Thursday, April 26, 2012

Teachers and Words

The past few days, the story of Stu Chaifetz, whose son has autism, has been high on the news feed.  Mr. Chaifetz was concerned that there was something going on in his autistic son's classroom that was badly affecting his son's behavior, and his son could not tell him what was wrong.  Mr. Chaifetz decided to send his son to school with a hidden digital recorder, and what he heard that evening sickened and angered him.  Voices of adults on the recording were engaged in inappropriate conversation in front of the students, and used insulting and bullying language toward his son.  Mr. Chaifetz took his recording to the school board.  The classroom aide was fired, and the teacher was reassigned.  He pulled his son from the school, and says his son's behavior has greatly improved.

I find this news story to be disconcerting and disturbing on many levels, as a parent and as a special ed teacher.  (There are also the legal ramifications of recording the other students without their parents' knowledge or permission.)

First, as the parent of a child with Aspergers Syndrome, I know that it's hard for me to send Safety Guy to school and hear about his day later.   Some days I dread asking, "How did your day go?"  I have to trust that the staff are doing their best and watching all of the kids who need watching.  Safety Guy is quite verbal, and perfectly able to tell us what happened in his day - but the way he perceives things and the way his teachers and classmates perceive things sometimes don't match up.  That's the autism divide, the manifestation of his "mind blindness."  He LOOKS like he should "get it," but he may not, in fact, "get it" at all when he does something inappropriate, or when he overreacts to something someone else has done to him or simply near him.  Finding the whole story in any given situation makes me long for a compact recording device, so I could know the whole situation every time.  I wish I could show him what happened and dissect it from all sides to help him better understand his world and the neurotypical world.  How much harder it must be for parents of children with disabilities that impair their ability to communicate what is going on in their lives!

Second, this really bothers me as a teacher. I've worked with special needs students and adults with special needs off and on for many years, in classroom, residential, recreational and sheltered workshop settings. We as teachers and staff working with students and adults with have an enormous responsibility to maintain our calm and our integrity in what can be very trying circumstances, and to treat people with as much dignity as possible no matter what the circumstances are.   BUT any teacher who says they've never, ever lost their cool or said something harsh that they later regret is either a saint, or a liar. 

As a parent, I want accountability for teachers and school staff.  As a teacher, I want accountability for myself and my fellow teachers and classroom staff as well.  But many of the comments I've read have had more in common with the pitchforks-and-torches mob mentality than the rational, fact-seeking, what can we do to prevent this from happening again point of view.  Was the teacher in fact in the room when these comments were made?  Were the voices on the recording the teacher and aide, or the aide and another staff member?  The bottom line is that if the teacher was there in the room, she's responsible and participated in or allowed the bullying, and she should be held accountable.

Many people commenting on this story have called for audio/video recording in all classrooms, but the thought of "Big Brother" watching and judging my every move as I teach really distresses me.  It's an impossible standard to uphold, and a terrible burden to impose, always second-guessing yourself about your every word and interaction. A lot of that already goes on in schools, without video cameras in classrooms. As teachers we are well aware of the mandate to always speak and behave appropriately toward our students and coworkers.  The problem is that the good teachers will always try to do their best and will feel unjustly targeted if put under constant surveillance, and the bad ones won't particularly care who sees or hears them until they get caught.  But what human teacher can live up to a standard of absolute perfection on the job, recorded for posterity and dissected for disciplinary action at the slightest hint of impropriety?  Who on earth would want that teaching job under those circumstances?  Not me.

There is no good answer.

I've also read an incredible amount of teacher-bashing and union-bashing in the comments on this news story (on CNN and MSNBC, and on Facebook, among others).  The teacher-bashing makes me sick at heart, because I know that most teachers are doing a good job and giving their best to their students.  We DO care.  We DO work hard.  We DO want our students to learn academics and develop positive character traits.  Tearing teachers down as slackers, calling us names because some think that those who seek a teaching degree aren't smart enough to handle a "tougher" degree program or job, telling us that we have it made with summers off and should be grateful to make as much as we do - please.  If you've never been a teacher, you need to try doing the job before you tear us down.  It's no wonder that your own children don't show us any basic respect when you feel free to tear us down this way.  Then you want to know why it's more difficult for us to maintain classroom discipline now than when you were a kid.

And unions.  Teachers' unions have done much good, but sometimes they don't do what's RIGHT when it comes to protecting students.  Tenure should have no meaning in cases of abuse, and those who abuse children should not be moved to another school to continue to work with children.  Unions need to learn from the harsh lessons of the Catholic Church's dealings with pedophile priests.

Mr. Chaifetz' story makes me uncomfortable in so many ways.  I hope his son is in a classroom now that is professional and kind, nurturing and encouraging.  I'm much less comfortable with Mr. Chaitfetz public campaign to name and shame the teacher and aide in his son's classroom.  Let our legal system take its course, and by all means present the evidence and push for justice.  But a news outlet or social network is not a court of law, and the comments section is not judge, jury, and executioner by public opinion.  I'm thankful for laws.  Let's hope they're properly enforced to protect children like Akian Chaifetz, and the teachers who will work with him for years to come.

1 comment:

  1. This story is heartbreaking and thankfully this father had the thought to place a recorder on the child. How many other children has this happened to for YEARS and no one ever knew? While we cannot stop every injustice, it makes my heart glad for the ones that we can stop. I do think closer monitoring of special needs classrooms and the staff should be done, just to give a voice to the children who do not have one. No child should be scared to go to school because of the staff. Just as the staff shouldn't be afraid of the children.