I spend a large portion of my life explaining to myself that teenagers lack the frontal cortex development to act like humans some days. They’re flighty, they struggle with self control, they often have no clue of the full impact of their actions. But in spite of, and in part because of these things, I love these guys. However, yesterday 3 of my 14 yr olds really upset me. They had no idea, but nonetheless words were used that hit very much below the belt.
They weren’t in fact referring to me, but to an injured friend by shouting a phrase from Little Britain (I’m sure the writers would be delighted that their characters are used to insult people) along with ‘cripple’ across the room at him. It was one of those moments that I look at a child and can’t work out if they’re being outrightly offensive to me or genuinely stupid. Neither could their classmates who spoke to me later to ask if I was ok (all together now: awwwwwww).
So I devised a plan with their head of year.
Now normally, a student using abusive/bullying/discriminatory language would find themselves excluded and in much trouble. I asked if we could try something different and ask them to have lunch with me today. The head f year was totally up for this and sent the “invites”.
Lunchtime arrived and 2 of them shuffled into my classroom (the 3rd remains awol, but I’ll find him). I scooted over to them and explained that they had used language in my classroom that had upset me and that I found very hurtful. They drew a blank, but looked mortified. I gave them a few hints and it suddenly dawned on them – they’d been calling their friend a cripple in front of the teacher in a wheelchair. Bless them, they went grey. That gave me all I needed to know – I can read these kids like books 😉
First off, I set their minds at rest that I wasn’t calling in the head, or their parents, but instead wanted them to understand why a simple word could be so important.
I’ve taught these guys for over a year now and they’ve seen me decline physically. Rather than asking for empathy (frontal cortex and all that), I gave them facts:
I don’t like being in a wheelchair.
It’s hard work and it makes simple things very difficult.
My condition will last forever, so I am finding it difficult to accept.
When you use words like that, it reminds me that I have to work extra hard to be treated equally.
I explained that sometimes I’m OK to joke about being ill, but it must be on my terms. Ask me for a race – that’s OK. (Cue giggling), ask for a lift – that’s not going to happen, but it’s OK, joke about my terrible driving skills – that’s totally ok. But, use words that society uses to make disabled people “less” than others, then we’re going to fall out.
They were totally on side now and we talked about why it’s not appropriate anywhere, not just in front of me. We even talked about invisible illness and how you’d never know that some people were suffering because a lot of illness, including the majority of mine happens on the inside, not the outside. It’s only visible now because of the braces and wheelchair.
And off they went.
No one felt bad. No voices were raised. There was no need for punishment and they took away that I’m a human, not just a teacher. Oh yeah, or a wheelchair user. This is totally my preferred method of parenting, and it works just as well with my kids at school.
It allowed me some introspection too. I never thought that would get to me. I’m proud of handling it calmly though.