Teachers have the power to change lives. Really. They have the power to guide, to inspire,to nurture. Teachers have an impact on their students not just in the 180ish days they have them in class, but forever. That impact can be, and often is a positive one, but it can also be negative and damaging. This is especially true, and especially important (I feel) for elementary educators to realize. As Voltaire (and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben) once said, “With great power comes great responsibility!”
A friend shared an article about a 1st grader who had her shoes thrown in the trash by her teacher. Yeah, you read that right. HER TEACHER threw her shoes in the trash can, made her walk around barefoot all day, and at the end of the day allowed her to get her shoes out of the trash. Why? because she was fidgeting. The little girl, who is 6 years old, said the strap on her shoes was bothering her, and that’s why she was messing with them. You can read the full story HERE (There is more to this story that I am going to delve into…specifically the racism aspect. I mention it because it is an important issue, and absolutely plays a role in this story, and is something we all need to think about, and learn about, and change)
Reading about this little girl made me think back to my own elementary school experience. I was blessed to have a great kindergarten teacher, an INCREDIBLE first grade teacher who started me on my journey and nurtured my love of learning. Second grade was…eh…my teacher was friends with my grandmother, and liked me (or at least seemed to) however I saw then that teachers didn’t always like all their students and some of them didn’t try to hide it. A friend of mine was a little bit immature for her age. By that I mean, she struggled a bit more with being away from her mom all day. She would cry if she got an answer wrong or someone accidentally knocked down her tower of blocks. She was very shy, very quiet. But she was also one of the sweetest most kind girls I knew. It was just one of those “all kids are different” things. I remember on may occasions, our teacher would become annoyed with this student, and she would snap at her to “stop crying” or tell her to “stop acting like a baby” It always made me uncomfortable, and sad for my friend. It didn’t seem right, but we were very young, so we obviously weren’t going to question our teacher.
In third grade things changed for me.
At some point at the beginning of the year, we were assigned to reading groups. There were two groups. I sat in my group and listened to the other students struggle with reading. It was not something I had expected. I guess I was a pretty advanced reader. I’m not bragging, we all learn at a different pace, but reading and reading comprehension just came very easy to me. I had already read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and was ready to start Congo (My parents left books in the bathroom and I’d read in there—don’t act like you all didn’t have bathroom books!!) I just loved reading. (Math was a different story–like I said, we all have our own pace and at 34 I’m still trying to catch up to most 5th graders in the math skills department!)
I went home and told my mom about the reading groups, and how some of my friends in my group couldn’t read. Confused, and curious about why I was in that group, she did what she thought was right and called my teacher. My teacher told her something about how I needed extra help or wasn’t up to the level I should be (despite scoring a perfect score on the CAT Test for reading)
I guess my mother overstepped her bounds…I guess this teacher thought she knew it all, and was not going to be called out by a concerned parent (who also happened to be a teacher)
The next day, that teacher and her bruised ego decided to make me pay.
She called me up, and told the class that I thought I was smarter than everyone, a better reader, and had my mom call to move me into the other reading group. (she would do something similar when I struggled with my timed division sheets–and made me sit at a desk alone–away from the rest of the class– and do them over and over and over, while she made sure everyone knew “For some reason, Sarah just doesn’t get it!”)
I was humiliated. She took a girl who LOVED school, LOVED learning, and made me dread waking into her classroom.
And it changed me even more than I realized, until I started thinking about it today, 25 years later.
The way she humiliated me, and continued to treat me that school year didn’t just change how I viewed her. It changed how I viewed myself.
I was never a child who’s self worth came from being popular or pretty. Those things didn’t matter to me much. Being smart, artistic, a good friend, brave…those were the things that mattered to me. But this teacher made me feel worthless in spite of my good qualities.
And because of that, I wanted to make sure that no teacher ever thought that I was worthless again.
I became almost desperate to be the teachers pet. I needed my teachers to like me the most so that they’d never humiliate me in front of the class. I thought that my third grade teacher must have hated me, because why else would you try to tear someone down—BULLY someone—the way she did. I clearly wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t likeable. Something was wrong with me.
This need to be the favorite followed me through elementary school to middle school, to high school and college.
I’d offer to clean tables, stay after school to help make copies, teacher having surgery? I’ll be the one collecting money to send flowers. I baked cookies and cupcakes. I brought gifts for every holiday, every event. Because I needed to be liked. And I know I probably never needed to do ANY of that, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Elementary school, middle school, high school and college…
And it even follows me now, through Avery. I want her teachers, coaches, doctors, friend’s parents, everyone to love her because I never want anyone to humiliate her the way I was humiliated.
This teacher had such a major impact on me, and she doesn’t even know it. I wonder how many other kids she damaged in her many years of teaching. Fortunately she didn’t destroy my love of learning, I still love to learn new things every day. But, I imagine other children, treated this way, may shut down, and start to hate school.
It also didn’t help that as an adopted kid, I already had some serious abandonment issues. As a kid who already had a deep need to be liked, loved, and wanted by the adults around her the actions of this teacher cut even deeper.
And that’s the thing, teachers, you don’t always know everything about your students. You don’t always know what is going on at home, or what is going on in that child’s heart and head. But you should know how to treat people. You should know that it is wrong to single out a student. It is wrong to humiliate a child. And if you think it is ok, you shouldn’t be in the profession. You shouldn’t work with people at all, really.
As a teacher, you are in a position of power, but remember that you also have a great responsibility to the children you teach. Teach them love. Teach them that they are worthy. Teach them that they are smart. Teach them that they can do anything. Teach them well.