Yesterday in 5th grade we came across the word “humiliated” in a reading packet. We stopped and discussed what the word meant, and a few students, like usual, had stories they wanted to share. One of my students caught me a bit off guard when he asked if I thought that some teachers might try to humiliate a student on purpose. He went on to talk about an incident he remembered from first grade that had stuck with him. Wow. It was a bit of a tough situation because the experience he described was a bit horrifying to me, and also because I KNOW who he had for first grade. Awkward. Especially since this is the 2nd student I’ve had that had a “bad” experience with this teacher in where they felt humiliated in front of their classmates.
It really hit me listening to him and thinking about this. As teachers we don’t always think about or realize the power our actions have on our students. How what we say to them, or how we treat them, might affect them or stay with them for years. These students had this teacher for 18o days in first grade. However, the only “real” memory they’ve held onto is the one where she made them feel badly. It breaks my heart as a teacher, as a mom, and as a former elementary school student.
While, luckily I don’t recall an incident where a teacher made me feel this way, it did make me think about my younger brother’s experience with his first grade teacher. My brother, Drew, was two years younger than me, and later on that same year, he would be diagnosed with Dyslexia. However, when he began 1st grade at our elementary school he was excited, happy, and very social. It only took about a month or so before his personality changed a bit. He was withdrawn, quiet and he would fight my mom about not wanting to go to school. This was NOT like him at all, and nobody could get out of him what was wrong.
Then one afternoon, right before Thanksgiving, Drew and I were sitting in the living room watching cartoons when the phone rang . Mom was on a long phone call, and after what seemed like forever, she came in to the living room with a very sad look on her face. She sat down, shut the TV off, and asked Drew what had happened at school that day. Silence. Then she asked again, very calmly and explained that a few of his friends had gone home and told their parents what had happened to him. Drew sat still, almost like a statue, and mom waited him out. After several long minutes he just broke down crying and started yelling that he was dumb and his teacher hated him because couldn’t read. He just kept crying and crying saying over and over he was stupid… This was 35 years ago, and I still remember it so vividly and it was heartbreaking.
Turns out that in school that day, she made my brother read aloud and he didn’t want to. She didn’t let up, and when he started reading, and made a mistake, she scolded him in front of the class and he got upset and started to cry. Apparently, according to the kids in his class, this happened several times before. However, this day, when he got upset and cried, she told him to stand in the corner of the room with his back to his classmates and had the entire class sing over and over, “Andrew is a cry baby.”
While a few of the kids refused, and luckily went home and told their parents, this was the way she ran her first grade classroom. She encouraged her students to make fun of and humiliate students who couldn’t read. Truth. Real Story. Real teacher. Mindblowing to think about. Also, that although she was forced to change schools, she continued teaching for 20 more years after this! I haven’t thought about her, or this incident in years. However, thinking about her now, makes me so mad all over again, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for that scared little boy, who happened to be my kid brother.