school

'When my son started school, he turned into a monster. But then I learnt the truth.'

What would you do if your child was ridiculed in front of all their friends and peers and couldn’t do anything about it? Bullied and treated badly by the one person you entrusted with the care of that child?

My son has autism. We have never hid that fact, we have always been very open about it.

Last year, he started school, full of excitement about the school year ahead. He was thrilled to find out he was in a class with his friend and liked his teachers. He had two teachers, one for three days a week, one for two.

WATCH: What life is like with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Post continues after video. 

I questioned the school as to whether this was a well thought out decision for a child who thrived on routine, but the school assured me that it was the best for him. I thought that, as they had much more experience in educating a child with special needs than I did, that they knew best, so let it go, and went along with the anticipation that the new year brings.

Would the teachers like him? Would they understand him and his needs? Would they be able to bring the best out of him? During those moments, we never asked ourselves if they would damage him, it didn’t even occur to us that it could happen.

The year started out well. He seemed to be fitting in quite well, he wasn’t getting too far ahead in reading, but we didn’t expect him to and he was coming home happy and cheery.

Then one Thursday, we got a call from the school. “Your son has run away from class, we need you to come and take him home.”

I was quite surprised. He has his issues, but was never a runner. I went to the school to pick him up.

What started as a one off incident, became a 2-3 times a week issue. He got suspended numerous times for violence and absconding and the beautiful, kind-hearted little boy that we were so proud of, became somehow lost inside this child who sounded like a monster. We put him into occupational therapy (OT), we had meetings up at the school, we spent hours working on behaviour plans at home.

Our first inkling that something was wrong came when our OT went into the classroom to set up a sensory area. He had an area set up already, with a few books in it (he couldn’t read) and that was about it. She took in a tent, his weighted blanket and some fidgets to play with when he got stressed. I was excited at the prospect that something was happening and perhaps having a safe space would keep him from running away.

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That evening I received an email from his teacher. “Why did you tell your OT that we didn’t have a sensory space for your child? He already had a perfectly good space and didn’t require anything further.”

I replied that we felt that having some items from home where he felt the safest may help the transition between home and school, as we didn’t want his absconding to distract the class and that if it worked, then it was worth it.

She replied that his behaviour was definitely a distraction to the class.

I was surprised that a teacher would so openly say that to a parent, but brushed it off.

A few weeks later I went into the school for a meeting. His teacher told me she was very worried about him and could I tell her what was happening at home. Clearly something was setting him off and it would help for the school to know what was happening.

I wracked my brain trying to grasp something, anything, that would explain away his behaviour, but couldn’t come up with anything. I was pregnant with our daughter, but he was so excited about another baby that I didn’t think that would be it and although our house is loud and boisterous, it’s filled with love and laughter, so I really couldn’t figure out what was happening. I went home that night and and for the first time since it had all started, I cried.

I didn’t just cry. I sobbed, the tears of someone grieving for the sweet child they knew, who was apparently becoming a wrecking ball at school, even though the behaviour wasn’t visible at home. I cried because somehow it was all my fault and perhaps if I disciplined better, didn’t raise my voice, expected more, expected less, I could have prevented this behaviour.

An inner voice told me that there had to be more to it. The behaviours were happening at school, not at home. Maybe he was being bullied? But he didn’t seem too keen to talk, so I figured if it was a problem, he would say something and let it go.

The behaviours, suspensions, early pick ups continued most days, until the school told us that full days weren’t working for him and put him on half days. Even then, at least once a week, I would have to pick him up for absconding. It got to the point that the school would call and I would ask why he had run away and they couldn’t tell me. I just had to go and put out the fire.

My view on the world and the fundamental good of people caved in last June.

I was working at the school running carnival. My son was suspended, but I had already committed, so took him with me. My husband was there too. Up until this point, all my interactions with his teacher had been alone, our son would be off playing or at home.

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She walked over to talk to me and his reaction was instant. He hid behind my legs and made himself as small as possible. Both my husband and I noticed and thought it was very strange, but she said to my husband, “You take the children away while I talk to Mum, Children have big ears!” My husband looked over at me and I nodded to say that it was fine.

He walked off, but kept an eye on me, because he wasn’t sure what was happening and was worried about his heavily pregnant and super stressed wife.

Once he had gone she started talking about our sons behaviour, the same old conversation we had had 100 times.

I said to her, “Deep down he is a good kid.”

She replied, “I am sorry, your child is not a good kid, I am walking on eggshells around him, he is not a good person.”

The saying ‘your blood starts to boil’, I finally understood it. My whole body got uncomfortably hot, I started shaking, my muscles tensed up, ready to either run or hurt someone. I turned my back and walked away to where my husband was looking very concerned and burst into tears. Again.

He went straight to the school and told the principal what had occurred. I went home, shocked that anyone could possibly think that a nine-year-old child could be anything but a good person. I regrouped and carried on like parents do.

The next week was a bit of a blur, but the principal called and apologised but told me that I had misunderstood and misheard what this teacher had said. I told her that you cannot mishear someone saying that your child is not a good person and I could think of no other way for it to be construed.

The next week was another carnival, this time for field events. I made sure to leave my son at home this time. While I was there, I met another parent, a lovely free spirited lady. We were chatting about kids and the school and I mentioned my son’s name. Her whole face contorted into almost a caricature of discomfort.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” she started and straight away I knew what she would say: “Your child is awful, your child beat up mine, your child did SOMETHING.”

I was wrong.

“My daughter came home crying last week, she is a sensitive little girl, but she was so sad about the way the teacher has been treating your son. She told me he runs away a lot, but she understands because she is so mean to him.”

At that moment, everything clicked into place. The fact that he was only a monster at school. The teacher’s strange comments. The hiding behind my legs. The constant suspensions and trouble. It all slotted into place like the final piece of a kids jigsaw puzzle.

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I went home and sat down with my son. I told him I knew what had been happening. We talked about it. She had pulled him up in front of the class and told him the reason he had no friends was because he punched them and that none of these kids liked him.

She got him up to read and then belittled him because he can’t read. She screamed at him and hit the table because his stepmum dropped him into school early one day before work. The stories poured out of him like a burst pipe and I sat with him and cried with him, devastated that he was so sad and that I did nothing to stop it.

I called the principal and told her I wanted him moved out of the class. I told her what had happened and said that I would not be sending him in on days that this teacher was around. He started going to school two days a week for two hours a day.

At our next meeting, we were told that there was a position available at another school with more support and they thought we should accept. I asked about changing teachers. They said that there was no one else he could go with and they thought we should accept. They told us we would love the other school and they thought we should accept. We realised that they weren’t willing to do anything with us and decided to accept.

It turned out to be the best decision we have made. Our boy is thriving, the teachers tell me that he is an example of how to behave to the other kids, he has friends and never runs away. When he left school the other day, he hugged his teacher goodbye.

After much thought, I wrote a letter to the Department of Education outlining his treatment by the teacher and the principals backing. I told them how well he was doing now and told them this teacher was dangerous to the mental health of future students.

I got a call a few weeks ago to let me know that they took our complaint very seriously and the teacher was enrolled in empathy classes. I did ask what the expected outcome would be, as empathy was an inbuilt thing and something that cant be taught, but didn’t push too hard because I was so glad there was a repercussion. So all’s well that ends well right?

I went out to dinner last night with some friends. We were talking about different schools and teachers and one of my friends was talking about the bullying from a teacher her child received a few years ago. I asked the teacher’s name and was completely unsurprised to hear that it was the same lady. Since this unfolded, I have heard quite a few stories about this teacher and her behaviour towards children. Apparently there is one every year, generally that isn’t quite like the other kids.

This parent reported it to the principal and saw no results so pulled the child out of the school.

I wonder how many parents have gone far enough to report her to the department? I wonder if someone had of reported her 10 years ago, if my son would have had a very different school experience? If empathy lessons really ever help, and if she starts on another child, who reports the behaviour, what the next step would be?

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And, as if I spoke her back into existence, we went to the markets this morning and who should we see at the very first stall, but the teacher.

My sons eyes went wild, he started looking for an exit, hid in a rack of dresses and when it was time to leave, ran back to the car a really long way around, so she wouldn’t see him.

He never got an apology, so I assume empathy lessons aren’t really successful in this case.

I guess the moral to the story is this.

One teacher can destroy a child’s experience at school. If you can’t handle a child with special needs, don’t teach. There are so many different and invisible illnesses and you never know who and how your words can hurt. Even now, eight months since he has seen her, she still sets off that sense of fear and feeling of being trapped that she did back then.

So to this teacher, if you ever happen to read this.

You may have been frustrated by my son. I understand that, I live with it every day and know how tiring it can be. Do you know what I do when I am frustrated? I take five minutes to myself. I walk away and busy myself with something until I am back in control. I do not belittle him. I do not treat him badly. I certainly don’t make other children cry because of my behaviour towards him.

I will not apologise to you for putting in a complaint because your behaviour was completely unacceptable and although I doubt they will work, I hope your empathy classes show you how your behaviour has impacted my son and many other children.

You didn’t destroy my son.

He has been lucky enough to get a teacher who loves him and who he loves, that works tirelessly with him and has shown him again that school can be a fun and exciting place.

I however, will never forgive you.

Before you came along, the first day of school was filled with nervous excitement of who is he going to get? Will they be lovely?

After your influence, that nervous excitement has turned into nervous apprehension of ‘Will they hurt my child?’

Thank you for showing us what a brilliant teacher was, by contrast.

Thank you for reminding me that a persons actions have a ripple effect and can hurt many.

Thank you for giving me the chance to see my son at his worst, so I can truly appreciate him at his best.

You didn’t destroy my son and I hope that by us standing up against you, you don’t have the chance to destroy any other child.

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