I wanted to tear their eyeballs out. That's how I felt about a teacher and her classroom aide after watching the emotional video (embedded below) of a father who sent his 10-year-old autistic son, Akian, to school wearing a hidden recording device. The captured audio is disturbing. I'm no expert, but I feel pretty confident in saying that acting cruelly and calling a kid a "bastard" is not how to teach children with autism. Akian's dad, Stuart Chaifetz, is right to be angry. Very angry.
Akian's story has now gone viral and sparked a firestorm of outrage. Those with an axe to grind against teachers' unions (and public education in general) have used this story to further their own narratives. Good teachers are struggling to avoid being lumped in with the bad ones that receive media attention. And many parents are now calling for cameras to be installed in every classroom.
There's no question that cruel, bullying behavior is never beneficial when working with children. With special needs kids, this is especially true. The teacher and aides involved in Akian's "care" deserve their punishments. Their actions were deplorable. But their inappropriate treatment of Akian should clue us all into the bigger problems at play. It's time for each of us to take a wider view.
Passing Judgment from Atop Our Imaginary Pedestals
Extreme incidents like this can provide teachable moments for more than just those involved in the despicable actions. They give each of us an opportunity to reflect and become more aware of how we conduct our own lives.
Can you look in the mirror and honestly say that you don't treat some people differently (sometimes in an undignified manner) based solely upon superficial indicators of who they are?
It's terrible that students with special needs are sometimes bullied by their own teachers. And it's horrifying to think that such behavior may, in fact, be more widespread than what's already been exposed. That might be one reason why many parents are homeschooling their kids. But, as I step back to view this problem from a broader perspective, I see that it is just a symptom (one of several) of an entrenched societal illness that too many of us have come to passively accept.
We tune into television pundits and blowhards yelling at each other.
We read (and sometimes contribute to) nasty online comments that show little or no regard for another's feelings.
We reject other people's ideas outright if they happen to hold different beliefs or choose to live lifestyles we don't like.
We casually criticize or make fun of other people over lunch, even if we've never met them or have any understanding of the hidden pain they might be carrying around.
I am not perfect. You are not perfect. Nobody is. We are all disabled.
When we are suffering, it's human nature to lash out at those we perceive will offer the least resistance. It's a lazy way of trying to cope with our own unhappiness. We react harshly to those things or people that annoy us instead of making the effort to develop and practice compassion.
Teaching special needs children obviously takes a special kind of person, one with more patience and appreciation for human differences than Akian's teacher displayed. She and her classroom aides are clearly not cut out for that type of work. But, if you listen to the audio, it's also apparent that they lead unhappy lives. They suffer like the rest of us.
So, as we grab our pitchforks and race with the rest of the lynch mob to carry out our rightful vengeance, we'd also do well to pause long enough to acknowledge our own inner monsters. Otherwise, we will only continue to reinforce the vicious feedback loop responsible for the very thing we've gotten so angry about.
I've said it before, but we can all do better. We must.