Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again...
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
– from Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel
I CONVINCED my cousin not to throw her over the balcony.
In an uncharacteristic display of calmness in matters concerning my children, I thought at least one of us should try to find out what happened. On investigation, it emerged that this teacher, an older woman, had something of a reputation in the primary school. She regularly made children run personal errands for her, disciplined them in an erratic manner and generally wreaked havoc within her private domain, otherwise called the classroom.
The principal actually seemed relieved when I indicated my intention to write a letter of complaint. I warned that if this teacher’s behaviour did not stop, I would unleash a monumental bacchanal from the school board to the ministry and media.
I did not discuss the letter with anyone, but at the next Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) meeting, it was obvious that everyone was aware that the letter had been sent. I was polite when others thanked me for taking the action, but in my mind I was steupsing. Why? It hit me that they all knew about this teacher’s behaviour. Why had no one done anything about her bullying? Is it because they saw an old woman and not a tyrant?
As with the teacher now receiving national attention, this woman seemed fairly normal when you interacted with her. I have since learned that teachers with behavioural issues are very skilled at fooling the rest of the world. Research confirms that sometimes the behaviour “may result from burnout, personal or work-related stress, or a mismatch between his teaching and the student’s learning style.”
For us, the question of learning style is crucial. With so many talented people in a small space, it baffles me that we still teach in ways that are incompatible with how many of our children learn. And we have yet to fully address our issues surrounding class, colour and race.
To be fair, the teaching profession is populated by many conscientious people, who believe in the power of the teacher to transform lives. Their commitment and passion continue to set standards for all who enter this noble profession.
Sadly, in our society, we seem to have perfected a culture of silence that simply ignores when teachers do not measure up to those standards. This happens across the private and public sectors, in academia and the wider world of work; where most people are aware that something is not correct, but are unwilling to step forward to initiate change.
Understandably, people may be afraid of losing their jobs or that they may face even more victimisation for speaking out. Perhaps parents are slow to believe their children or take action because they suspect that their children will be further targeted.
Indeed, statistics show that children rarely complain about their teachers, even when they are not comfortable in class, or know that their parents would support them if they identify a problem.
But our culture of silence may be blamed for other serious repercussions. Studies on bullying by students or teachers in the US and the UK reveal that victims of such actions suffer a range of mental health challenges, from anxiety to feelings of hopelessness and depression.
A report on bullying and gender-based violence in TT secondary schools noted that in “Caribbean society, mental health issues are often ignored, under-treated, or dismissed as ‘madness.’ Little attention is paid to emotions specifically...There is a need to teach mental health education, including emotional IQ from a young age...”
Additionally, we need to create bullying policies that deal with both students and staff, which include fair, secure reporting procedures. We must stop protecting those who harm children, and develop systems to detect unstable personalities who may be attracted by a profession that allows them access to young people.
I never went to another PTA meeting and moved my children from the school. My cousin moved her daughter as well – safer for the teacher. But these are not sustainable options. Our schools should be extensions of a happy childhood, where children feel safe. It is time – we must disturb the sound of silence and be loud in defence of future generations.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN