I Was Teaching English (And Pregnant) When A Student Threw A Chair At Me
Yesterday, an 11-year-old student allegedly stabbed a teacher at a Townsville primary school.
By all reports the child was going through a great deal and, according to a classmate, had been "very sad lately" because she had recently lost her mother.
While these are terrible circumstances for any child to endure -- and one hopes that she gets the counselling she needs -- the reality is violence or threats of violence against teachers and other school staff happens more often than some people might be aware.
I know because it happened to me while I was teaching (and while I was heavily pregnant).
Luckily, in my case the incident was nowhere near as serious as yesterday’s alleged stabbing, but it still caused me great distress and made me fearful in an environment where I should have felt the opposite.
The sense of unpredictability of some student behaviour means a teacher's safety is never guaranteed, and for some -- myself included -- that can be a difficult concept to grapple with.
My own experience occurred in my last year of teaching and was a part of the reason I left the profession.
I was teaching my Year 10 English class when a 15-year-old boy, large in build, far taller than my 161cm stature, Tom*, began to shout.
This particular student was known for his outbursts at fellow students, teaching staff and support staff. He had done it repeatedly both at this school and at previous schools he had attended. He could often become verbally abusive and physically threatening or aggressive, depending on his mood. Although in his case his mother was supportive, she herself often felt scared of him and admitted that she had lost complete control of his behavioural management at home. This meant that his poor behaviour was frequently left for his teachers and one overworked school counsellor to try and contend with.
So, as Tom began to raise his voice that day my internal alarm bells went off and I immediately began to try and resolve the situation before it escalated further, knowing full well that it possibly could. This particular day, though, nothing I did was going to make any difference for the better -- he was completely enraged and out of control.
Then as he let out one final profanity-filled scream, he picked up a classroom chair and threw it directly toward me -- heavily pregnant me.
Tom then turned around and stormed out of the classroom leaving me physically shaking, tears in my eyes and with the other students in the room either completely stunned or approaching me to offer comfort. Although, I somehow dodged the chair and was physically unharmed, the intense sense of fear is something I will never forget.
Like me, Sally*, a now-retired teacher, recalled a time where she also faced the threat of violence at school.
“Our school was forced into lockdown for over an hour because a recently-expelled Year 9 student found a baseball bat and was trying to gain entry to classrooms by hitting the walls, doors and glass with the bat as staff and students barricaded themselves inside. It was terrifying,” she said.
The boy who was at the forefront of this violence had been expelled from the school the day prior due to previous violent behaviour toward another student. He was eventually escorted off the school grounds by police.
Sally also said on a separate occasion, a fellow teacher had been physically assaulted by a Year 7 student who punched her in the chest and abdomen, after being cornered by her and her Year 8 sister into an area she couldn’t flee from.
Sally said: “the incident left the teacher only minorly physically injured but psychologically scarred. She was off work for over a year on Workcover as she dealt with the psychological ramifications of the assault.”
None of this should be taken as a demonisation of students or a minimisation of the difficulties and anxieties children face in school. According to a recent youth mental health report, the number of young Australians dealing with psychological distress between 2012 and 2018 increased by 5.5 percent. Student mental health is certainly an important factor in addressing the problem of violence in schools.
It should also be acknowledged that it is a minority of students who demonstrate violent behaviours -- but sometimes, this minority is all it takes to make a school environment feel unsafe for many who work within it.
And while it is a complex issue with a range of origins, these incidents often happen as direct retaliations to a decision or event, or ongoing behavioural conditions of the student -- some of whom are poorly managed. Some violent incidents stem from a lack of support between school and home or issues in the home environment itself; others result from just poor behaviour, full stop.
But no matter what the reason is behind an act of violence, or threat of violence, there is often not enough support and assistance for teaching staff or other support staff in schools to aptly deal with the poor behavioural patterns before more serious incidents unfold.
Poorly funded schools, inadequate aide funding for students who require help, limited access to social workers or counselling at many schools and the expectation of teachers to resolve and/or manage most classroom behavioural issues themselves -- these contributing factors need to be addressed in order to help prevent violent incidents like these from happening.
Unfortunately, for this Townsville teacher it is too late. She will most likely fully recover from her physical injuries, but there is no doubt that she will carry the burden of the emotional and psychological ones much longer, just as Sally, Sally’s colleague and myself all have.
And this is possibly the worst part about an incident like this -- the lasting ramifications on someone just trying to do their job.