To a child, having a bad teacher is like serving a long, undeserved prison sentence. And the sentence is long. A school year represents a huge proportion of a young child’s life. Unfortunately, the child is generally condemned to serve the entire sentence, without hope of parole or time off for good behavior. Who among us has not seen a bright, happy child become a miserable, underperforming student simply because he or she was assigned to a dysfunctional teacher who was making that child’s life a living hell?
There are several ways in which a teacher can make a child’s life miserable. One is by bullying the child directly. Another is by allowing or even encouraging others to bully the child. In a naturalistic setting, children can simply run away from a tormenter or turn to their parents or older siblings for help. But in an institutional setting, the child has no escape. Anything that the child does in self-defense will be interpreted as misbehavior and punished. As an institution, a school has a natural tendency to protect itself, and by extension the child’s tormenter, instead of protecting the child.
If parents notice that something is wrong, they may try to solve the problem by talking with the teacher. Unfortunately, bullies are unlikely to mend their evil ways just because some powerless person tries to reason with them. In fact, the parent-teacher conference may simply give a dysfunctional teacher the pleasure of bullying not just the child but the parents as well.
Theoretically, a parent could solve this problem by appealing to the principal. But in many cases, the principal automatically sides with the teacher. A principal’s failure to correct a teacher’s misbehavior can make the problem worse. When bullies realize that they face no consequences, their misbehavior can escalate to an appalling level.
A recent case shows how bad this problem can get. Stuart Chaifetz’s 10-year-old autistic son Akian had always been sweet and nonviolent. Then, his teacher started complaining that Akian was hitting teachers and throwing chairs around in class. Yet a behavior specialist who was called in to observe the classroom never saw Akian misbehave and couldn’t even provoke him into misbehavior. As a result, Chaifetz started to suspect that the real problem was the teacher.
To find out what was really going on in Akian’s classroom, Chaiftez wired Akian for sound. The recording revealed shockingly cruel and unprofessional behavior from Akian’s teacher and a teacher aide. As Chaifetz explained, “The six and a half hours of audio I had proved that my son wasn’t hitting staff because there was something wrong with him—he was lashing out because he was being mocked, mistreated and humiliated. His outbursts were his way of expressing that he was being emotionally hurt at school.”
After Chaifetz played this recording for the principal, one teacher’s aide was fired immediately. However, Chaifetz eventually discovered that the teacher was merely transferred to another school. He then published portions of the videotape on Youtube. He started a Facebook page called No More Teacher Bullies. Its motto: “When a teacher bullies a child, especially one with Special Needs, they need to be immediately fired, and their actions made public.”
Of course, not every child who is miserable in school is being bullied. Sometimes, the problem is ineffective teaching. If, for whatever reason, a teacher is not getting through to a particular child, why should that child have to serve out an entire year in that teacher’s classroom? Why should a child have to suffer potentially lifelong damage because of the failure of an adult?
I had some really good teachers when I was in school. I’ve also seen first-hand the damage that the occasional bad teacher can do to a child. What I never understood, even as a child, was why children had to stay in a classroom that was destroying them. Why does the school administration insist upon it, and why do parents tolerate it? How can the parents or the school administrators expect the child to trust any adult after such an experience? How many cases of “oppositional defiant disorder” could have been prevented by taking a child out of an inhumane or ineffective classroom right away?
The simplest solution to this problem is to make it routine for children to be transferred out of classrooms that, for whatever reason, aren’t working for them. If a child’s grades or behavior are poor or the child simply starts hating school, or if the teacher shows disrespect to the parents, why not just transfer the child to a different classroom? The transaction can be like an amicable, no-fault divorce: no questions asked and no hard feelings. The reason for the transfer can be simple incompatibility.
Transfers can occur for reasons other than bullying, but they are particularly important in bullying cases. The child is immediately delivered from torment, and the teacher learns a lesson about boundaries.
Keeping the child in a toxic classroom is not only harmful to the child, it obscures the cause of the problem. If a child starts to improve in the next school year, after summer vacation, the improvement could be due to maturation. But if the child starts to improve immediately after being transferred, the problem was obviously in the classroom.