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.