Toxic Teacher - A Perfect Example

Mean Teacher
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Primum non nocere. That phrase means "First, do no harm," and is often attributed to the Hippocratic Oath. It makes sense in the medical field where doctors must make decisions on how to treat patients. They want to do good - to cure their patients when possible, and make them as comfortable as possible, when a cure is not possible. But they also want to avoid harming their patients, making them worse off.

That phrase also makes sense in education. Ideally, teachers want to do good for their students - teach them, challenge them, inspire them. But if they can't do that, at the very least, they should not harm their students. A few teachers end up harming their students, but do so unintentionally. For instance, some teachers don't understand gifted children and so they don't understand the harm they can do by not providing the kind of academic environment these children need. But some teachers - thankfully a small number of them - seem to intentionally hurt their students. These are teachers I would call "toxic teachers," and my son was the victim of one such teacher.

Third Grade Dream Teacher

After two horrible years of school and one less than ideal, but not so horrible, my son entered the third grade. He came home after the first day wildly excited. The previous summer, we had attended Parent-Child Space Camp at Huntsville, AL, where my son won the "Most Outstanding Trainee," the highest award given out each weekend.

He was sure this year was going to be the best year ever because his new teacher was the head of the "Young Astronauts Club" at school and had taken students to Space Camp before. I couldn't believe our luck. Finally, my son had a teacher who should be able to understand him and appreciate his interests!

From as far back as I can remember, my son had been interested in space. He knew more about planets and constellations than most adults I knew. One of his dreams was to become an astronaut and that dream got even stronger after he went to space camp and got to learn more about space travel and astronaut training programs. The idea that his teacher was also interested in space and space travel was just more than he could handle. He was so excited that day that he was barely able to get to sleep.

The Dream Becomes a Nightmare

I no longer remember the point at which we realized that this teacher was far from the dream teacher we first imagined she would be. But I'm pretty sure it was before Halloween. I know it had to be before Halloween because we'd already had some problems with this teacher, but just before Halloween, she called me at work to express her "concern" over my son's "obsession" with space. She told me that space was all he thought about. For example, their Halloween writing assignment was to write a scary story and he chose to write one about space.

Her comment to me was "We have to get space out of his head."  In those exact words.

Even before Halloween, there were signs of problems. One of the first things my son did was to create a collage of pictures of him we had taken at space camp a few months earlier.  He and I just pasted some digital copies of some pictures onto a Word document and printed it out. It wasn't anything special - except to him. He took the page to school and asked the teacher if she'd like to hang the paper up on the wall of the classroom. It wasn't a large poster and my son didn't ask for a prominent position. It was an 8x11 sheet of printer paper that he thought she'd like. She did hang it up. Well above eye level of the kids. Behind a door. In other words, she put it where no one, especially the other kids, could see it.

The First Lies

The first serious sign of a problem, though, came after the first report cards came out, sometime early in October. To say I was stunned would be an understatement. Shortly after those report cards came out, we had the first parent-teacher conferences. My son was an early reader, and by the time he was three, he was already a fluent reader. By the time he was four, he could read stories to other kids as meaningfully as any adult. I was puzzled, therefore, by comments on the report card that suggested he read in a monotone and had problems with "word attack skills."

At the conference, I asked the teacher, whom I shall refer to from now on as Ms. Witchkiss, about those comments. In a perfect Professor Umbridge manner, she told me that many children don't yet have good reading skills and as they struggle with meaning, they tend to read in a monotone. Huh? My son hadn't read in a monotone since he was two and had just started learning to read. I asked her about how that was possible as I never heard him read at home in a monotone, but she assured me this is what she witnessed when he read aloud at school.

What about "word attack" skills? What did that even mean? Ms. Witchkiss explained to me that children at this age often have trouble sounding out new words and those who have problems with word attack skills have a hard time when they encounter unfamiliar words. Huh? My son was now eight years old and in third grade. He'd had no problems at age five sounding out new words like micropachycephelosaurus, but this woman wanted me to believe he was struggling with "new" words in a typical third grade reader?

When I got home from the conference, I asked my son about this. He said Ms. Witchkiss never asked the kids to read out loud in class so he didn't know how she knew what kids sounded like when they read.

More Lies

The third grade situation did not improve over time. It got progressively worse. She accused my son of talking too much and moved his desk away from the other kids. My son told me she moved him far away, up against a wall. At the next conference, I asked her about that. She pointed to his desk, which wasn't against a wall at all, but just away a little from the other kids. This time when I got home, I asked my son to draw a picture of where his desk was. It was against a wall. What was going on? A few days later, I had to pick my son up early from school for a doctor's appointment. I picked him up at the principal's office and we saw that Ms. Witchkiss was in the hallway with all her students. I looked at my son and said, "Take me to your classroom and show me your desk. Sure enough, it was up against a wall, just as he had said. Ms. Witchkiss had moved his desk for the conference and lied to me about where she had put it.

More Shock and Horror

There are so many stories from this year that it would take a year to write them all down. But here are just a few more.

One day my son had been sick and stayed home from school. When he came home from school on the day he had gone back, he was in a major panic mode. He discovered that he didn't have the "right" kind of paper for his homework. I assured him that the teacher wouldn't care about the paper, but about the work he did. I was wrong. He turned his work in on the "wrong" paper and got a zero on it. The worst part is that she had handed out the paper for the kids to use but didn't give any of it to my son when he went back to school.

Every week the teacher gave "bulletin board time" to one student. Students could create a small bulletin board with things they were interested in. Some kids got two weeks. My son and a couple others got a half a week - the last week of the semester. Not one at a time, but all of them. About five students shared the board for the last half week of the semester.

At one two-hour long conference, I tried desperately (again) to get Ms. Witchkiss to understand my son's needs. I finally came out and asked her how many gifted children with IQs of 145 she had taught. (Yeah, I know -- avoid using the "g word." But I was desperate and frustrated.) She told me "hundreds." Hundreds? If she taught for thirty years and had thrity kids in each class, she would have taught 900 kids. Kids with IQs of 145 are 1 in 1000. Even granting that our school system might have had more gifted kids than others, how could you possibly arrive at "hundreds"?

My son did not get admitted to the stand-alone gifted program for fourth grade. He missed getting the "right" score by one tenth of one percent. Ms. Witchkiss had refused to recommend him and that made the difference between getting in and not getting in.

Final Thoughts

Fortunately, most teachers are not toxic as was Ms. Witchkiss. But we shouldn't have to deal with any such toxic teachers. The stories here are just a few of the stories from that year from hell, but they do illustrate the type of teacher who is truly toxic, the teacher who actually harms children, seemingly intentionally. If you think this story can't get worse, then let me tell you that Ms Witchkiss was also on the school district's committee that determined how to address the needs of gifted children.

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