[OPINION] When the teacher is the bully
A few years ago, at the school sports day my son was entered into a few events. They hold your place in the queue while you rush off to do discus, shotput or javelin. Mostly, the events happen simultaneously and it teaches the children discipline and responsibility to listen to the announcer. When he came back to his place in the queue, one of the boys was crying after being, purple nippled by one of their peers.
Purple nippling is the cowardly act of coming up behind someone, pinching their nipple between two fingers and twisting, resulting in a purple bruise and excruciating pain. Nobody would say who did it, not even the boy to whom it happened. I was told that he didn’t see who did it to him.
This story took a different meaning for me once my son was called into the office with any other boys who were in the queue. That a few of them were not there at the time, did not matter much to the school, they were all summoned to the office and interrogated to find the culprit.
The ones who knew wouldn’t tell and the ones who were not there, couldn’t tell as they didn’t know. The principal and head of discipline asked them over and over again who it was. Eventually, I suppose in frustration, the principal said to the group of boys: "You boys are not the good boys I thought you were, I am hugely disappointed!" Or something along that vein anyway. My son came home distraught. He had never landed in the principal’s office for mischief before and was horrified at the prospect of them following through on the threat that they might be suspended for not speaking out.
I sent a letter to the school requesting a meeting if necessary but also to notify the principal of the impact on my son, who was usually complemented as being a peer mediator. I asked her to consider that he trusted and respected her as the principal and the head of discipline, a teacher he liked very much and now he felt like they were bullying him. I never heard back from the school.
More recently, my other son, who is a big guy for twelve, was sitting in his classroom when his teacher asked if he was cold. "I don’t really get cold ma’am," was his reply. He then left the class and one of his classmates said to the teacher that she wears three jumpers because she gets so cold. The teacher’s response beggars’ belief. She announced to the class that none of them would get cold either if they had all those layers of fat. All of his friends reported back to my son what their teacher had said. Fortunately, my son took his time to think, went to a computer lesson, then went to excuse himself from the first minutes of English as he popped in to see the offending teacher.
“Ma’am, my friends are saying that you had something to say about me behind my back. I want to say that I don’t appreciate that and that I would prefer you to talk to me directly please.”
She immediately went into denial and said: "That was not what I meant!" He then asked her what she meant. She said: "Well I meant to say you, well Annie (not student's real name) is so skinny and you are well….” My son shook his head and turned to walk away, bumping into a group of supportive girl friends who had stood behind him as back up. Firstly, a massive high five to those girls - they rock and lead by example! Secondly, I feel accomplished as a parent if we are managing to raise such a secure and confident young man and thirdly to the teacher, fat shaming is not OK. It is a less than subtle abuse of power and at best a brand of bullying.
As parents, we feel our son did the right thing, respectfully and thoughtfully. Subsequent to this, for him it was handled so he didn’t come home to report his teacher. I was approached by two or three concerned parents to find out what happened. Their children were so upset about the way the teacher spoke about my son, that they went home to tell their own parents.
I have made the school aware of this experience and sent a cautionary email just to note that this happened and that something needs to be done to ensure the environment is safe for children to find their voices and for teachers to respect all the scholars as equal in their humanity.
For me, justice, fairness and equality are values I hold near. This is how we teach our children to show up in the world and how we teach others how to treat us.
Teachers have a vital role in the lives of millions of little humans. May they be accountable and responsible when they make mistakes that could ravage the wellbeing of any of their learners.
Yes, our children do need to toughen up, the world will spit them out if they are not resilient and sure-footed. I would never request or encourage mollycoddling but respect, dignity and enrolling our children’s potential and possibility is a commitment to which I strive and certainly one I wish every teacher who touches the lives of my children, to treat as significant.
No matter how much stress a teacher has, she/he has absolutely no right to engage in personal attacks or insults against the young children they are meant to teach the right things to. It is not OK.
Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn.