to her desk seeking further clarification yet again because he isn’t “getting it.” The boy who volunteers to be the partner to an unpopular child he senses will be chosen last for a buddy assignment, so that child doesn’t feel left out, or worse singled out. The boy who genuinely wants to please the adults in his life, and be the reliable friend to the other kids in his life. He is the ultimate peace-maker and has one of the biggest hearts I know. 

This was who his teacher chose to see instead: the boy privately second-guessing himself that he might get laughed at by his peers, never fathoming it would be from his teacher. The boy who couldn’t even get through the entire riddle on his second attempt later that day, without tears flooding his eyes in front of a classroom full of judging eyes, because the teacher was so visibly disappointed during his first recitation, with the unsophisticated style in which he had crafted and delivered his riddle, that she had asked him to revise it on the spot, and recite a new and improved version for the next round, but with no directed guidance on how to do so. She saw a failure, and treated him as such. She saw a child whose feelings weren’t important enough to consider, and she saw an opportunity not to teach her student a way to learn, but instead teach her classroom full of students a way to hurt, to cut down, to ridicule and to bully. Out of what one can only assume was frustration, she did something both careless and selfish and most of all, damaging to my child. She chose to write out a completely new riddle about firefighting for my son to recite for the “Celebration of Learning” and give it to him as the replacement, written in minutes, and far superior in overall structure and content to his own work, which had taken him hours and hours and so much more. 

His riddle, which was completed to the guidelines of the assignment.

His riddle, which yes, sounded more juvenile than what I imagine his fellow classmates might have sounded like.

His riddle, that he worked incredibly hard on, night after night, as part of the larger career project on what it takes to become a firefighter.

His riddle, the work he was proud of.

What’s worse? As my son recounted the story of his day as I listened, silenced by utter disbelief, he shrugged it off and from under his lashes fighting back tears, told me how it didn’t matter anyway, he would memorize her version to “make her happy” and just move on. He said, “It’s just a piece of paper, Mom.” It is so much more than that. I took his sweet, perfect face in my hands, made him meet my eyes and told him, that his version was good enough. His effort, his extensive, exhaustive effort, was good enough. He is good enough, and his abilities are good enough. I am so outraged. How can another adult intentionally try to take my perfectly imperfect child, eager to soak in what this life has to teach him, with the objective of churning out something completely non-descript and worse, broken. 

His riddle, the work his teacher mocked openly in a classroom full of captive young minds soaking in the example she is setting when presented with real-life opportunities to show kindness, acceptance, encouragement, individuality, character; shredding apart not just a child’s riddle about firefighting, but his spirit and self worth as a student and human being. This teacher chose instead to send the message to thirty plus students that expectations in school and in life are always the same for everyone, that learning is not as important as showcasing. And that what is most important regardless of the cost, is that when one finds himself incapable of meeting expectations, that it should be assumed it was for lack of effort or as a deliberate form of insubordination, and he or she should expect and deserve to be mocked and made to feel small and worthless. The only lesson imparted by this teacher was that one should expect to be insulted openly if they are deemed by an external measuring stick to be a failure, or different, or goofy, or slower, and then these failures should expect to be given up on by the very person given the role to teach them how to meet life’s expectations, all while wielding that big ole’ measuring stick.

It pains me to think that at an event to highlight the learning of each grade level by showcasing a completed project the teachers children can take pride in displaying, that there were surely other students there who were made to feel badly about their efforts and abilities. These career projects were her showcase, not theirs. These riddles were to be recited by each student highlighting what they had learned this year in the varied areas of research, large projects, poster boards, poetry, public speaking, etc. And instead, a re-write was done on my son’s behalf, in the teacher’s own words, using facts that my child had not included in his report or in his riddle. It was handwritten by her hand, not his, containing her work, not his, about his passion, not hers…while he and the rest of the class had gone to read with their first grade buddies. It was then sent home as further degradation, and it was now in my hands, delivered to me by a boy with a broken spirit.

He had been told he needed to memorize his teacher’s re-write that very evening, and come to class prepared with it the following school day. I looked at him in horror. I quickly scanned her re-write. It looked like an adult had created it, vocabulary and thoughts that would never have come from most eleven year olds, much less mine. It rhymed, just like his riddle. It had six stanzas, just like his riddle. It gave informative facts as clues about the profession of firefighting, just like his did. What was the difference? His was authentically his own creation, and hers was a disgusting attempt to “help” a child who had given his best efforts, by carelessly disregarding the act of teaching, and instead taught him only one thing: in the eyes of this adult, this person my son is eager to please, he was not good enough. And in fact, he was deserving of ridicule, embarrassment and shame brought on by the very person he had hoped to please. I was scathing mad.

Broken. 

Do I think we have a bullying problem in our school system today? You betcha. Do I think it is limited to only the students? I can tell you that naively, Yes, I used to. But after this, not even close. What’s worse is that I chose to trust this teacher, giving her the benefit of the doubt. This was not her first attempt to rip my child’s heart out. It was just her last one. I was angry and confused last winter when she stopped my son during a speech he had prepared for an earlier big project, as he stammered and tried to read his own writing on the notecards that he had prepared, growing nervous and embarrassed as the class began to snicker and whisper, he crumpled into tears when the teacher asked him abruptly to sit down and come back up tomorrow once he was well-prepared. That almost seemed acceptable, until I learned through his tears later that evening and through phone calls with the teacher, that in fact it was true- she had gone on to cut into him in front of the class that he had not worked hard enough on the project, not taken it seriously, and that his cavalier attitude showed in his speech how “unprepared” he was. Assuming is a dangerous thing. Assuming a child with obvious, though undocumented learning challenges didn’t “try hard enough” is one thing, but proclaiming it to him loudly in front of the entire class is quite another for no other purpose than to be cruel; that is bullying in my opinion.

So, when my son came home last week with that same defeated look in his eyes, shoulders lowered, head down, I knew. My popular, socially confident, academically insecure, kind, giving, dedicated, trusting child had been bullied again. No doubt about it. What pained me was that for the second time, this bullying has come not at the hands or mouth of another child, but from the conscience of a teacher entrusted with his care. When I learned she chose again to use her position of authority over these young minds to verbally berate a child with purposefully selected words like “You didn’t take the assignment seriously. You seem to be only one in the class who didn’t do the work, who chose to goof off instead.”  I have a couple of problems. First, the obvious. Singling out a child for doing nothing short of completing an assignment in it’s entirety is wrong. He had his riddle memorized and ready to recite as practice for the big event, the same piece that he had completed weeks prior and turned in for grading. Had she not read it and graded it already weeks before? Second, does she not, at this point in the school year know each child she teaches well enough to recognize what is or is not their best efforts? I suppose I may never get the real answers. The situation has been taken to the principal, though I know it is likely a losing battle. The teacher has already devised her defense. She thought my eleven year old, mature, well-mannered respectful son bursting into tears in her classroom standing before his peers was because he simply hated his riddle so much, not because of how she made him feel about it. I feel sorry for this teacher. Someone should have loved her more. Believed in her more. That someone should have been herself. She was entrusted with one of my most precious gifts, and she squandered the opportunity to see the real treasure. I have learned a valuable lesson this week. Bullying is allowed to persist when it is masked as teaching. I naively refused to accept that the first time it happened to my son. Or that it could happen at all. I second-guessed my gut instinct when it happened the first time. Not this time. Fool me once…

Broken.

This time, it has taught us both something. I am taking my son’s education into my own hands. Is there something, strike that many things flawed with the educational system in America? Yes. Has it ever been without flaws? I don’t think so. I have an ancient issue of Collier’s, The National Weekly Magazine from 1924 to prove it. My grandparents have a large collection of early turn of the century American newspapers and I find them fascinating statements on our country’s inability to change, decade after decade. Century after century. Inside this particular issue, is an incredible article, an accurate foreshadowing of today, about the current dismal state of public education, nearly 100 years ago. The concerns seem to have been ripped right from today’s headlines. 

I suppose my point is this- nothing changes, until you do. I have decided to stop putting my faith in a system and hoping, crossing my fingers, rolling the dice, that it will see my sweet, kind, brave, determined child and care about him as much as I do. About any of them. This is just one story. There are so many that are never told. Is this person a “bad teacher”? I don’t think that either. I think this is an example of a broken teacher, working in a broken system.

We will continue the life lessons our children have been receiving all along from home; teaching that he is good enough, and what he struggles with, we will struggle though together. My son will no longer have to feel ashamed or singled-out for doing his best, regardless of where his best measures up against his peers. I have no doubt he will learn everything he needs to learn in this life if he continues showing his strong character and courageous outlook on life. As long as he is still willing to do what’s right, even when that may be unpopular. To keep believing in himself first. That is all I want for my son. I want him to believe he can succeed at anything his heart desires, and more so, he deserves to be educated by those who care about his success as much as their own, and far more than any benchmark.  

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