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to-sir-with-loveA lifetime of schooling has convinced me that teaching, at its heart, is like poetry—more a gift than it is an art or a science.

Catholic elementary school in the 1960’s was an experience that bore closer resemblance to novelist Frank McCourt’s book (and later film) Angela’s Ashes (1999, see link below), than the cloistered idyll offered to budding boys and girls upon their path to enlightenment in today’s Christian schools.

But even Limerick City could not have prepared me—upon enrolling Alex into second grade in a public elementary school here in the US—for my unique encounter with a modern, novice teacher.

As midlife mothers, I realize that we drag a whole lot of tin cans of experience (or baggage) tied to our ankles when we enter the portals of elementary school—along with our carefully coiffed and colored gray locks—some brimming with good, some with bad and some, well, with just the extraordinary.

Only age makes it clear: there really is no substitute for experience.

I grew up in the age where teachers were demi-gods and goddesses, their power enshrined in the unquestionable throne of authority rendered to them by The School Board and our parents. They commanded respect, occasionally fear, but never pity.

For example, when our first grade teacher would often recite: “Get the good from your food”, pronouncing ‘food’ nearly the same as (Elmer) ‘Fudd’, not one child thought to laugh—in the classroom, at least.

When my fourth grade teacher discovered it was my birthday, she had the whole class make birthday cards for me during art, and had me fetch a bag of candies she had hidden in the storage cupboard.  I was crushed when she left the school on maternity leave.

Without exception, every child from first to fourth grade lived in terrible trepidation of the fifth grade teacher, aptly named Mrs. Savage.  As we would depart for summer break, we’d look upon each other, commiserating with dread, and sigh, “Next year, it’s Savage….”

Fifth grade was my red letter year—and in it I learned the most. Savage, as she was called, was liberal with the yardstick upon the knuckles of wayward boys and ruled with an iron pointer. (After all, we lived in the day where you could still be sent to the Principal’s office for “the strap”).  She almost never smiled and, if she did, it had the impact of a solar eclipse.

There was no excuse for incomplete homework.  A student, one day, cleverly defended himself by saying he’d run out of paper at home. She turned on us all and said: “I don’t care if you write it on a paper bag—just turn it in!”

A month or two later, I ran out of paper and took her up on her word. You’d think I’d brought her a bushel full of ruby red Delicious apples. She smiled so brilliantly that I never feared her again.

Years later, when I was 25, I was visiting my hometown. I happened to be in a hair salon and there I found an elderly lady who suddenly started when she glanced upon my face as I walked in the room. She threw her hands to her cheeks and called my name.

It was Savage.

She patted the seat beside her and riddled me with questions about my life, watching my face closely, eagerly. When I told her I was studying Psychology at university, she burst into tears, as proud as my own grandmother. The toughest, most feared of them all was in truth the kindest, tenderest soul of them all.

Experience has taught me to perceive teachers as exceptional beings, with a calling above the average person, and an office with a tremendous—in fact, almost terrible in its magnitude—responsibility for the shaping of the ideals and beliefs of children.

Their almost superhuman power for our generation is epitomized in the heroic giants portrayed in films like To Sir , with Love (1967) (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/gp/product/B00003L9C1?ie=UTF8&tag=flopowmom-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B00003L9C1) with Sydney Poitier, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/gp/product/B0001US78G?ie=UTF8&tag=flopowmom-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B0001US78G) starring Maggie Smith, Lean On Me (1989) (http://rcm NULL.amazon NULL.com/e/cm?t=flopowmom-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=6305133514&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr) featuring Morgan Freeman, or even Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) (http://rcm NULL.amazon NULL.com/e/cm?t=flopowmom-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=6305428352&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr), with the intense Mr. Dreyfus.

When Alex’s second grade teacher—who was embarking upon her first vocational year—was clearly flailing in a sea of uncertainly, bolstering herself with parental alliances, battling against those she perceived as adversaries, culling and distributing private information about students and their families at will, I felt a vulnerable uncertainty hitherto alien to me.

Despite all of this—and the fact that she looked young and naïve enough to be my daughter—I was there to support her efforts to educate my child. He was the headliner.

Yet, I had obviously failed to qualify as an ally.  One day I had the unfortunate timing to arrive at class after she’d had a challenging meeting with another parent and I was rudely and summarily “dismissed” from her classroom, in front of the entire class, including my son.

And that was just the beginning.

At the parent-teacher conference just before Thanksgiving in 2009, my son was characterized (by the same teacher) as being “happy go lucky” and “makes friends easily”, with a grade 6 reading level and exceptional gifts, abilities and grades.

By the week before Christmas, he was being disciplined almost daily and I received emails from her on conflicts he was supposedly getting into with known class bullies after, it appeared, seating arrangements were changed to put them together. Suddenly he reported being kicked, pushed and having paper clips thrown at him.

We felt he’d been put into “general population”.  I began to suspect that it was bullying…by proxy.

The special project that she had promised him after a parent, student and teacher meeting never materialized—although we heard that several others who had been made similar promises received theirs.

My son’s personality changed, he had difficulty sleeping at night, he was frenetic and agitated; he began to refuse to go to school.

One day he came home and reported that the teacher had had a long meeting with him, discussing his home life intimately. That evening, I received an email, telling me how to conduct our morning routine.

It was invasive, ill informed and bordering on insulting. It was clear that she had no recognition of boundaries and had become like a forest fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains—unpredictable, out of control and (in this case) with the possibility of containment uncertain.

During Christmas break, after many discussions, we all agreed not to return him to the school. He was so relieved that he was giddy with laughter for more than an hour.

Obviously, new and inexperienced teachers have quite a cross to bear—having to please the administration, the parents and, most importantly, the students. The drop-out rate of new teachers in the US is now nearly a third within the first three years (http://well NULL.blogs NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2008/01/02/teacher-burnout-blame-the-parents/).

Other research has shown that inexperienced teachers report more overall stress (http://www NULL.springerlink NULL.com/content/u5n4v0x686834248/) and blame this on the workload and having to deal with parents.

Still—given that the underlying cause of bullying is insecurity—it is not surprising to know that bullying of students is common amongst teachers. Over 45% of teachers in one study (http://www NULL.webmd NULL.com/parenting/features/teachers-who-bully) have admitted to bullying a student at one time or another.

In the end, as a teacher, she failed her primary customer—a seven-year-old boy who put his trust in her. I wonder how much of his reverence for the heroes and heroines of the teaching profession is irrevocably lost.

For Alex, and for us as his family, it is essential that we take a lesson from this experience; and a healing.

Barb Golub, a fifth grade teacher from New York  City, conducted her own personal study after meeting with an extremely challenging parent while still wet behind the ears in teaching experience.

In Creating Healthy Relationships With Parents: A Study In Diplomacy, Support, Reflection and Empathy (http://www NULL.teachersnetwork NULL.org/tnli/research/parents/golub NULL.pdf), Golub journeys through the teacher-parent conflict and successfully resolves it to everyone’s relief.

As a new teacher involved in what became a make-or-break conflict she said: “There were mornings where I would feel helpless. There were afternoons where I would begin to question my own practice, despite my love of teaching. Finally, there were evenings where I would just feel so broken down that I would cry.”

Golub was so profoundly affected by her baptism of fire as a teacher that she put forward proposals to change American educational policy.

“My first policy recommendation is that teacher education programs should offer classes that teach future educators how to work towards creating healthy relationships with parents; at least one of these classes should be a graduation requirement…rather than the ‘sink or swim’ mentality.”

Now that would certainly be “Barb Golub’s Opus” for first year teachers across the nation—and we’d be the first to applaud.

Notes for this blog:

Angela’s Ashes: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/068484267X?ie=UTF8&tag=flopowmom-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=068484267X (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/gp/product/068484267X?ie=UTF8&tag=flopowmom-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=068484267X)

2 Responses to To Sir, With Disillusionment

  1. Can Can (http://onlycancan null@null hotmail NULL.com) says:

    I teach overseas, and I feel lucky that I don’t have the pressures on me that teachers in the US have.
    The combination of parents who haven’t ever set proper boundaries for their kids, very individualized instruction plans for all kinds of kids under the “No Child Left Behind” legislation, inclusion in the class room, underfunding, overworking, underpaying…total nightmare!

    I talk with my teacher collegues a lot about how being a parent gives you much more realistic expectations about student behavior and cognitive level. Of course not all kids are the same but if you have experienced the relative developmental level first hand, more than once with your own offspring, I think it makes you a more patient person in the classroom.
    At my school, the Special Ed teacher and the principal are single with no children. All of their advice and expertise comes from books. I take it with a grain of salt.

    I’m so sorry about your son’s bad experience: props to you for getting him out!

  2. Anatomy of a Bully – Flower Power Mom (http://flowerpowermom NULL.com/anatomy-of-a-bully/) says:

    […] blog to why we removed Alex from school: http://flowerpowermom.com/to-sir-with-disillusionment/ (http://flowerpowermom NULL.com/to-sir-with-disillusionment/) Tagged with: bullying • mother after 40 • mother over 40 • motherhood after 40 […]

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