Trust in teaching
Bullying by peers is unpleasantly common, but bullying by an educator can be scarring for any child….A short story by RANI JHALA
The apple of our eyes, the pride of our home and the dream of our future has just scored a perfect 100 in her HSC. And the entire school stood up to acknowledge her achievement. I too stood up, but amidst the din that was being created by those around, my mind flew back over many years to when she was a little child.
After a wonderful year in Kindergarten, it was her first day in Year 1. My daughter got the most experienced teacher, she had her best friends and she was in the perfect school to promote learning.
I left my daughter giggling with her friends and went home truly happy with my lot. At 3 pm I went to pick her up, only to find her a little down. I chalked it down to ‘first day blues’. But a trend had been set, and my little girl kept looking more and more apprehensive each day. By the end of the fortnight, she complained of a stomach ache and did not want to go to school. A couple of days later, her leg ached. And then it was her hand. And like every mother, my first thought was that she was being bullied at school. During general conversation I learnt from her that “No child is allowed to do mean things to each other at our school. The principal said the school had ‘zero tolerance’ for it. That means he will not tolerate it if anyone bullies anyone else”. My eyes misted over with relief.
But by the end of the month, the aches increased. She cried at the slightest thing. And she walked backwards if her father or I raised our voices.
That evening we talked. After an hour of saying ‘Nothing is wrong’, she finally admitted that she did not like the teacher. That she was scared when the teacher shouted. I remember thinking that ‘this would be easy to fix’. All I had to do was talk to the teacher. And I did! The teacher even had a talk with my daughter saying that she was her best student and that she would never be upset with her and “together we would get rid of the scary worm in your stomach”.
On her first day at the new school, the moment a gentle smiling soul introduced herself as her new teacher and reached out for her hand, my daughter beaming with joy, left my side.
But whatever method the teacher employed, it did not work. I then went to the Deputy Principal who said she would monitor the situation, even remarking that she had already spoken to the teacher as other parents had also complained. A week later my little one was worse and the Deputy Principal suggested we get the school counselor to oversee the situation. After a week’s supervision, I was told that my daughter, though a quiet member of the class, seemed quite happy. In that week, the teacher came up with the idea that my daughter would write in a ‘Happy Book’ on a daily basis, recording three events each day at school that made my child happy. Later I learnt that the teacher forced her to write happy things to do with her and the classroom, and if she couldn’t find any, she would have to stay back at recess and think of something.
I realised that the mind games had begun and ‘another’ woman was playing those games with ‘my’ six-year-old. But it was when I learned that she had told my child that she must hug me every afternoon and tell me how happy she was at school – and not tell me that her teacher had asked her to say it as it was ‘their little secret’ – I made an appointment to see the principal. At first they were reluctant to action anything and offered to monitor things a bit longer. They said that ‘clever’ children tended to be a bit more sensitive. By now we had lost three months of that year, and I pleaded with them to move her. Finally after the Deputy Principal confirmed that they had been unable to eradicate my child’s fear, the principal agreed. The transfer was authorised and I left that morning patting myself on the back.
But then the unhealthy games started. My child who was a regular recipient of merit certificates no longer got one. Even my child had noted it, for one day she asked “How come even though I do so well, I don’t get any merit cards and everyone else gets one. And even when I put up my hand to answer questions in class, they don’t ask me anymore. I don’t even get the ‘well done stamps’ now”. I told my daughter to ignore it, but spoke to my husband again about moving schools. I rang several schools in the area but for various reasons could not find one that had a vacancy for her.
And then one day she came in tears. During their lunch break they had been playing ‘tag’ and when she was ‘it’ she had run and tapped on another child’s shoulder. Her old teacher was on playground duty and this child claimed that my daughter had hit her. Without asking for an explanation from my daughter or the other kids, my daughter was punished and asked to pick up rubbish while the teacher looked on, smiling. I told her to again ignore things but my husband and I spoke to a real estate agent.
The following week another child had picked up on my daughter’s fear and the bullying started. My child was forced to play with children she did not like, play games she did not like, surrender her lunch, all under the threat that she would be reported to ‘that’ teacher. I too noticed that during assembly my child was physically pushed into the assembly line by another teacher. When other kids ran around, my kid was stopped and told to walk.
Later I learnt that the teacher forced her to write happy things to do with her and the classroom, and if she couldn’t find any, she would have to stay back at recess and think of something.
‘Power play’ was now at force and my child had become the pawn. The final straw came the day I saw my child hide behind a pillar, then a tree, then the building and peep each time to see if a teacher was around before progressing to her class. That very day we put up our house for sale. Nothing was worth what was being done to my child by people who had been trained to act better. The day the house sold we pulled our daughter out from the school. When she left I did not say goodbye to the principal. To me, he had earned no such respect. I left after meeting his deputy who regretted losing ‘such a good student’.
On her first day at the new school, the moment a gentle smiling soul introduced herself as her new teacher and reached out for her hand, my daughter beaming with joy, left my side. And that was the child I picked up every day from then on.
Years later I learnt from others that ‘the teacher’ had even threatened to throw children out of the classroom window, that she had pulled a hat off one child tearing strands of hair with it and then thrown the hat in the rubbish bin as it was not part of the uniform. And we tell our kids not to be violent!
I looked at the prospect of reporting the school and in particular, the teacher. But then I recalled the inefficiency of the school counselor, the negligence of the Principal and the weakness of other teachers in not standing up and defending a mere child, and I knew I could not put my daughter through it again.
This incident taught me two things though – the first, that just because they are teachers, does not mean they are perfect or even right. And secondly, that power in anyone’s hand is dangerous especially in the hands of those that work with children. Children cannot stop the ‘wrongs being done to them in the name of education’. We adults should! A personality test should be compulsory before determining which age group they teach. And if someone does not like children, they should simply be asked to leave.
Applause brought me back to the present and I realised I had missed my daughter’s speech. I was glad for the recorder in my hand.
But I did hear my daughter end with these words, “Anyone can teach. It takes a special person to educate. And luckily for me apart from one teacher in Year One, every other teacher knew that difference”