Voting a Student Off the Island: What Happened in Florida?

NOTE:  This post was originally published on the now defunct version of “Moms Speak Up” on May 30, 2008.  All posts were lost when the domain name expired.  This post was retrieved via a nifty internet archive tool called the “Wayback Machine”. Archived post url.

When I was teaching middle school back in central Iowa, I was expected to ensure the learning and safety of every child assigned to me regardless of how cooperative, charming or innately intelligent that child was, and I took that very seriously. I cannot honestly say I enjoyed every little soul I crossed paths with but I can say that there were only a handful of them that I couldn’t manage or that I didn’t coerce into learning.

The recent incident in a Florida elementary school, where a kindergarten teacher had her students vote to remove a disruptive classmate after allowing them the opportunity to tell the boy what they didn’t like about him, got me thinking about some of the reasons I left the classroom and will probably never return.

There is an old joke that is often repeated during faculty meetings or in the teachers’ lunchroom,

“Teaching would be the perfect job if not for the students.”

For most of us, it was just a joke born out of the knowledge that getting a room full of children to do anything simultaneously, and quietly, requires Herculean effort even on a really good day. Throw in an extra body or ten, a couple of whom have “special needs” and maybe an impending full moon, just for fun, and even Michelle Pfeiffer would turn and run.

The five year old boy who was booted by his classmates was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a high functioning form of autism. He had been sent from the room for disciplinary reasons twice that day before the “voting” incident. When he returned the second time, the teacher and other students reportedly “weren’t ready for him to return”. And I can understand that because I have been there many times.

The district I taught in was intent on mainstreaming its special education students and that often meant that, not only would a class contain children with various levels of learning disabilities, but children with behavior and emotional disorders as well. Most of the time the level of accommodations that needed to be made were not particularly difficult to implement and make work. Some children though are more work than others and not all teachers are cut out to work with the special needs. Usually the regular education classroom teacher is not trained to deal with things that come up when behavior disorders especially are involved. Administrators are not quick to address issues when they arise. Parents are quick to point fingers and not so quick to help come up with advance plans to head problems off at the pass. After all, who knows a child better? The school or the parents?

Still, knowing all I know about the difficulties, I was appalled by both the teacher’s lack of sense and insensitivity even though I don’t know a thing about her. Was she a newer teacher? Did she having training dealing with specials needs children. Did she know the boy was being evaluated for autism? (In most school districts you are notified by the school nurse and the special education team when a child is being tested because they need your input for the process). This child’s behavior was her responsibility to deal with, not the other students. She was wrong to involve them. She was wrong to assume that a five year old could have possibly understood what she thought she was doing. And what was that?

The teacher asked the other children to tell the boy what he did during class that they didn’t like (presumably found disruptive). This is a lesson I wouldn’t have attempted with high school students and she had five year olds. Children so concrete in their thinking that all they could do was focus on random actions that may or may not have been why the boy was distracting and disruptive.

She shirked her duty in my opinion. Did she call the boy’s mother? Did she tell the administrator who returned the boy to the class that she didn’t have the rest of the children settled enough for him to return at that moment? She could have been honest and just admitted that it would be better if the boy didn’t return at all until they could sit down with his parents and come up with a strategy for dealing with the issues that were causing the trouble. Did she do that?

When I hear teachers discussing trouble with one or more children in a classroom, I immediately wonder what the teacher hasn’t done. This is not relieving the students of their own responsibility for their own behavior, but I taught for twenty years, mostly middle school, and I know when teaching – a good defense is the best offense. I always assessed my lesson plans for a standpoint of what could go wrong and where or who it could go wrong with.

I had a student with Aspergers when I was teaching seventh grade language arts. This child was extremely smart and had no trouble with the work but possessed zero social skills, unnerving other students and teachers alike with the manner he/she conducted a conversation and asked questions. I never really had any trouble with the student, and when I was asked why I said,

“X is a middle schooler. They are all odd at this age.”

And they are, but the reason I didn’t have a problem with him/her was that I did my homework in advance. I talked with his/her special education teacher, the school nurse and the counselor. I tried to figure out what a worst case scenario might look like and what the best response would be if it did.

On the first day of class, I was ready and I began by treating this child just like every other child in my care but with all I had learned in mind. Everything was fine.

It’s no secret that teachers are not given the training or support they need to deal the increasingly diverse needs of students today. However, we are given enough training to know when we are in over our heads and should ask for help. The Florida teacher did not do this as far as anything I have read indicates and you can’t be a teacher, a good one, alone. It takes a village to educate a child.

I feel sorry for the boy. No child should have to be humiliated in front of his peers whatever the reason. I feel sorry for the other students who were asked to do something that was wrong.

And I feel sorry for that teacher. She made a terrible error in judgement and I imagine that she knew it. When you mess up big, you know it almost as soon as it’s done. I have been there a couple of times too. Perhaps she will have a chance to learn from this and become a better teacher for it, and I know that will not be what most people think should happen. We are a retribution oriented society not a rehabilitative one.

We hold teachers to impossible standards of interaction, forgetting that they are human and not machines in much the same vein as teachers hold students to impossible standards of obedient angelicness. Anyone who has ever had a child will tell you the latter is fantasy.

I had a supervisor who would remind us at the beginning of every school year that our parents were sending us the best children they had and not hiding the really good kids at home in the closet.

Some of these children were easier to teach, and to like, than others, but that was my job. It was what I was paid to do and what I was entrusted to do. Teach. Everyone. Regardless.

Life, like school, is not an island. Voting people off is not an option.

Comments on the original post:

Julie Pippert said:

This is an excellent—and generous and sober and calm—post on this issue.

I do want to extend understanding to the teacher. I’m not quite there yet. I’m much more parent than teacher-minded, despite being the daughter of and sister to teachers.

And as a parent, this story really affected me.

See…we have a similar kid in the class and his mother has been so frustrated with the school’s inability to manage that she has stretched her budget and decided to move and do what she must to get him into a private school with better resources.

That, to me, is both good and bad. I’m glad she’s able to make that happen. Glad she cares enough about her son to ensure he gets a good school experience. But it’s tragic that she’s going to have to sacrifice and do this and change because the public school can’t manage.

I’ve been frustrated as a parent because this kid disrupts the class and also troubles my daughter. I’ve had to keep the big picture in mind, teach her skills to deal (including, for good or bad, to step on his foot and run if he twists her arm and won’t let go after she tells him to 3 times and if a teacher won’t come help) (because he grabs and twists her arm weekly); and extend a lot of generosity, and understanding to the situation and also trust to the teacher.

All in all I think our teacher is handling the entire situation as best as she can; she has an unfair situation all the way around and that she’s kept a solid head through it is pretty impressive.

You see, she’s the “pregnant teacher who took leave midway into the first semester then came back with a newborn” and her class is the “revolving door” class and the “assigned BD/SD” class.”

I have my anger about how we ended up in this class but that’s another story.

Anyway, in the Port St. Lucia case…

I can understand a teacher who might get frustrated with a never solved problem that involves a disruptive child.

But NOT ONCE did it EVER occur to me to think that those kids did not have a right to be there.

And that’s what that teacher’s actions reveal: the belief that if someone can’t conform they don’t deserve to be included and belong.

That’s what she taught those kids.

I wouldn’t have to be Alex Barton’s parents to be livid. I’d be livid from any angle. That’s a despicable lesson. Despicable treatment of that kid.

I imagine there is a year long back story here.

Clearly there is shared responsibility and culpability here; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the school and district let down this teacher; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the parents weren’t adequately handling things.

It’s probably been a challenging year for everyone, and the problem with super disruptive kids is that they cheat the other kids from a learning experience.

Still, to have him voted out and told why they don’t like him?


That simple.

She was wrong. Nothing makes what she did understandable, not even a year long challenge, not even systemic failure.

We don’t always get an undisrupted life, and sometimes the best lesson in a school year can be how to deal with difficult people and challenging situations.

The biggest cheat here is those poor kids didn’t learn that, and they got taught the absolutely wrong thing.

Kris said:

I can’t believe this. That’s all I can say at this point. Can’t believe it.

Annie said:

Julie, I wanted to rant. If I had known for certain this teacher was a veteran, I would have. Probably.

Trouble is that even with all my years, I actively sought out or took on when asked, kids that other teachers wouldn’t touch because I believe that everyone deserves a clean slate and a chance to be “like all the other kids”. I won more than I lost, but I did have years when a couple of kids dominated and the majority didn’t get all they were entitled to. That is the downside of public education. And I do believe that there are cases when the majorities needs outweigh the disabled child’s right to integrate.

My guess is that there was a lot of buck passing on every adult’s part in this story and in the end all children lost.

Kris, unfortunately I had no trouble believing this. I was a public school teacher for too long not to.

TigereyeSal said:

Coherent, cogent post, Annie- thanks!


Izzy said:

My problem with this whole horrible incident is that while the child may be difficult, she’s an adult and should be expected, as a teacher of small children, to exercise better judgment.

If a child is that continuously problematic, it should have been dealt with BEFORE she snapped and acted so unprofessionally.

I’d love to be more compassionate towards her issues, whatever they may be, but I can’t. That boy’s mother entrusted her child to that teacher, never dreaming he’d be treated so abusively. Where was the teacher’s compassion for the boy’s issues?

Would she treat an annoying co-worker that way? Of course not…because she knows better.

I’ve worked as a teacher of children far more troubled than the child in this story, insofar as I can tell, and I’ve also taught at the college level so it’s not as though I have no understanding of what it’s like to be in a classroom and if I ever treated a student that way, I’d expect to be called on it. There is no excuse that would make such willful and intentionally abusive behavior acceptable, in my opinion.

That said, I believe the teacher’s behavior requires disciplinary action of some kind.

Annie said:

Izzy, I agree she should be disciplined. No doubt. I just know, as you do, that there are schools where the admin are not supportive and the climate is one of “take care of it yourself”.

But it is hard to know the circumstances and as they will likely not be made known, all we have to go by is the media hype.

Sally, thanks for coming over and commenting:)

Brenda said:

Well, let’s give the teacher the benefit of a doubt. I work in a school system that lets the special education teachers do whatever they want. The regular ed. teacher (who, at the most, had 2 special education classes in college) has to deal with ALL of the special education students and the regular ed. students at the same time, in the same classroom. There is no help from the special education teachers and the regular ed. teachers are very frustrated. I think the parents of special education students are the only ones that can force a change!

If I had it all to do over again, I would be a special education teacher so I could do nothing all day and get paid just like the regular ed. teachers!!!

Izzy said:

@ Annie

Because of the nature of the teacher’s abusive behavior, which was deliberate and intentionally cruel, I have to say that there are no circumstances in which her behavior could be excusable, IMO.

If she flew off the handle and started yelling and screaming for a minute, I might be more inclined to be understanding and give her the benefit of the doubt — but this was a systematic process of abuse where she asked every student in the class to vote a boy out and say why they didn’t like him.

Her behavior was disturbingly sadistic and I can’t help but feel that someone like that should not be working with children.

TGLB said:

The teacher sounds either like a noob, or just poor. There is no excuse for humiliating a child like that. However, I do believe that removal from the classroom in a quick and professional way is a very good strategy for disruptive behavior. 9 times out of 10, the kid is just attention-seeking (and the kid in this instance may have been #10–obviously there’s other issues to consider with a kid with Aspergers), and attention-seekers who lose their audience settle down when they’re sitting on a bench outside the classroom with their book and no one to talk to, or at. It’s a strategy I’ve used from grades 3-high school, and it doesn’t harm them any, provided they stick to sitting outside the classroom. Sometimes, everyone just needs a breather, and then once the other kids are doing their thing, you go out and talk to the kid you’ve asked to excuse himself. That’s how it’s done, not by group bullying of a kindergartener.

Annie said:

Thing is that I don’t think the teacher was trying to be cruel and again, hard to know because we don’t have all the facts. As teachers, we are taught to go for the “teaching moment”, those things that come up in the course of a day that we didn’t expect (or hoped wouldn’t happen) and can be used to bring some lesson or other home to the kids in a concrete way.

Would I have had my kids let another student know how his/her behavior was effecting them? Not like that. I have taught too long to think I could control a situation or what comes out of the mouths of babes. But a younger teacher?

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher has children in conflict talk to each other (we had a conflict management program run by our students at one of the middle schools I taught – it was very successful, even with the special ed kids). Her teacher also urges the children to speak up when they feel another child is being disrespectful or is doing something they don’t want done. Example: Please don’t push me, I don’t like that. or Don’t call me that because it is not my name. Basic standing up for oneself kind of things. I can see where a teacher might take that the next step from individual child to group. My opinion? Dumb. Abusive?

Only if she was in the habit of doing things like this and we really don’t know what was going on prior to this incident.

Not every teacher goes berserk and yells and screams when they have hit their limit.

When I had my fill of a particularly obnoxious group of 8th graders one year, they walked in one morning to find that I had turned all the desks around so that they faced the back of the room with my desk still in the front only now they couldn’t see me.

The assignment was written on the board and when anyone tried to question me about what I had done, I simply pointed to the board. They did quiet seat work for over a week before they got the point. But I didn’t have any more problems with them.

It is not easy to discipline children who are not your own and disciplining children who are yours isn’t a picnic either. We are not going to get it right every single time. Some of us will make little mistakes and some will discover they are not cut out for teaching.

People expect far too much out of teachers these days. The system was not designed to be all things to all kids.