582. Grievances

Twenty angry children came in from gym class one day and began telling their teacher, Ellen, how unfair the gym teacher was. The gym teacher had stopped a soccer game because of the behavior of some of the children. Some of the children had gotten a little carried away, and had said some things that children aren’t supposed to say in school. The whole class had been punished, and all of the children were angry – not at the few who had said the “bad words,” but at the gym teacher.
Some teachers would have responded to the ruckus by telling the children to discuss it with the gym teacher; there was an activity Ellen had been planning to start, and it had nothing to do with complaining about the gym teacher. They were supposed to start setting up a science experiment. Regardless of what had happened in gym class, there was work to be done, and it would have been understandable if Ellen had decided to tell the
children to put aside their feelings about the gym class incident.
But that wasn’t Ellen’s way. She considered handling the children’s grievances more important, at that moment, than the science lesson that was supposed to happen. The class would soon be studying the American Revolution, and Ellen could have related what was happening to what had happened in the colonies – anger about unfairness. But Ellen didn’t feel the need to link everything that happened in class to the prescribed curriculum. She was teaching science, history, and all that, but more to the point, she was teaching children.
What followed was a discussion in which each child was given a chance to air his or her complaints about the gym teacher. There were lots of complaints to air. Only a few had to do with the soccer game they’d just been playing. The gym teacher had been cast in the role of the enemy, and to me, the discussion felt a little like ganging up on the teacher. I wondered whether some children felt that they had to come up with damaging statements about the gym teacher, just to fit in.
Later that day, Ellen asked me whether I thought what she’d done was appropriate – whether it was “unprofessional” for a teacher to spend time listening to children’s complaints about another teacher. I understood her question, but I honestly didn’t have an answer. I don’t like the way the word “unprofessional” is often used; it’s as though people in a profession have a sacred duty to protect other people in that profession, regardless of whether accusations are legitimate.
One way to see this issue is to think about the rights of children. Punishing everyone for the misdeeds of some is unfair. And some of the other complaints children voiced rang true. Children have a right to be heard. But a teacher has the right to face her/his accuser(s), and besides, children can get carried away when they are given the chance to complain and be heard in public. So I don’t know. What do you think?

Comments are closed.