‘Tis the season of paperwork; tallying, collecting, discarding and shredding. I work very hard at being organized and perhaps one day I will actually achieve that goal.
As I gathered all the necessary documents required for income tax, I also purged through the rest of the filing cabinets hoping to make some more room. Honestly, the business of life uses an entire forest.
I came across many items I had not read nor even thought about in a long time.
One particular file made me tired just looking at it. Sigh. It was titled, “Complaint letters.”
What does that say about me? Who the hell has a file under that category in their personal filing cabinet? Even worse, why have I kept it for fifteen years?
When I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, I dreamed of being a teacher. It was my dream job. Instead, my degree skills were used to advocate. People actually came to me requesting my help with their letters of concern.
Advocating is a difficult act. Really. People throw the word around and even tell people, ‘you should do this,’ and ‘you should tell them that’. The truth is, it takes a strong constitution to go through the advocation process. And it is a process. The powerful people have gone out of their way to make sure advocates can be beaten down. The loops and valleys and policies and procedures are a trail of frustration, dead ends, fear and bullying.
It takes courage, faith and an unfaltering high expectation of people. I believed in the faith of humanity.
Responsibility is big in the teachings of grade school. Students are taught the meaning of the word and are expected to practice being responsible from Junior Kindergarten on. Ironically, in the adult world, the world we are preparing our children for…people, businesses, organizations, clubs and governments will go as far as they need to go to avoid being held responsible.
My daughter’s Grade One teacher was verbally and emotionally abusive with the students.
It took two years of advocating before our local school board would take any responsibility.
And I was alone. The soul advocator. Not one other parent, teacher, board member or community member was willing to take any responsibility. While I was encouraged, pushed and even admired, the fear of process was too big for the others.
If you have a school aged child, then you need to find time to get inside that school. You must get to know the adults who spend time with your child. The teachers also need to know who you are as well. Do not wait for a crisis before you meet your child’s teacher, principal or school supervisor. Take responsibility in your child’s education. Your involvement will positively affect your child’s success in school.
My daughter enjoyed kindergarten. Her teacher had tons of experience and was kind and patient with the children. I met the grade one teacher at the open house and in the school yard at time or two. She appeared to be quiet and kept to herself. Hindsight showed me the kids did not bother with her at recess, while the other teachers had little ones taking turns holding their hands.
AJ began arriving home from school looking tired. Initially, I explained her behaviour as the transition to full time schooling. Tired turned to sad and miserable. Conversations were all about her friends not wanting to play with her. I needed to see for myself. I went to the school unannounced at recess. I watched AJ run and play happily with the other children. I saw her announce, “Duck. Duck. Goose.” Immediately, her classmates organized themselves in a circle. My daughter was a natural leader. There was nothing going on socially to cause the demeanour I was witnessing at home.
I volunteered to read to the children. I was in a room beside AJ’s class. Two children at a time would come to me to read and then they would return and send two others. Every child came to me shy and silent. The classroom was silent. The children became emotionally needy on my next visit. One by one they would move their chairs closer to mine or sit on my lap or give my legs long hugs. Something was wrong. I started using part of our reading time to just talk to them. It is difficult to stop a young child from hugging you or sitting on your lap but I also knew the policies. I was sure to leave the door open when I was there.
My fourth visit, two little girls came to me holding hands and never let go when they sat down. There were no hugs or smiles. I began to read to them.
“STEPHEN! YOU WILL NOT HAVE TWO BOTTLES OF GLUE ON YOUR DESK! NOW PUT ONE BACK RIGHT NOW. YOU NEVER LISTEN.”
I was standing and staring at the wall that separated me from the classroom my child was in. I turned to look at the girls who were now hugging. I crouched down to them and asked, “Does your teacher yell like that a lot”. They nodded simultaneously. I looked back at the wall.
This occurred twice more in the hour I was at the school. I escorted the children back to the class in order to look into the classroom. The silent children sat at round tables doing a craft. No one was talking. No one saw me.
It was the end of the day. I took AJ home with me. I was unsure how to discuss this with her. I didn’t have to. After supper, she lay on my lap as she had taken to doing daily and I rubbed her back. I noted a bruise at the top of her buttock. When I commented on it, AJ reassured me her teacher had not done it.
It all became very apparent then. Any denial I was attempting to rationalize this teacher’s behaviour with was gone. AJ told me the yelling was often, her teacher was mean and she hit a boy one day.
I went to the Principal the next day. I was the twelfth parent in to complain about this teacher. The principal’s, ‘hands were tied’, until she got a complaint in writing. I was the only parent willing to do so. With my letter, the principal had leverage to remove that teacher and place her in another class at the home school where the Prinicpal resided.
I was at the school the next school day. Tears burned in the back of my eyes from the minute I stepped into the classroom. The curtains were open, the sunshine lit up the small room and all of the primary decor the new teacher had put up over the weekend. The desks were arranged differently giving the students all of the space and the teacher’s desk in the back out of the way. I stood quietly in the back watching the students skip into the class and take their seats. They had met their new teacher on Friday and obviously he was trusted already. The students giggled and wiggled as they got into their seats and put on their shoes. His voice gently caressed the room, ‘I think I hear table six is ready to go’. That simple prompt brought the kids to task. The circle time began with date and weather. The children’s hands shot up in enthusiasm and their responses were met with smiling praise.
I choked on my tears. These six year olds had been so mistreated. These once sad, solemn children automatically found joy in response to the trust they felt for this new teacher. I knew I had witnessed abuse, I knew I was right to complain but until that moment I didn’t know how bad it had been. I was determined to protect all children from that abusive teacher. I was not going to stop because my child was safe now. I felt responsible to protect all children.
In the end, the abusive teacher was sent home with pay. She never taught again. It took endless letters and emails. I went as far as the teacher’s college. It was their investigation which force d the local school board to show some responsibility they had been denying all along. A school board member called me to caution me. Apparently, he was worried about me being charged with slander so he couldn’t help me. A teacher who understood the system, fed me next steps and names. He was threatened with union membership and losing his teaching license. Other teachers kept their distance from me to protect themselves. Some parents felt sorry for this teacher. Some parents thought I was wrong. The school supervisor and the board’s director knew me by name. Their responses were always generic and non specific. They couldn’t talk to me about it either.
The children though, their faces when I met them coming off their bus to tell them they had a new teacher…they knew. They knew right from wrong. They were joyous to be allowed to be a child again. They had no idea why that mean teacher left but, they did not miss her.
Those six year olds are now twenty. Not long ago, a group of them were reminiscing about their primary school. They had forgotten the name of that mean teacher and discussion about her was minimal but they all agreed the teacher who saved them that year was the best teacher they had ever had.
Responsibility gave them that memory.
To all of the hard working, dedicated and KIND teachers who spend full weeks with our children encouraging them to learn with enthusiasm…thank you.
P.S. I shredded that file. Purging complete.