When teachers use ableist slurs

Anonymous asked:

Today we did a spelling test in English,and when someone asked what question two was when we were on question four, the teacher shouted. “Special NEEDS!!”. Is this acceptable??!

I don’t mind teachers swearing at us,but this seems even more inappropriate.

Should I complain?

realsocialskills said:

I think there are two questions here which may have different answers:

  • Did the teacher do something significantly wrong? and
  • Should you complain?

So I’ll consider them separately. The first question is easy. The teacher definitely did something wrong. Several things, actually.

The first thing they did wrong was insult a student who was asking a question. Teachers should encourage questions. It was entirely reasonable for the student to want to have questions they’d missed repeated. Spelling, writing, and paying attention are hard for some people, and a moment of difficulty or inattention shouldn’t mean that you’re not allowed to ask what the question was. It’s really unfair to mark students as not knowing the material when the problem was actually that you refused to make the test accessible to them. That would have been wrong no matter how the teacher chose to insult the student.

It’s especially wrong that the teacher chose to use the insult they used. When they said “special NEEDS!”, they were expressing contempt for students with learning disabilities and learning difficulties. They were also threatening students by implying that if they show disability related struggles, they won’t be seen as having a legitimate place in the class. That’s a horrible kind of sentiment.

They were also showing any students with disabilities who may have been in the room that this teacher is not a safe person to discuss disability-related struggles with. That’s awful, too.

What the teacher said was mean and hateful. Teachers ought to be building their students up, not tearing them down. Teachers ought to be teaching their students to be respectful of everyone, not participating in a culture of ableist hate. Teachers ought to be actively showing their students that they will find solutions that make it possible for them to learn; not insulting them for asking for help. They ought to be actively seeking out effective accessibility and accommodations; not mocking special needs.

The second question is more complicated, and I’m not sure I know the answer to it. It depends on a lot of different things, and I think it is on some level a personal choice.

Some options:

Complaining to the teacher directly:

  • I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this in your situation, but:
  • Some teachers who say this kind of hurtful thing don’t understand the implications of what they’re saying
  • Sometimes when someone points it out to them, they listen and stop doing it
  • This is risky, especially if you are in grade school rather than university.
  • I wouldn’t recommend talking to this teacher about the problem directly unless you have a generally good relationship to them and have reason to believe that they’d care what you think and listen seriously

Talking to another teacher:

  • Is there another teacher you trust to understand why this was an awful thing to say?
  • If so, it might be worth talking to them and seeing what they think is the best way to proceed
  • (But be careful about this too - some teachers in this situation might not understand that you’re vulnerable and might repeat things or  pressure you to confront the mean teacher in ways that are not in your interests)

Talking to an authority figure:

  • I know that it can sometimes be done effectively, but I don’t know how to describe how to do it
  • One thing is that you can’t assume that they will understand why this is a big deal
  • But you can sometimes insist that it is a big deal
  • It helps to be as polite as possible in every way aside from the fact that you’re pushing the issue
  • (Eg: It is helpful to refrain from shouting or swearing, dressing in a way that’s against the rules, or doing anything else they can claim is a discipline problem)
  • It also helps to be pushing for a specific solution. If there’s a built in thing they can do that would get you to stop bothering them, they’re much more likely to do something
  • (Figuring out what to ask for can be complicated. What do you want? Do you want the head teacher to tell your teacher that they can’t say things like that? Do you want a general memo going out about why you can’t say things like that? Do you want to put a letter of complaint in their file? Do you want to to be transferred into a different English class? You might be able to get one of those things to happen if you push in the right ways.)

Involving your parents:

  • If your parents are supportive and understand why this is a big deal, it might be worth talking to them about ways they might help you with this
  • Sometimes teachers and administrators who don’t listen to teenagers do listen to their parents
  • Parents can also sometimes be anti-helpful, so I don’t know whether this is a good idea or a bad idea for you. You’re the best judge of that.

Talking to other students:

  • You might be in a position to influence and/or support other students here.
  • Do you think other students think this was wrong? 
  • Do you think they know that you think it was wrong?
  • Knowing that someone else thinks it was wrong can make a huge difference to people who are vulnerable
  • There’s probably at least one other student who you could support in this way
  • (Possibly discreetly, like talk to a particular person alone at lunch and say something like: Hey, did you hear what Ms. Meanteacher said to Rina the other day during the spelling test? That was so mean/ableist! Why do teachers think that’s ok?“ Or "Why is Mr. Meanteacher always insulting us?”)

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to suggest. Do any of y'all have ideas about what might be effective in this situation? (Answers from people who are familiar with the education system in the UK would be particularly helpful.)