Duty to care

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Can teachers step in between students and their parents?

She ran in the opening race. She came first. She jumped, initially qualifying without apparently trying. She threw, the javelin travelling almost perfectly straight. She ran again. And again. And again. The 1500metres, 100m, 200m 400m…threw again…hopping between events. Mum, she said, had made her run since she was two-years-old.

The teacher watched as she ran the first race, noting her strength and poise. The teacher saw her come and go from the high jump, competing there between a packed schedule of events. They structured the high jump competition in order for her to change her shoes, mark her run up, jump, take a break to do another event, come back and continue…change shoes…jump…change shoes…run…

Parental pressure.Indian Link

She said, “My legs hurt.”

She said, “I have shin splints.”

“My back hurts and the doctors tell me that I will need my vertebrae fused if I keep doing this.”

Still she competed.

Her mother hovered close, watching each event closely. Whispering words replete with hand gestures. The girl nodded. Competed again. Stepped up to throw the javelin. Held it correctly, adjusting her hand just as she knew she should. She stepped forward and gave it her best. The javelin wobbled, lost the intended form and skimmed along the surface.

Back to the start line. A staggered start. The teacher saw the second lap of the 800 metre race as she swept past the high jump venue. This time though, she was touching her nose repeatedly. Wiping her fingers on her shirt. The teacher knew she was in trouble. At the end of this race there was blood on her hands and arms. It had dried in smears.

The teacher walked over to her.

“My nose bleeds when I am under too much pressure,” she said.

“Please, don’t say anything to my mum as I will cop it at home later.”

Shortly afterwards her mother was asking how high her daughter would need to jump in order to come first. The girl had missed most of the high jump rounds on account of all of the other events she had competed in. Nevertheless, the teacher had held her place open to finish the competition.

However, seeing the dried blood, the teacher said, “She probably needs a rest.” The mother’s body stiffened for a fight and she said, “It is only one jump. Tell me – how high? Can you just tell me what she needs to jump to win?”

The teacher replied, “Her nose has been bleeding and she is sore – I think she has had enough.”

The mother replied, “It’s her decision. I never pressure her.”

As always happens in these cases, the mother then turned to her daughter and said, “What do you want? You know I always just want you to do what you want to do.”

The girl replied, in halting words, “I… I….want…want to…. jump.”

The teacher looked on and said, “You don’t have to do this.”

The girl looked at her mother who was staring at her daughter. The mother said, “She said she wants to jump. Good girl.”

The teacher looked around to the other teachers in the area. They looked uncomfortable, and a couple of them turned and looked away. The teacher looked at the girl. Looked at the blood. Watched her limp to the high jump, sit on the ground to change her shoes.

Parental pressure.Indian Link

The teacher thought about how scared children will act to protect their parents. The teacher thought about the mother. Wondered what her own life was like.

Recalled a conversation a day earlier with some other parents who kept talking in front of their son about how important “next year’s exam” is, despite it being 16 months away.

The teacher recalled a 14-year-old boy he had met years earlier. The boy had come back to school after nine days away. The student had said about his bruised eye, “My father threw a tennis ball to me – but I cannot catch.” His father had in fact punched this boy’s eye, fracturing his eye socket, in a drunken rage. The teacher recalled another teacher at the time saying, “What did you do to make him angry?”

The teacher thought about the student getting 20% in 3-unit mathematics because the parents said, “Maths matters” and pressure leads to success. The student’s anxiety and self-harm did not look like pressure leading to success.

The teacher considered the issue of negligence and the duty of care. What role was the teacher to play? An active one or a passive one?

How far should the teacher’s observations be used to initiate action and call the parents to account? What was the role of onlookers? Of teachers who turned away? Of doctors who might fuse disks – when rest and recuperation could help?

How should it manifest – this duty to care?

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Mohan was a high school teacher for 26 years. He is currently Academic Leader at Potentia Tutoring, a lecturer in education at university and author. He is also CEO of the Australian and Global tutoring associations.
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