If you’ve followed our journey here at Empowered Grace for any length of time, then you’ll know we have had our share of struggles within the education system. Anyone who’s had to fight for an IEP can empathize with this. This isn’t, however, what I’m talking about. I’m talking about experience with teaching staff who perhaps should no longer be teaching. Remember Miss Lydia or perhaps the school principal whose mediation at which I testified? The school principal was ultimately fired as was the nefarious Spanish teacher. Miss Lydia was moved to another department much like a pedophile priest.
It’s a bit weird to think about, isn’t it? We hope that when we send our kids to school the teachers and staff will be safe people. We trust that they will be. When we step back and look at that assumption, we must see the flaw in our belief. If we break down the staff at a school district into a percentage, then what is the likelihood that 100% of the people working in a school district will be well-adjusted and healthy? When you look at it through that filter, you start to see the problem. What percentage of the staff might have a personality disorder? What percentage might have health problems that affect their ability to effectively teach? What percentage might struggle with depression or mood disorders? What percentage might be living with or caring for someone who meets these criteria thusly detracting from their overall well-being as individuals?
Or, let’s be honest, what percentage of the staff might just be assholes? I’m not sure when the DSM will consider ‘asshole’ as a psychological pathology worth treating, but I think someone should put it on the table for discussion.
It’s hard to be an effective teacher. I would not want that job. These days you aren’t dealing with just the kids. You’ve got the parents, too, and this makes teaching that much harder particularly if you teach at a private school. I get it. Nothing is simple anymore in terms of ‘going to school’. The Columbine shooting changed everything, and the arrival of the Helicopter Parent perpetuates entitlement and immaturity within student populations almost tying the hands of educators, it seems.
Still, what do you do when there’s a bad apple in the bunch? What happens when the bully isn’t another kid but an authority figure? And, what do you do when said authority figure targets vulnerable youth?
This is our situation at Milly’s new school this year, and the ‘bad apple’ is her case manager who also happens to be one of her math teachers as well as her social skills class teacher. It’s not a situation I’ve ever come across before. Usually, a case manager is a social worker working in the special education department. I have never met a case manager who doubles as a teacher. It feels like a conflict of interest to me because social workers often act as liaisons between students and teachers. The social worker is the soft place to land for the student. Teachers are there to educate and adhere to state requirements. They are authority figures. They discipline in the purest sense of the word. Social workers are the nurturers.
A few red flags cropped up with this teacher/case manager, and I have been documenting her behavior. Milly came home, sometimes crying, about certain interactions that occurred in her social skills class. She continued to say that she felt worthless after every social skills class. A red flag. I notified the principal and laid before her what I had documented. Sometimes this is all it takes. A teacher decides to try a new approach. They don’t know how it’s going until someone says something. I’m often the one who says something particularly if children are getting hurt. The principal responded quickly, spoke to Milly’s case manager, and resolved the situation. She spoke with me and said that this woman seemed remorseful and had even cried. The teacher said that she never meant to hurt anyone. Good, I thought. All taken care of.
A few weeks later, Milly informed me that nothing had changed. This woman was still yelling at the class for not holding their paper in math class in a very specific way. She demanded that the entire class “write neatly”. She roamed the class looking at every student’s work and even erased papers in their entirety if she found handwriting that didn’t meet her standards–even the papers of special needs students. This smacked of obsessive behavior which, to me, was another red flag.
Milly then came home sobbing after an incident within her social skills class led by this teacher which was, to say the least, beyond the pale. I documented everything and contacted the principal yet again. Once again, the principal acted quickly, but this incident was more serious. It took longer to resolve, and Milly was becoming more fearful of her case manager/math teacher! This teacher sent me a personal email asking me to contact her directly with concerns. She did this for two reasons: 1) to appear personable and 2) to avoid future entanglements with the school’s administration namely the principal.
This was yet another red flag. How do you deal with a person who is subtly manipulative like this? Call their bluff. This particular teacher is highly anxious. She cries all the time. I knew that she was not stable because Milly reported that she would often hijack the social skills class to sit and talk about her own life and problems–to a group of ASD elementary students no less. Another red flag. She would often break down during her personal rants in front of these students in her attempts to garner sympathy and hugs from them.
How did I call her bluff? I did, in fact, email her directly about one of my concerns–her insistence that students hold their papers while writing in a very particular way. In her classes, a student isn’t allowed to hold their paper in a way that suits them. They must hold down their paper in a way that suits her–even if it hurts the child to hold their hand or arm that way. I asked her if should would allow, at a minimum, the special needs children in her classes to hold down their papers in a way that suited them so that they could change their focus to the content of what they were writing rather than how they were writing. She replied that she had never done such a thing to Milly dismissing Milly’s perceptions as ‘internalizing’. She herself would correct her the next day.
This situation blew up fast simply by my doing as she asked. I emailed her a concern, and she personalized it. She victimized my daughter the next morning by getting her alone for 20 minutes and confronting her about the contents of my email–something my daughter knew nothing about. Her anger was displaced. She cross-examined her. She gaslighted her. She wept in front of her. And then she went on to do what no teacher or caregiver should ever do. She made Milly make a deal with her. She told her that she was no longer to share anything that bothers her or even happens in her class with other teachers or even her parents. She was to keep it between the two of them. “We are going to make that deal, okay?” And she wouldn’t let her go until she promised to make that deal with her.
That isn’t a red flag. That’s a fire. That’s a move out of the abuser’s handbook. Deals? Secret keeping?
I’d like to say that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in schools, but it does. I’ve run into very suspect behavior in every school in which my children have been enrolled. It isn’t because educators and staff are innately bad. It’s simply because human beings are flawed, and human beings populate schools. One must get used to the idea that every school is a microcosmic representation of what’s “out there”. There are great people, average people, a few assholes, and even a few predators.
So, what do you do when one of the predators happens to be one of your child’s teachers? Find one of the great people because all schools have great people working there, too. More than that, there will be more great people working at a school than there will be predatory or abusive people. If that isn’t the case, then there is something wrong with the school district itself, and my advice is to leave that district as soon as possible. That’s a systemic problem that one person cannot fix.
In our case, Milly’s new school is full of amazing staff. Her primary teacher is a gem, and her school principal has award upon award for performing her job. She is a stellar school principal. Milly spends at least half an hour a day with the school principal. They have lunch together. They check in with each other. So, when Milly’s primary teacher found her in the hallway crying after she was ambushed by her case manager, this teacher wasted no time. These women have circled the wagons around Milly. I was called. The Director of Special Education was called.
I don’t know what is going to happen, but I have learned a lot after all the issues we’ve had over the years raising children with special needs in the public school system:
- Establish a line of communication with the administration of your child’s school. Get to know staff. Get to know your child’s case manager. Form a relationship with your child’s teachers. Let them know that you are there to answer questions should they have any. Having a relationship with teachers and staff at your child’s school gives your child a sense of empowerment, and it can add support to the people teaching and supporting your child as well. It also adds accountability to the mix.
- Listen to your child. Believe your child. If your child is continually telling you the same thing about a certain teacher, then pay attention. If your child tells you that s/he is afraid of a certain teacher, then find out why. Make simple statements like, “Why are you afraid?” and “Tell me more. I want to hear your story.” Don’t tell your child what to feel or ‘should on them’. Active listening is powerful. Abuse in schools does happen. A former teacher at Grace and Milly’s school had been emotionally and physically abusing students for years. Students had been reporting it to parents through statements like, “I’m afraid of her. She’s so mean,” but parents often overlook statements like these because they feel that it’s just part of being a kid. They had to tolerate mean teachers, too, so why shouldn’t their children? Investigate. There can be a mile of difference between a strict teacher and a truly mean teacher.
- Document, document, document. I can’t emphasize this enough. You can’t approach administration without evidence. You can’t ask that changes be made in the way of speaking to a teacher, correcting bad behavior, or even investigating questionable behavior without good documentation. Good documentation means writing down the date of your child’s complaint, the complaint itself, and any other observations your child made. The more details that you can record the better, and those details are far more powerful than an emotional phone call from a parent.
The best outcome in most cases is that a teacher is made aware of their less than desirable behavior or teaching method, and they correct it. There are a plethora of reasons why teachers fall back on excessive shaming, yelling, manipulation, ambushing, and even physical abuse. It’s all wrong, but there are reasons. The teacher who was abusing students at Grace’s elementary school actually had a long-term back injury, and she was in constant pain. She was losing her ability to manage her chronic pain, and it was, therefore, coming out sideways. I’m not justifying her abuse. I’m merely explaining it.
In the end, you can never forget that you are your child’s best advocate. You are their voice when they have lost theirs, and you are their intercessor as it were. You stand in the gap for them when the gap becomes too wide for them to straddle or even leap. It is not an easy job because it requires vigilance, and you never get a break. Ever. As they get older, they learn better self-advocacy skills, but, if they have special needs, they will need you for a lot longer than a neurotypical child.
So, be brave. Don’t be afraid to speak up. And, remember what Doireann’s sixth grade teacher told me when I was just learning to advocate for my kids in the public school system:
If you don’t speak up for your child, then who will? You get out there and give ’em hell. That’s your job.