When the Teacher is the Bully -- A Preschool Nightmare

This is a guest post by Melissa Alexander-Flanagan:

"When we take our children to preschool, we want to believe they are safe.  Most of us have researched these places ahead of time.  We make visits, we talk to teachers, and most of all we try to stay involved.  These actions keep us in the loop and reassure us our child is safe—or at least so we hope.

It is no secret among my acquaintances that my son, Asher, has had a tough year.  Moving from the Montessori school where he started when we made our way to Texas into the Spanish immersion school he now attends seemed like a great idea.  Asher had not been doing well at his old Montessori school.

In fact, every day when I went to pick him up, I was told “he had a bad day.” At the time, I was quite sure he was just too busy and active for them and needed something else.

The Spanish immersion preschool he goes to now seemed like our dream come true.  It is located just a block from where I teach, and after touring the school, I absolutely loved the staff.

But a month or so into the fall semester, it was clear Asher was again struggling. I do not want to be the parent that refuses to admit there might be a problem with my child.  But since he is my only child, I also have no one to compare him to.

Finally, after months of the school trying different things, and me having to come get him for acting out, and all of my strategies failing, I took Asher to a play therapist. And it worked wonders--literally. If only I had done it sooner.

After just a few sessions with the therapist he showed dramatic improvement!  The therapist discovered quickly that he struggles with severe anxiety.  I knew he had some issues given some of his habits, but I had no idea how serious it was.

Asher was adopted at birth and my ex-husband and I split when he was just over a year old—when he was still forming attachments.  The divorce was long and bitter and our co-parenting relationship is, at best, difficult.

And it was obvious that no matter how hard I tried to shield him from the conflict, he was affected by it.  But play therapy was healing him and he was gaining coping skills. I was thrilled.

Then suddenly, about two weeks ago:  massive regression.  When I say massive, I mean massive. My sweet boy who has been potty trained for a year and a half is suddenly wetting his pants three times a day at school.  He is biting, scratching, and hitting.  He is saying things like “Mommy, I don’t want school” and “I don’t like the bad teacher. “ When I asked who the bad teacher was, he named her without hesitation.

As a mother, a teacher, and someone with a degree in psychology, the hairs and the back of my neck immediately stood up and my mind went to the worst possible scenario.  If someone is hurting my child, I thought…

I called his therapist and we agreed that because there had been no changes at home and his therapy was indicating that home was his “safe place,” then the problem must be at school.

I approached the director and she was helpful, but dismissive.  Then, more things came to light.  After receiving another call to go pick him up for acting out, I started investigating.

I talked to some other parents and teachers and it turns out, the problem was not isolated. Then something amazing happened--the other teacher in the room called me.  That brave woman called me and told me everything.  Not only was the suspected teacher being verbally abusive, but she was being physically aggressive with my child, as well.  My little boy—just three years old and already struggling with anxiety—was being bullied by his preschool teacher.

She yelled at him and told him he was bad.  She grabbed him by the face and pushed him down.  She pinched him.  Oh yes, she did these things—and she did them right under my nose.   The guilt mounted and I was overcome with anger.

Fighting every urge in me to go to the school and drag her out by her hair, I instead called a meeting with the director and both teachers.  The honest teacher who had called me was willing to testify to her fellow teacher’s abusive behavior in front of the director.

So, we had our meeting, and I confronted this monster and made her tell the truth.  With the director there and the other teacher in the classroom present, she couldn’t lie and I wasn’t going to let her.  It took every ounce of self-control I had not to slap her.  But I knew I had to rise above, not only for my son, but for the other children in that school.

“Just imagine--,”I told the director, “just imagine what we don’t know. This is what this woman does in front of other people.  What does she do when their heads are turned?”

They fired her on the spot and, after making a call to the state and CPS, I spent the afternoon trying to figure out where my son will go to school next.  I am so torn.  He has established friendships there and I am so worried it will send his anxiety spiking, but how can I keep my son at a school where he was being bullied by a teacher?  Why didn’t anyone know?  Why had it not been reported?  What do I do?

The answers I am left with are the same ones I came to terms with when I, myself, was bullied in middle school: people are afraid.  They are afraid to stand up. They are afraid they will be blamed.  People let their fear silence them, and as a result, other people often end up hurt--sometimes they even end up dead.

This time, it was my innocent toddler—just three years old and still too young to even really articulate what was going on. She preyed on him because he couldn’t defend himself.  This is what bullies do.  They bully to feel powerful and strong.  They do this when they are children and then, if something isn’t done, they grow up and do it as adults.

Luckily, I caught it.  Luckily I was paying attention. Had I not, the consequences for my son could have been devastating.  And so, to each of you today, I ask one thing, don’t be afraid to stand up. Don’t be afraid to step in.  As my dad used to say, “It is never wrong to tell the truth.”  It might be hard sometimes, but it is never wrong."

-Guest Post by Melissa Alexander-Flanagan

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  • What a story. Melissa, you are a wonderful parent. You protected your child when he needed it the most. There was nothing lucky about it, you did your job by paying attention and being there for your son.

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    In reply to Jimmy Greenfield:

    Jimmy, thank you! It was a terrible experience--but he is better and I will always be on guard now...it's scary what people will do to others...especially children. Thanks for your kind comment.

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    The school, once it was brought to full light, did the right thing. Kudos to the other teacher who eventually overcame her fear enough to speak up. Confronting a co-worker when it could have cost her her own job (given the director's previous easy dismissal of your complaint), is a big deal. If your son has made other friends there, perhaps evaluate better ways to monitor the classrooms?
    My son's pre-school had a website where anyone to whom we gave the password could login and view the classroom through a video camera. His grandparents, Dad, and I all checked in randomly throughout the day as we had breaks.

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    Oh and Melissa, you did the perfect thing in each case. Good job, Mommy!

  • This post brought out in me a mixture of tears, relief and caution. Thank you so very much for bringing attention to the issue of bullying by a person in a position of authority over your child, which can be far worse than being bullied by a peer. We just switched preschools for our son, and you can be sure your story gave me an alertness that I did not previously possess. Thank you, and I hope your son flourishes in his future setting, wherever that may be.

  • Hi Melissa,
    Your story brought tears to my eyes. As a mom and teacher as well, I think it is both a gift and a set-back to have both lenses. I commend you for both advocating for your son and sharing this story so other parents do as well. As parents we must follow our instinct and not be afraid to speak up. Our kids are precious gifts.

    Sincerely,
    Robyn

  • This has me in tears. She grabbed your precious boy's face? And pinched him?! I can only imagine your rage. I would have had an ulcer by the time of that meeting.

    You're an awesome mom!

  • Why must you change schools? If your son has made friends and there are other supportive adults present, I'd play wait and see and continue to attend this school for now. The bullying teacher was the problem and she's been fired. Why uproot him if the problem has been removed? Three year olds can move on much quicker than adults do and if the environment feels safer to him now, it may not really matter (to the child) what happened there previously. Young children tend to live in the now. If "now" feels good with the bad teacher gone, he can be perfectly happy at the same school.

  • WOW! Great Post! Do whatever you can to advocate for your child.

    Here is my story. I was bullied by a kindergarten teacher way back in the day.

    i went to a public kindergarten in a very nice, well-off suburb of a big city. My first kindergarten teacher I am told was very professional. I was she that realized that my hearing was comprised and I wasn't ignoring people. She suggested to my mom that I been seen by a doctor to look into that issue. Log story short

  • WOW! Great Post! Do whatever you can to advocate for your child.

    Here is my story. I was bullied by a kindergarten teacher way back in the day (early 1960's).

    i went to a public kindergarten in a very nice, well-off suburb of a big city. My first kindergarten teacher I am told was very professional. I was she that realized that my hearing was comprised and I wasn't ignoring people. She suggested to my mom that I been seen by a doctor to look into that issue. Long story short I had a tonsillectomy and that solved the hearing problem. She left to have a baby and apparently we had a rotation of teachers in and out after that.

    One teacher (the bully) would sit all of kids on the floor and ask us what toys we wanted to play with during Free Play that day. She went around the room asking each child. Then she came to me. What toy do you want to play with. Wow - I still remember this clearly. I said little blocks (my favorite). She said, "No, you played with those yesterday, what else do you want to play with." OK. I understood that. So i said, "kitchen". She replied,"No. You played with those the day before. What else do you want to play with." Now I was flummoxed. Pushed to tears. Why couldn't I play with the toys I wanted play with. I may have given her another answer that she did not accept. I do remember not understanding. I do remember a long uncomfortable type of grilling by the teacher.

    I finally said i would play with the big blocks (which i didn't like) and she finally accepted that answer. I was a fairly shy, reserved little kid who already didn't make friendships easily. This episode didn't help.

    I didn't tell my mother about this. I internalized what happened and figured it was my fault. A friend of mine in the class, however, told HER mother who in turn told my mother AND the school. (yeah -- someone else noticed it was not appropriate). The teacher did not last very long. I am sure she was fired.

    Kudos to your kid who told you about non-acceptable behavior by his teacher. Always advocate for your kid even if he/she is difficult.

    And everyone, advocate for your kid even if he/she is a bit of a mouse and cannot advocate for themselves.

  • My son attended a pre-school with a bully for a teacher. I volunteered a day and saw the teacher berate a kid for not cutting his paper well, so much so that the kid melted in a pool of tears. It was strange to watch and think she would do this in front of a parent volunteer. I removed my kid the next day. I believe she was meaner to the spanish kids than the white kids. Makes you wonder if this is more common than we think and if cameras should be in the classroom some day.

  • In reply to commonsense1:

    I had a lady do that to my son too. I don't get it. So what if he was the worst in his class at cutting paper? He was the only one that knew a caterpillar formed a chrysillis and forms a butterfly and she treated him like a know it all when he said that. The incidences in preschool scarred him enough that kindergarten was miserable for him because he only did things that reminded him of his failures in preschool. It's been a continuous battle with school since.

  • It's horrible. I'm glad the bad teacher had no tenure to hide behind.

  • was this in chicago?

  • In reply to Alexander Russo:

    In Dallas.

  • Your son is lucky to have a caring and vigilant mother.

    "They fired her on the spot ..."

    Sadly, that is the only part of this story that surprises me.

  • Dear Ms. Melissa,

    I am SOOOOOOOOOOO proud of you, for maintaining your koolness and pressing forward to find out WHO the problem is/were, in your sons' life.

    I PRAY daily, that I don't get myself in trouble because of some so-called adults'(especially an authoritarian) ill behavior towards my lovedones.

    I know I don't have the patience OR tolerance, for BULLIES.

    PS: Patients at Chester Mental Health Center, are BULLIED constantly by guards there. Some even raped by them, so I curtsy to you, for being persistent for your child, for it is not always the childs fault and if a parent/guardian isn't paying attention, they(themselves), will find themselves blaming that child for something that another, is responsible for and I FOR ONE, WIL NOT TOLERATE SUCH BEHASVIOR FROM NOONE!

    PPS: Stay diligent!

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