Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all as well as you can be. This week’s blog might or might not be about an autism-related issue. See what you think.
Recently, I came across a news story about a teacher being sacked for gross misconduct from St Clare’s School in Porthcawl, Wales. St Clare’s is a private school, and media reports have quoted £14,000 as the annual fee. Teacher Suzanne Smith was fired following an investigation after an incident in which she sent a vulnerable child out of her classroom, and then… seemingly forgot about him for half an hour, following which she abandoned the rest of the kids in her class while frantically searching for the stray. It doesn’t sound like great teaching, does it?
Mrs Smith started at St Clare’s in 2013, and achieved two promotions, ending up in the position of Head of Key Stage 3, before it all went horribly wrong for her. According to the various news reports, it seems other staff at the school had concerns about Mrs Smith’s teaching style, including her “strictness”, and allegedly shouting at the children in her care.
The incident that brought everything to a head occurred when the vulnerable child in her class, “Pupil J”, removed his covid mask to take a sip of a drink. Apparently, he had not been given permission to do this, and Mrs Smith immediately sent him from the classroom. Nearly half an hour later, apparently, she remembered sending him out, and decided to look for him. He wasn’t outside the classroom. What followed was her frantic search. It turned out Pupil J had got bored with waiting around, and made his way to another teaching block, where a member of staff took him in. It strikes me as significant that this member of staff didn’t alert Mrs Smith as to the location of the pupil. Make of that what you will.
Pupil J had well-documented learning difficulties and behavioural issues, according to the reports. To be honest, I don’t know what that really means. I don’t trust news outlets to understand issues like this, or to report them accurately. Is Pupil J autistic? Autism does regularly get reported as a learning difficulty, so maybe, but I don’t know for sure. However, it’s an interesting story in itself, and it triggered some memories for me. I’ll come to that shortly.
In her defence at her appeal hearing, Mrs Smith argued that her strictness regarding covid masks was due to her having a medically vulnerable son, who had to shield through the pandemic. This defence was rightly dismissed by the appeal hearing when it emerged Mrs Smith had taken her vulnerable son on holiday to Greece during the pandemic when he should have been shielding. In the autistic community, I often hear about warrior parents of autistic kids who exploit the child’s autism for their own ends. Here, we have a situation in which a parent seemingly exploited her neurotypical child’s health issues for her own ends (trying to win an appeal). Just an odd parallel I noted. Parenting in general deserves a long blog post all to itself.
Whatever the truth of this story, Mrs Smith doesn’t come out of it looking good. She is allegedly someone who shouts at her pupils, failed to take adequate care of Pupil J, had created cause for concern among fellow staff to the extent that they didn’t even let her know when her pupil roamed off around the school, and she tried to pull the wool over the eyes of her appeal panel regarding her “strictness” by invoking her own child’s illness in a disingenuous fashion.
Look, I’m sure there are many great teachers out there. In fact, I know there are. More power to them. But I know from personal experience there are some teachers in schools whose behaviour toward the children in their care is abhorrent. I don’t know why these people pursue the career. Is it subconsciously some kind of revenge for the horrors they endured at school as children? Is it simply perpetuating a cycle of abuse? That’s a frightening thought.
When I refer to my own experience, I’m talking not only about my memories of going to school as a child, but also my experiences as a father and stepfather, having to deal with teachers who simply shouldn’t have been in a position of responsibility with children.
When I heard about Pupil J being sent out of the classroom just for taking a sip of a drink, and then read about the teacher’s habit of shouting at children, it triggered a few unpleasant flashbacks for me. I have some fairly vague recollections of nasty teachers when I was at primary and middle schools, but it was when I went to secondary, or comprehensive, school that the real horror started. There was a running joke among pupils at the first secondary school I attended, that you only had to breathe wrong while walking down a corridor, and you would hear the booming voice of a red-faced, grey-haired, wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth teacher, yelling, “You, boy!” I feel sick just thinking about it even now.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know I was autistic. I’d never even heard the term autism, and had no idea what it was. But I certainly had some difficulties. Thanks to what I now know to be the double empathy problem, I struggled to maintain friendships. I would drift into friendships, then drift out again as people seemed to go off me for reasons I couldn’t understand, or worse, the turning against me would be sudden and catastrophic, resulting in violent bullying. At secondary school, I encountered similar problems with teachers who could take a dislike to me on the merest whim. There were some horribly cruel teachers at that school, and I was by no means the only victim of being screamed at for little or no violation. And then there was the petty stupidity of some teachers. Some of them just didn’t seem very bright, to me, and were more interested in getting kids to do exactly as they were told, than helping them develop. Many memories of this kind of thing resurfaced in my mind after reading about the incident at St Clare’s So, just for the hell of it, here are some of my recollections of shitty teachers being shitty to me at school…
- But The English, Teacher. I was damn good at English, at school. I loved it when we were told to write short stories. I did one such piece of homework for a teacher who, thus far, I had liked. He seemed like a decent bloke, although it annoyed me that all the girls swooned for him and he seemed to enjoy it. We were 12-year-olds, by the way. Anyway, I handed in a pretty good story, and was shocked to find red ink crosses through it, and a low mark. I was upset, and asked him if I could talk to him about it. I couldn’t understand why I’d got such awful feedback. It turned out, I’d started several sentences with “and” and “but”… however, as I pointed out, I had only done that in dialogue, reflecting how people really speak. In the narrative, I had used “correct” grammar. I saw him bristle as I pointed this out. But he refused to change the mark, and just reiterated that he had told us not to start sentences with “and” or “but”. I couldn’t take him seriously after that. These days, of course, I’ll start even non-dialogue sentences with “and” or “but,” etc, in casual style, because that is how people use language. And I bet he wouldn’t like it. But I don’t care. And if I had been more world-wise at the time, I might have had serious worries about how he enjoyed the attention of female children. But I doubt any other teachers there would have listened to me.
- Ve Te Faire Foutre. I was not so good at French, and it was not my favourite lesson, by any stretch. But one day, the teacher had caught my imagination with something he was telling the class. I can’t remember what it was right now, but I know at the time I was absolutely absorbed by this talk he was giving. For some reason, as I was listening to and enjoying the lesson, I took a comb out of my pocket, absently ran it through my hair, and was about to slip it back into my pocket, when the teacher stopped speaking, went bright red in the face, and literally screamed at me to put my comb away. I mean, this guy went on a full-blast rant that lasted for at least a full minute… which is a long time when someone is yelling. Man, it was unreal. He was a tall, middle-aged bloke, and I was a scrawny, skinny, little thing. He could have said, “Oy, don’t be cheeky, Darren, put your comb away.” But no… an absolutely steaming rant that left him visibly sweating, the other kids dumbfounded, and me terrified.
- Why Do You Have To Be A Backbreaker? Over a few days at school, I’d accumulated various heavy textbooks from different classes. One day, it transpired I needed to take a lot of them in on the same day. I loaded them into my bag, picked it up, and felt a pain in my back. Not just a pain; it was agony. This was the first instance of a back problem that continues to trouble me to this day, forty-odd years later. My mother was concerned, and couldn’t believe how heavy my school bag was. Somehow, an arrangement was made with the headteacher for me to have my textbooks left in a secretary’s office, so I didn’t have to carry them everywhere. One day soon after, my form teacher gave me a shouting-at that was almost on a par with the French lesson incident, because, apparently, I’d embarrassed her by having my textbooks saved in the secretary’s office. Good grief.
- And Why Do You Have To Be A Backbreaker, Too? Sometime later, due to a flare-up of my back problem, I was in too much pain to do a PE lesson, so my mother sent me with a note so I could be excused. The PE teacher looked at the note dubiously, and explained that he would have to find something for me to do while the lesson was going on. He took me to the huge assembly hall, in which were hundreds of steel-frame chairs with canvas seats, in rows. He told me I had to stack them in piles against one wall. I had a back problem.
- Heavy Metal. Here’s another minor, petty one, that nevertheless made an impression on me. I remember, one day the metalwork teacher gave us all small slabs of metal that we had to fashion into bottle openers. I wasn’t very good at metalwork, but I did okay with this task, and was pretty pleased with my bottle opener. But the teacher looked at it, and then me, with such utter disdain and a sneer on his face, and loudly stated that it would never open a bottle. I took it home anyway, and it opened bottles fine, and got used for years to come. What was his problem?
- No Audience Participation. There were many, many instances of bullying at the school from both teachers and pupils. Some kids who got bullied would find someone further down the pecking order they could bully in turn. I was a bit of a late developer, and was at the bottom of that pecking order. All the teachers knew about the beatings that some kids were inflicting on others, but nothing was done about it, and it even seemed to be source of entertainment to some of them. I can’t help wondering if the teachers used to run a book on the fights. For me, it came to a head one Friday afternoon, after I’d had my lunch. I was attacked in the schoolyard by someone I thought was a casual friend. I didn’t know why he attacked me, and I never found out. It was totally unexpected and unprovoked. I was caught by surprise as he ran up behind me, and started punching and kicking me. As is the way with these incidents, a crowd formed a circle around us, and I couldn’t escape the ambush. I was scared shitless, to be honest. Eventually, I broke out of the circle, and looked around for a teacher, for help. A small group of teachers were nearby, on the steps to the main entrance, watching it all, while nursing mugs of tea or coffee. They made no attempt to intervene. I ran away, as fast as I could, and refused to go back. Thankfully, my mother secured me a move to a much nicer, more relaxed school, but the damage was done.
- The Sequel. At my new school, I stayed on into the sixth form, and found, to my dismay, that the school was now part of a sixth form “consortium” that included the old school. Twice a week, I would have to go back to the old school for art lessons. I was a bit stressed about it, but by this time I had got a little bit taller, a bit broader, a lot more assertive, and I’d learned how to look after myself. On my first trip back to the old school in four years, I bumped into the PE teacher who had made me stack all those chairs while I was in pain with my back. He vaguely recognised me, stopped me, and started up a conversation. He asked me why I’d left the school. With my newly developed assertiveness, I told him a major reason was that the teachers here had been bloody horrible to me. He seemed shocked, and with a completely straight face said, “I was alright to you, wasn’t I?”
For people of my background and generation, being bullied by teachers at school was seen as the norm. It was… acceptable, apparently. This was in the days when officially sanctioned punishments for bad behaviour at school included being beaten with a cane or ruler. I saw teachers push kids up against walls by the throat. I saw teachers throw wooden blackboard wipers across classrooms at children’s heads. I saw teachers slap children across the back with those long, metal blackboard rulers. I saw one teacher smash a kid in the face with a hinged desk lid. For someone like myself; an unidentified autistic trying to find a way to fit in but constantly flummoxed by what was going on around me, it was sheer hell.
The teacher at St Clare’s was sacked, and her appeal dismissed, and rightly so. But two things occur to me: Firstly, that kind of stuff will still continue to happen, because some people going into the teaching profession really shouldn’t be allowed to. Secondly, I wish there was some kind of retrospective justice for kids of my generation.
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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
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Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.