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Sometimes You Have To Be Your Own Advocate

, , , , , | Learning | April 1, 2022

I worked in the office of a middle school several years ago. One Monday, around lunch period, a young boy I’d never seen in our office before showed up clearly upset and begging to see the principal about “changing classes”. By chance, she was free, and she took him to her office to speak with him.

I wasn’t privy to the direct conversation, and we took student confidentiality seriously. However, from talking to the student more later and what bits were dropped in the office, this is the situation as I understood it.

Apparently, this student, a sixth-grader, had been in our advanced classes, which covered math and science about a year in advance of the standard curriculum. He alleged that his math teacher had been bullying him and “hated him”. Supposedly, this had been a problem for a while, but he hadn’t said anything to anyone about it before. What finally inspired him to talk to us was that he had just been informed that morning that, starting that day, he was to be moved from the advanced courses to the least advanced classes due to said math teacher’s claims that he was distracting class and struggling with his work.

While he seemed sincerely upset, it’s not uncommon for kids to say teachers behaving in perfectly reasonable ways were “bullying” them when the kid didn’t like a punishment or similar issue. In this case, the kid didn’t explain the bullying much beyond saying she punished him when he didn’t turn in homework and told the class, which didn’t sound that terrible, so the principal — and honestly, I as well — was inclined to believe he was mostly upset about being moved away from the class with his friends rather than actually being bullied by a teacher.

The issue about his being put in different classes was more complicated, though. It required the four teachers of his “main” classes to agree to move him (though we later found out it was almost entirely the math teacher who made it happen with the others simply trusting her reasoning). The principal wasn’t involved in that decision specifically and was apprehensive to intervene due to fear of undermining the teacher’s authority by micromanaging.

Instead, the principal had promised to set up a meeting with the teachers and the child’s parents, but setting up a time for such a meeting was difficult and so that meeting wasn’t going to happen until the upcoming Friday evening. Until then, the kid was supposed to stick with attending the courses he had been reassigned to. For the record, since I was the one that called the parents to arrange the meeting, I knew they were unhappy about the situation, wanted their kid moved back to his old classes, and actually felt terrible that they couldn’t arrange a meeting sooner than Friday to sort it out. I also knew they had not been consulted before their son was downgraded to his new classes.

Two days later, on Wednesday, the kid showed up again and sat himself down on the same chair he had to wait in last time for the principal.

Me: “Can I help you?”

Student: “I don’t know. I guess the principal will need to talk to me for skipping class.”

Me: “Oh, did a teacher send you here?”

Student: “No, but I’m skipping math, so I figured I’d come here so she could talk to me.”

Me: “You’re skipping math class right now without permission? You should go to class.”

Student: “I’m not going back there. She hates me and they aren’t teaching me anything!”

We went back and forth like this some. The student was getting visibly more worked up as I spoke to him to the point that he seemed to be holding back tears, but he was also adamant that he wasn’t going to go back to the math class even if it meant he had to be punished. Since the kid mentioned not learning anything a few times, I tried changing tactics to focus on that.

Me: “You won’t be able to learn anything while here.”

Student: “I didn’t give my old math book back; I brought it to read.”

Me: “But learning from a book without a teacher is really hard. You need a teacher and class to help learn.”

Student: No, I don’t. I already knew most of the stuff in my class before they moved me, and they’re doing basic fractions in the new class.”

This was said in a tone that implied he was offended anyone would still be learning something so simple.

Student: “She wouldn’t even let me read my math book yesterday, so I can learn better here. I’m not going back.”

Eventually, the principal was free to talk to the wayward student. The student was clearly worked up; numerous times I could hear him through the door with a clearly upset and sad voice that made me feel sorry for him. The principal eventually sent him to talk to the student counselor, but it seemed that neither individual was able to help the student because the subsequent day, he showed up at the office again during his math class. He looked at me with a look that was somehow sad, resigned, upset, and defiant at the same time before going back to the same seat as before and pulling out his math book to read. I even saw him doing math problems on paper at one point. The principal told me that she was still working on sorting things out and to just let the kid stay in the seat he had appropriated for the next two days as long as he wasn’t disruptive.

By the time of the scheduled conference, the principal had already investigated and was ready for what he told me was going to be a difficult talk with the student’s parents.

Despite the teacher’s claim that her student “couldn’t keep up” with the advanced coursework, the student’s parents had actually encouraged him to work ahead in math the previous year which led to his claim that he “already knew everything” in class not being entirely an exaggeration. He was consistently acing every test in the advanced math course.

Unfortunately, this led to the kid not feeling challenged and thus not engaged in his math course. He often was caught reading other things — even course books from other classes — in math class out of boredom and getting scolded for not listening to the lesson. He also apparently was doing a horrible job at completing homework and so regularly took partial credit or even full zeros on his homework. The net result was that he was straddling the line between a high C and a low B for his overall grades despite acing every test.

Worse, it seemed that every time the kid failed to complete his homework, the teacher would drag him in front of the class and basically scold him so everyone could hear about his every failing. The “disruption of class” charges the math teacher had alleged were actually due to her insistence on interrupting the class to scold him. Other students in the kid’s class had agreed that the only disruption was from the teacher’s lectures and that she was particularly harsh with him when she dragged him into class.

The student further alleged that she said even more hurtful things to him in private. While the teacher claimed that wasn’t true and no one could prove otherwise, given that everything else the student said was true and given how upset he was just talking about the teacher, I’m pretty sure everyone believed he was telling the truth. In short, the teacher really did hate him and was bullying him just as he had claimed. The bullying may have been non-physical and a bit subtler than what one usually thinks of, but she had clearly traumatized the poor boy with regular lectures on how he would never succeed in life because he refused to try hard enough.

The worst part is that while the principal was outraged, it was nearly impossible to replace a teacher in the middle of the school year. Since we found absolutely no indication of her harassing or hurting any other student beyond this one, and she technically had some claim to only trying to “teach” the child, no matter how much we disapproved of how she did it, we were effectively forced to keep her for the rest of the year — under very close supervision.

On the plus side, she was replaced at the end of the year by a new math teacher, and our principal was almost gleeful on giving a less-than-stellar reference about her when another school that she was interviewing with called us.

As for the student, no one wanted him to be stuck in the same classroom with a teacher that bullied him, so we worked out a situation where he would take science and math courses with the other sixth-grade class (i.e., with a different set of teachers) while still doing his English and Social Studies with the teachers and students he had started with. From what I understand, this made him an outlier that caused difficulty a few times by not fully being part of either sixth-grade class, but there was no other situation that seemed remotely fair to the poor kid, so everyone made it work.

It also turned out that the student had a previously undiagnosed case of ADHD. He was treated and registered for special accommodations if necessary; though, to my awareness, he never needed any accommodations beyond not having a bully for a teacher. In the end, he was quite thankful about everything that was done; he often would stop to wave to me or say hello while passing the halls and even insisted on bringing cookies for the office around Christmas and at the end of the year as a thank-you to us all. Still, as thankful as he was for our help, I could only feel guilty it took his coming to us and insisting we pay attention to realize something was wrong and needed to be done.

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