Friday, May 30, 2008

Defending the Indefensible

Sometimes I do stupid things. And today seems like a good day to do something stupid.

This story recently broke about a teacher who said some pretty harsh things to a 5 year-old in her kindergarten class. I won't copy the whole transcript but, in part, she said:

"I've been more than nice to you all year long and you've been ignorant, selfish, self-absorbed, the whole thing! I'm done! . . . Something needs to be done because you are pathetic! If me saying these words to you hurt, I hope it does because you're hurting everyone else around you."

Joanne Jacobs immediately pounced, writing, in part, "I don’t care how aggravating this boy was. He’s five years old."

Robert Pondiscio followed that up by highlighting one of the comments on Jacobs' blog that reads “I wonder how prevalent such abuse is; could this be more widespread than it looks?”

So, back to the plan for doing something stupid. I'm going to defend the teacher's actions. She may or may not deserve it, but I'll give it a stab anyway.

Now, just to be clear, I'm not arguing that it was okay for her to say these things. I thought berating students like this was over the top in my school -- and our kids were two to three times the age of this kid. She clearly shouldn't have said these things, and I'm assuming she realizes that as well.

That said, I'm also going to stick my neck out there and argue that what she did doesn't prove that she's the worst person in the world. To answer the question highlighted by Pondiscio, I firmly believe that such verbal abuse is more widespread than people realize. And not just in schools. I've heard worse things said by teachers, administrators, and parents (not to mention from students as well -- directed at both other students and at adults). I certainly said things that I now regret while teaching, and I know many others who have as well.

Granted, the fact that other people say things that are just as bad or worse doesn't excuse her actions (I can hear my Dad saying "If everybody else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge does that mean that you would too?"), but it does lend some context. Why do people say things like this? That's the question that I'm not hearing asked.

In my case, and I'm guessing in others as well, one has to be pretty frustrated before they would say something like this. It takes a lot to make me frustrated enough to say something mean to somebody or yell and scream but trying to teach in my school was enough to do it. I can say with utmost confidence that trying to teach in my school was, far and away, the most frustrating thing I have ever tried to do. And discipline problems were, far and away, the most frustrating thing about trying to teach at my school.

Now, I have no idea what her school is like. Maybe her school is idyllic and she didn't like that he asked for strawberry milk even though she only has plain and chocolate. I'm not going to eliminate the possibility that she's simply a monster, but I'd say the odds are against it.

Anybody out there who's reading this and had kids, has taught kids, or has otherwise spent a great deal of time dealing with kids: have you ever snapped and lost your temper? Have you ever said anything you regretted? You probably realized that it was mean and counter-productive after the fact, but you can't go back and not say those things.

In the case of teachers, they snap . . . they lose their cool . . . they say things they shouldn't. And it's because they're human. Some do it more than others, some never do it, but it's something that I think we should confront. And I don't think vilifying teachers who happen to be caught on tape is going to solve the problem. Certainly what she said was over the line and her suspension is deserved, but let's not pretend that this is an isolated incident.

If we really want to prevent things like this from happening, we need to take a closer look at discipline issues. In my school, kids were out of control and teachers were expected to control them virtually single-handedly. If a teacher had a problem with a student, it was generally considered the teacher's fault. That's not an environment conducive to kindness and understanding on behalf of teachers. We have to realize that being a teacher can be frustrating and that discipline problems are a large source of frustration for many teachers. Personally, I think we should try to create systems that intervene in these types of situations before either the teacher or the student reaches the boiling point.


Anonymous said...

way to be the contrarian, Corey.

The teacher clearly screwed up and I think her actions went beyond the normal levels of saying/doing something you with you hadn't. I would love to hear what the teacher has to say (what she says about it would help show if she is someone who really shouldn't be teaching or just had a really bad day). I also am really curious about the two dissenting kids - do they just have a really developed sense of fairness, or was their some other reason why they defied their classmates and their teacher?

I actually have, to my mind, a way worse story. A teacher at my old school, who was universally regarded as terrible had a miscarriage earlier this year and, according to several teachers still at the school, told the class it was their fault, on more than one occasion. My hope is she regretted saying it but was too proud/stubborn to apologize for it.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Slate recently got a hold of the incident report, which doesn't make the teacher sound good at all.

Anonymous said...

<<< Good post. My question was rhetorical, since I agree with you. This is a lot more common than people who've never worked in schools realize, but I will say that going off on a 5-year old is beyond the pale, clearly.

I think most teachers(I'd include myself in this camp)who work in difficult schools with serious behavior problems tend to start off as screamers before learning more effective approaches. But since you're sticking your neck out, I'll have your back. There are two types of teachers: those who admit to saying things they regret while teaching, and those who refuse to admit it.

Robert Pondiscio

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Morgan, you scared me. That Slate Article is about a different (even worse) situation.

Thanks Robert.

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I linked your post. Here's my perspective:

Anonymous said...

Hi Corey,

I'm glad you posted on this incident. Parents routinely admit that they say things they don't mean in heated moments, and teachers, as the parent for 7 hours a day, will inevitably do so. Make no mistake - it was nasty and wrong, and the teacher owes that child a heartfelt apology. If it happens more than a few times, maybe the teacher should consider another profession.
I have heard much worse things in schools, and my brother, who works in the ER, tells amazing tales about doctors labeling patients as "circling the drain" in earshot of their families. But we hear a lot more about these "terrible teachers" than we do about those who make mistakes in other professions.