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‘A primary school teacher shook a child in class, according to my granddaughter. What should I do?’

Tell Me About It: The school your granddaughter attends should have a complaints procedure outlining the informal and formal routes available

Question

My granddaughter is in primary school. Recently, she witnessed her teacher grabbing a student in her class and shaking her. My granddaughter told me about it when I collected her that day, as she was quite traumatised witnessing the experience. I understand that the parents of the girl who was shaken confronted the teacher, but accepted his apology.

My daughter doesn’t want to create a fuss because she is friendly with those parents, but I know how upset my granddaughter was and I don’t think the teacher’s behaviour was acceptable. I understand this was not the first time the teacher acted in this way.

I am not sure where to raise this, but do not want a family row either.

Answer

There are a number of aspects to this issue – vicarious trauma suffered by both you and your granddaughter, your reservation regarding your daughter’s wishes, and how to make a complaint in the school system.

Vicarious trauma is the term to describe a traumatic incident in which we are observers, rather than the central parties. The experience can leave us feeling shocked, angry and helpless. It also has the effect of making us feel that we do not have a right to these feelings, as the incident did not actually happen to us.

Your granddaughter has discovered that adults can behave in unpredictable and violent ways, and this can shake her faith in a world that she believed would be safe and caring. You love her so much that you can feel her pain, and this translates as anger at the adult world that can use power against a vulnerable child.

You also feel helpless as you are not sure of your rights to raise the matter further. What is important is to acknowledge these feelings and seek support for yourself in the first instance. Anger gives us energy to take action, and when the action is denied we can be left with heightened emotion and nowhere for it to go. Helplessness is the opposite feeling; it shrinks us, makes us want to disappear and leaves us with a sense of fear and trepidation. You are feeling anger and helplessness simultaneously, and this is contradictory and confusing.

Your daughter does not want to create friction with the parents of the child who was shaken, and you say you do not want to create a row with your daughter

It helps to express these feelings with someone you trust so that you can get a sense of your own position. Vicarious trauma can trigger latent emotions, and these can seep into our reactions, eg, if in your own schooling, you felt powerless and intimidated. Becoming aware of this can help you separate out what needs to happen in the current instance from your own experiences and can allow you to choose an action that is appropriate to the current situation. You can also allow your granddaughter the possibility of expressing her range of feelings, while taking into account her right to participate in a response, in an age-appropriate way.

Your daughter does not want to create friction with the parents of the child who was shaken, and you say you do not want to create a row with your daughter. I wonder if this pattern could be viewed at a family-tradition level. It is possible that both you and your daughter could talk about the fears that are behind your reactions and see if it is possible to help each other to tackle them. The main fear could be one of conflict, or of loss of friendship or connection, and while this says a lot about what is valuable to you, it might not be what both of you want to pass on to the next generation.

Challenging fear is something that can contribute to a growth in self-confidence, and a sense of self-worth, but it needs to be done in a step-by-step way so as not to cause undue anxiety. If you can own up to your fear that pursuing the matter may create a distance between you and your daughter, then she might be able to hear your serious concerns that something needs to be done. Reaching such an understanding is not something that can be done in one conversation.

Rather, it needs to be part of an ongoing discussion where you seek her help with overcoming your fears. It might also help to ask what kind of character your daughter wants to model for her child, though this might need to be done sensitively and with care.

The bigger picture also needs to be considered here. Would everyone (children, teacher, school and parents) benefit if the teacher in question was made aware of and got help for their behaviour? The answer is likely to be yes, so if you can get your daughter on side, you might consider the following actions.

The school should have a complaints procedure, and it should be available online. Such a procedure should outline both the informal and formal routes that are available.

In the first instance, you can talk to the principal of the school. This is what is considered best practice, and the principal may well know how best to tackle this issue. If you are unhappy with this response, the next level is the board of management of the school, on which there will be at least two parent representatives. Again, they may have good experience and knowledge of how to deal with this situation, and will be able to refer to the school’s dignity, respect and bullying policies. The procedure regarding escalation should be clear in thedocumentation.

If all of this is unsatisfactory, you can go to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, which will investigate the complaint.

Select from the list below to view the agreed complaints procedures for that sector:

  1. My child is in primary school
  2. My child is in a secondary school which is not an Education and Training Board (ETB) school
  3. My child is in an ETB secondary school

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