Aaron Davis recently wrote an article about the impact of his teachers, and it started me thinking about the impact my teachers had on me. I’m afraid, my experience was not so positive. My teachers had impact, but not in the way I would have liked.
Back in Year Four, I attended a small public school in New Zealand. Our teacher, Ms M was very strict. At that time, all teachers would use the cane on occasion, but Ms M used it daily. We would keep our heads down, work silently and try not to draw attention. However my attempts to avoid her ire were undermined by a squeaky chair. Whenever I shifted position it would squeak. Any slight shift in balance, such as moving my arm to write, would create a noise.
Mrs M would become infuriated and demand I be silent, but there was little I could do. If I stopped writing, the chair wouldn’t squeak, but not doing school work would also lead to a caning. So, most days I was on the receiving end of either a scolding, a caning or both. To be honest, while I didn’t much like the cane, at least it was over quickly and it only hurt my body. The scolding was worse, it hurt my sense of self.
I was relieved when part way through that year we returned to Australia. Only we didn’t return to Melbourne where my old school was. We moved to Sydney instead.
The fourth grade teacher at my new school, Miss C seemed a little annoyed to have an extra student arrive part way through the year. She provided me a desk and chair, but aside from that made no effort to support my transition to a new school. She was always distant with me and I felt unseen in her class. I felt like I was not really part of the class, just visiting.
Support for transition was sorely needed because the kids at that school didn’t take well to outsiders, especially ones who spoke with a strange New Zealand accent and didn’t know how to play either elastics or 4 square handball. On my first day, some classmates invited me to play with them, but my lack of handball skill quickly revealed itself. They informed me that I couldn’t play with them any more. And somehow, this decision seemed to fly around the grade – I wasn’t welcome anywhere.
Soon after, I became a target of bullying. I was the butt of jokes, humiliated and taunted daily. I was the scapegoat for anything that went wrong. If something was broken, lost or ruined the blame would be placed on me.
I became branded with a sort of untouchable status and spent much of the remainder of that year alone, watching the playground, retreating inwards and occupying myself as best I could by inventing all sorts of fantastical stories.
The bullying became so bad that nowhere outside my home felt safe. As well as at school, I’d cop it walking the streets of my neighbourhood. Kids I didn’t even know would see me coming and throw projectiles, or jeer or block my path and refuse to let me pass.
I longed for the year to end, so I could be in a new class with a new teacher and the chance to be with different students.
But in Year 5, things continued to go downhill. My teacher, Mr L, would not have been allowed to work with children today. He would fly into rages and seemed to take delight in humiliating his students. The boys were frequently caned, and he had his ways of torturing the girls.
I had a slight speech impediment which caused me to hiss on my ‘s’s. Mr L decided to cure me of this by forcing me to recite poetry in front of the class. Whenever I hissed on an ‘s’ sound, he would publicly humiliate me by chanting ‘sss sss sss’ Naturally, the kids all took this up, and it spread around the school, so whenever I’d pass by groups of kids I’d hear this ‘sss sss sss’.
Communication had been challenging for me since arriving in Sydney. I didn’t have a broad Australian accent, and speaking led to mockery and accusations of being a snob. I also didn’t understand the local slang. The greeting ‘How ya goin?” confused me. At first I tried telling them where I was going, and that would be met with strange looks, so next I’d try telling them ‘how’ I was going – ‘walking’, ‘riding my bike’, which was obviously not the right answer either.
I had an extensive vocabulary which led to further communication difficulties. I remember arguing with a child in 4th grade and telling her I thought she was being dogmatic. My classmates thought I’d called her a bitch which caused a lot of outrage. There was this other incident where we were mixing up cordial for a class party or something. I tasted it and said we needed more water as it was too concentrated. They could not believe what I’d said, because how could cordial be concentrated, it doesn’t have a brain.. so more jeering: I was the weird kid.
Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that at some point in Year 5, I became a selective mute and spent my final two years of primary school unable to speak outside of my home and in almost complete isolation.
I didn’t choose not to speak. I physically wasn’t able. I’d form the words, I’d try to say the words, but no sound would come out. My words were so soft that the only person who could hear them was me.
Mr L became infuriated at this. He’d shout at me and demand I spoke up. I’d take a deep breath and try to shout the words, but my voice would catch at the back of my throat and all that would emerge was a sort of strangled whisper.
On one occasion, Mr L decided to forcibly fix my speech difficulties. His theory was I needed to open my mouth wider. He grabbed my face in his hand, squeezed my cheeks to force my jaw open and pushed the fingers of his other hand into my mouth, forcing it wide. Then, with his hand still in my mouth, making any speech impossible, demanded that I recite the next line of a poem to the great amusement of my classmates.
Mr L became so angered by my ongoing silence that he complained to my parents. They expressed surprise as I’d never had any difficulty speaking at home. The conclusion drawn by the adults therefore, was that I was silent by choice. It was shyness, a character flaw, I could speak up if I chose.
Things improved in Year 6. My teacher, Mr K took an interest in me, and seemed to value having me in his class. I felt safe when he was in the room.
However the previous two years had already taken their toll. I remained a selective mute,and I also missed a lot of school due to severe stomach pains and listlessness. The doctor couldn’t work out what was wrong with me, but looking back I guess it was a physical manifestation of anxiety
The bullying that began in Year 4 and was cultivated by my teacher in Year 5 continued in Year 6, but by this stage, I’d just accepted that my place in the scheme of things. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t see a way to change things and I don’t think I questioned it or ever mentioned to Mr K that anything was wrong. I had learned to withdraw so far into myself that the outside world couldn’t touch me.
In a recent episode of The Teachers Education Review, Dan Haesler provided a great summary of some literature on student wellbeing. He identified 5 conditions that schools should address if they are serious about promoting wellbeing, which he also writes about here,.
1.Schools need to provide a safe environment.
On the podcast, Dan challenges us to consider whether our schools are psychologically safe as well as physically safe. While for the most part my primary school environments were physically safe, there was a lot my teachers could have done to ensure they were psychologically safe. Their failure to do so shaped my perception of myself, of others and my place in the world; and is part of what made me vulnerable to the further traumas that were ahead of me. The impact of their failure remains with me today. We need to take our responsibility to create psychologically safe environments seriously.
I did not have a sense of connectedness to school. I felt like an outsider, alienated, and this made me vulnerable. Last year, my TERpodcast colleague Cameron Malcher interviewed Professor Ian Shochet about his research into school connectedness and its impact on adolescent mental health. He showed that even simple acts, such as smiling and greeting a student by name when you pass them, treating them with warmth and letting them know you are happy they are there, makes a significant difference. While my 6th grade teacher, Mr K, could not undo the harm that had already occurred, he provided that sense of connection for me. He made me feel welcome, and took a genuine interest in me. For the first time in two years I had a sense that maybe I could matter, and belong in the world outside my home.
3. Learning Engagement
In primary school, at least, I remained engaged as a learner. I liked to hide from the world and bury myself in school work. It was something I could succeed in.
I wonder how well I would have engaged in learning in the 21st century? As a socially anxious, selective mute who was vulnerable to bullying, the collaborative nature of 21st century learning, with its emphasis on authentic, public audience would have been difficult for me. The very thought of being made to work in such a way at that point in my life horrifies me, because I think it would have done further harm. We need to be mindful of vulnerable children as we transform the way we teach in our schools.
4. Social and Emotional Learning
As far as I recall, there were no social or emotional learning programs in my primary school the way there are today. My current school is implementing the Bounce Back program, which teaches the thinking skills to help students become resilient, and hopefully make them less vulnerable to developing mental health issues. If you aren’t running a whole school program to teach these skills, find out more at Kids Matter, the Australian Primary Schools Mental Health Initiative or at Mind Matters which supports secondary schools seeking to improve mental health.
5. A Whole School Approach
On the podcast, Dan speaks passionately about the need for every teacher to take responsibility for student wellbeing, not leaving it up to whichever teacher has that as their role statement. I believe he is right. Every one of us has the ability to make a positive difference in the lives of students, let’s not leave it up to someone else.