Championing the Rights of the Entire School Community

It was alarming to read of the results of a recent study carried out by the Teacher’s Union of Ireland in which 1050 teachers in fifty-eight public sector schools were surveyed.  Half of the group of teachers surveyed believe that indiscipline is now a serious problem and is having major effects on teachers’ morale.  One third of teachers reported unacceptable verbal abuse by students and over one-fifth reported experiencing threatening and intimidating behaviour by students.  An equally disturbing finding was that one in twelve teachers is experiencing sexual innuendo and harassment from students.  The assumption here is that it is female teachers who are principally experiencing this.  Given that the majority of teachers are female, there is an urgent need to address this issue, as well as the other appalling situations.  The question that certainly arises is how come a high percentage of students are operating from such an immature and threatening place?  Are schools involving parents enough in their responsibility to ensure that their children come to school respectful of the person of the teacher?  The latter has to be a two-way street – teachers need to be equally respectful of students.  The study which is described as the most rigorous to date could have been usefully balanced by a survey of students’ experiences of teachers.  There was no comfort in the finding that fifty per cent of students encounter disrespect, bullying and cruelty by other students.  Neither was it reassuring that one in thirteen teachers experienced verbal abuse by parents.

Teachers have not only the right to teach but they also have the right to physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional and social safety and any threat, from any source, to these fundamental rights needs to be treated seriously.  Equally, students have the right to learn in an environment that is physically, sexually, emotionally, intellectually and socially safe and any threat, from whatever source, to those rights needs to be seriously considered.  There is no way that the persistent challenging behaviour of one or more students can be allowed to threaten or violate teachers’ rights.  In any case, a student who frequently disturbs a class or school environment is rarely in a place of psychological readiness for school learning as there are more urgent emotional issues to be resolved.  

Retaining students who persistently disrupt classes and/or bully teachers is an act of neglect of teachers, of those students who are psycho-socially ready to learn and of the students who are troubled and troubling.  Enforced presence in classrooms is not addressing the underlying emotional and social issues to students’ challenging behaviours.  Involvement of the student’s family is essential and some professional who has a thorough understanding of family dynamics needs to conduct this intervention.  A way needs to be found that safeguards and vindicates the rights of teachers and other students, but also the rights of the student who presents with disruptive and aggressive responses.  All behaviour has meaning and I have no doubt that the disruptive behaviour shown by a growing percentage of young people is a cry for help that needs understanding.  Any attempts to label the student or medicalise these disruptive responses are counterproductive.  What is required is a positive holding environment wherein the relationship issues that underpin the young person’s inner turmoil and defensive responses can be detected, understood and resolved.

It would appear to me that there needs to be closer links between the Department of Education and the Department of Health and the need for the setting up of a psycho-social service inside or outside the school for young people who present with such threatening behaviours – behaviours that violate the rights of others and block their own progress.  Such a service needs to have clinical psychologists, family therapists and counsellors who are trained to work with families, children and teenagers.  The unique needs of the situation may call for particular professional skills.

It is imperative that the rights of teachers and students who are committed to learning are safeguarded.  It is also vital that when a young person is clearly showing signs of deep vulnerability that his exclusion from class is done in tandem with access to a psycho-social service that will effectively address the causes and the intention of his or her challenging behaviours.  Without such a recourse, suspension and expulsion only further reinforces the vulnerability of the student who is distressed. 

Finally, teachers are in school to teach and students are there to learn.  Anything that interrupts a teacher’s right to teach – whether within the teacher’s own self or without (students’ indiscipline, intimidation, bullying, harassment) needs to be confronted firmly and effectively.  The same applies to any interruptions of students’ right to learn.  It is both the individual responsibility of each teacher, student and parent and the organisational responsibility to ensure that the rights of each member within a school is vindicated.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of A Different Kind of Discipline.