Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What to do when the teacher is the bully? An International Challenge

Recently, the following video of a Jordanian school teacher traumatizing a child went viral:

Tweets, blog posts, and comments have been written in response to this, most expressing horror. One of the first to post was Brass Crescent Award winner Naseem Tarawnah of Black Iris. In his post, Naseem summarized that the child is a first-grader in a Jordanian public school in the capital city of Amman. He is being tormented for not being able to write a number, and pleading for help from the teacher and the person filming. The video was confirmed to be true, Queen Rania tweeted that she was investigating; and the Ministry of Education was involved. Dr Khaled Karaki, the Minister of Education, apologized personally to the boy, and confirmed that this teacher and others guilty of such acts would be punished accordingly. A committee has been struck to investigate this incident and make specific and broad recommendations to the Ministry. At least one other blogger expressed horror at the vilification and threats to a teacher who was doing much the same as others, in a system that supports it.

I would have to agree that the video shows frightening behaviour by the teacher; but also, that, while there are individual teachers who are inappropriate, there are pedagogical styles passed on from one generation to the next, supported by the system, and the training or lack of it that teachers may receive in a given setting. Teaching is a psychologically demanding profession with a high burnout rate, and teachers require ongoing professional development, and support to perform at their best, both pedagogically and psychologically. It is up to ministries of education, teacher training and licensing institutions, schools, principals, other teachers, and parent associations to provide that framework.

All though all of these are ostensibly in place in Canada, last weekend I learned that one of my nephew's 11-year-old teammates had been traumatized by his Canadian teacher to the point that he has attended school one (partial) day since this happened before the Christmas break (thus missing about 4 weeks of school days), and had not played any hockey games either, as he was too ill.

Indeed, he was physically ill enough to require 2 visits to a pediatric hospital for assessment and bowel disempaction, will have follow-up with a specialist in pediatric gastro-enterology to rule out a highly unlikely underlying medical cause for this new onset of bowel problems; and, his family doctor is recommending treatment with Prozac (fluoxetine) for "anxiety".

This boy is the usually laid back, well behaved middle child of an early childhood educator mother, and an equally laid back father who is also a volunteer coach for his hockey team. "Coach" uses positive reinforcement and never yells, either as a parent and as a coach. I can testify to this in the coaching setting, despite true provocation by some of the "dipsy doodlers" on the team. His wife had discussed his personality and parenting style with me long ago, partly to explain why he didn't yell the normal amount, and partly to spread the word to the team that the yelling assistant coach had been "spoken to", after one kid refused to go back on the ice.

Mom also told me that her middle boy is well-behaved, helpful, and a solid B student, unlike his overachieving hyper older sister. He is a good hockey player, not a star. He is well-liked on the team, and has friends at school.

So what happened to this usually fine child that he is now a physical wreck, can't go to school or participate in his usual activities, and is up for consideration for an anti-depressant/anxiolytic?

Before Christmas, he was in his class which is in a portable classroom, essentially a temporary structure, like a big hut, near the actual school building that is used when there is insufficient space in the main building to accommodate all the classes that must be composed based on the number of children in a grade and Ministry of Education guidelines on maximum student to teacher ratios (~25-30:1). Many of the children in that class like one specific seat, which they knocked over in their haste to be the one to occupy it. The seat fell under a table, and the boy went underneath to get it, and set it straight.

The teacher came upon this, and shouted at him, "What are you doing?"; then without waiting for him to reply, ordered him to "Get out!" which he did--outside of the portable, in the -20C temperatures, without stopping to get coat, boots, hat, or mitts. According to an experienced teacher, this indicates that the teacher has done this before, and the children know exactly what she means by "Get out!", and to go stand outside the portable and not to stop for apparel.

The teacher continued with her class, until the other children kept asking her to bring him back in, and insisted until she did--20 minutes later. She must have come to her senses, because she was long gone from the school when the parents went to pick him up at the end of the day, and got the full story. An hour and a half after being let into the classroom, the boy's feet were still cold and reddened. He hasn't been back to school for a full day since. The one day he tried to attend, his stomach hurt too badly, and his mother had to pick him up after a brief stay.

The day after the incident, the mother met with the principal and the teacher. The teacher claimed she meant for him to get out from under the table, and didn't notice he had left the portable. The principal said it wouldn't happen again. The mother threatened to report all and sundry if she heard of any similar incident happening to any child in the school, and informed them truthfully that she had a VIPs number on speed dial, as she knows that person through her work demands. More recently, she met with the school youth worker to put a plan in place to help her son go back to school and feel safe there.

Our conversation started with her asking me about the gastro-enterological issues, and continued with her asking me what I thought of Prozac for children. While I paused to compose a professional answer, she told me of the family doctor's recommendation, and I just said "No". She said, "Thank you", for confirming her impression.

In total my contributions to the mother's concerns about the situation and its consequences were:
-what the teacher did was a chargeable offense, and the police could have been called
-the teacher was probably frightened that a justifiably angry father would lose his temper, badly
-such a clear psychological trigger for new symptoms argues for a psychological cause for very real physical symptoms
-it is still important to do a thorough investigation for underlying physical causes or problems which might have been triggered by the psychological trauma
-the timing of his anxiety/stomach pain is important: between 4pm and 8pm he is ok (no threat of school), then his stomach starts hurting (anticipation before bedtime about school the next day), he sleeps ok, then the worst pain is in the morning before school time (fear that he has to go to school, and prevents him from going)
-the whole point of child psychiatry is to not prescribe medication except in very rare instances or where there is a very clear indication, eg., for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
-family practitioners love Prozac because it is easy to prescribe, they can't mess it up too badly, and it is relatively safe in an overdose
-an 11-year-old can be taught to administer his own suppositories
-the parents need to find ways to get the boy back to school, as the longer he is off the more the anxiety about going back increases and the more difficult it is to overcome
-the more time he spends at school without incident, the easier it will become to return full time
-I recounted the story to an experienced teacher who made further recommendations and sent them to the mother by email.

The most salient aspects of the experienced teacher's input was to assess that the teacher must have done this before, for the children to know the drill so well; and, to strongly urge the mother to report the teacher and the incident to the provincial licensing/ professional oversight institution for teaching certification. This institution could more effectively deal with disciplining the teacher and making her too frightened to repeat the action, as opposed to the principal or more local officials who don't have that authority, and must have an ongoing working relationship with the teacher.

To put this further in context, Canadian schools have very strict anti-bullying measures in place about students bullying other students. Canadian teachers are not allowed to physically touch students, and especially not to do so in a negative way, whether that be pushing, hitting, poking, etc. Physical disciplining of children is rare if not forbidden. The strap on the hands was a method used in the past, but had to be done by the principal in the privacy of the office, but with another witness present that it was not excessive in numbers of hits or force.

*The post was amended on January 27, 2010 to include further material about the Jordanian video, originally intended to be part of the post.

What is your impression of the video of the Jordanian teacher?
What is your impression of the story I recounted about the Canadian teacher?
What other incidences of the teacher being the bully are known to you?
What do you think appropriate parental recourse should be in the above situations or others about which you are aware?
What structures are in place for appropriately disciplining teachers in countries where you live/ have lived?
Were you ever the target of a teacher's bullying? What did you do? What did your parents do? What was the outcome?
If you are a teacher, what is your professional perspective on this topic?
Other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?


Haitham هيثم Al-Sheeshany الشيشاني said...

the clip was devastating indeed
it should be safe, fun ,, no bully zone 100% !

coolred38 said...

In Bahrain I had 5 children "enjoy" the educational system. I have lost count of the number of times one or the other came with a horror story of some teacher beating a child...everything from beating with a ruler on the hands or body too placing a ruler between fingers and bending the fingers around it...in one instance breaking a finger in the process. One child was back handed across the face and ended up in the hosp because he had a heart problem which caused his breathing to become labored when stressed. I heard stories of pinching, hair pulling, slapping, pushing etc besides the verbal abuse of course.

Personally speaking, my daughter had a hard time learning too control herself when she needed to attend the bathroom while in elementary school. She had to go frequently and each year when she started school I would patiently explain to her new teacher that she would ask to use the bathroom alot and it wasn't just an excuse to leave class. I ended up down at her school so many times after she came home with a wet uniform because her teacher (different ones) would not allow her to use the bathroom. Not only was she humiliated due to wetting herself, the teachers showed no remorse and invariably I was down there again at some point.

I absolutely loathed those govt schools that gave so much power to the teachers, whether abusive, ineffectual as a teacher, lazy whatever...any complaints by parents were met with indifference for the most part. The only time I ever seen action taken against the teachers was when the parent him or herself actually took it upon themselves to attack the teacher.

While I'm writing this my oldest son is listing all the ways he saw boys abused while he was in school and my jaw is dropping. I asked him why didn't he tell me this while he was in school...he said students that complained ended up being even more abused once the parents went home. Sweet.


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