When teachers are the bullies, school district must confront them

A spokesperson for Alberto Carvalho and the school system says that the district values citizenship, excellence, integrity and equity.
A spokesperson for Alberto Carvalho and the school system says that the district values citizenship, excellence, integrity and equity. Miami Herald

I was angered when I read about the mistreatment of 5-year old Aaron Escotto, a kindergartner at Banyan Elementary, a Miami-Dade County public school. It’s a story that should anger us all and motivate us to call for Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and School Board members to prioritize establishing a healthier district culture so that employees know cruel behavior isn’t acceptable and job candidates predisposed to behave this way know not to apply.

Aaron’s mother became concerned when her son didn’t want to do his homework, his grades slipped and he cried at the prospect of going to school. She told school officials several times that her son complained about how his teacher, Rosalba Suarez, mistreated him, once calling him “bad boy” when he didn’t do his work. The school said it couldn’t intervene without proof. The short story is his mother got proof by placing a recording device in Aaron’s backpack.

My kids are long past 5 years old, but I can recall similar mistreatment of one of my sons when he was in elementary school. Fortunately, my conversation with the teacher resolved the problem — though I distrusted her for the remainder of the school year. Banyan Elementary School leaders retreated behind the district’s bureaucracy, saying they couldn’t act without proof, instead of engaging with Escotto to investigate her concerns.

This is the height of hypocrisy: Educators say they want and need parent engagement — except when it goes beyond accompanying their kid on a field trip or buying rolls of toilet paper.

The teacher-child relationship is critical to learning. Kids perform at their best when they feel cared for, when teachers get to know and form a meaningful connection to them and when teachers nurture kids’ development and encourage their potential. Humiliating Aaron by calling him a bad boy, berating him in front of his classmates and suggesting his mom is disappointed in him, as the recording device captured, is nothing short of psychological abuse.

Miami-Dade school spokesperson Daisy Gonzalez-Diego says the district goes to great lengths to promote a culture of dignity and respect, not only among students but with employees. Yet there is no evidence, neither in Aaron’s story nor on the district’s website, to back her statement up. Don’t take my word for it. Go to the website and search for “school district culture” — nothing comes up. You can, however, find four core values: citizenship, excellence, integrity and equity. If we are to believe the district is committed to these values, then equity and integrity should have guided the school principal and Suarez to behave transparently, honestly, respectfully and fairly. In my opinion, they did not.

It’s likely these educators did behave according to their own standards of what equity and integrity mean to them, assuming they’re even aware these are two of the district’s core values. And this is why Carvalho must take the district’s values a step further by specifying the desired behaviors that demonstrate each of these values, so that the adults, students and all of the district’s stakeholders have no ambiguity about how they are expected to behave and make decisions.

Behavior guidelines act as a guardrail for an organization’s culture. Shared behaviors form the foundation of an organization’s culture, and they should be integrated into key district systems: hiring, compensation, recognition, communications and decision-making. When an employee’s or student’s behavior hit the rail, it’s everyone’s signal that they’re out of bounds.

Ironically, Suarez was named Teacher of the Year at Banyan Elementary this year. I’m sure there are aspects of her job that she does well. It’s likely premature to fire her, as Escotto is demanding, given her previous record, but this incident should cause Carvalho to look more closely at what the district is valuing as it evaluates employees’ performance. Being named Teacher of the Year should not preclude this incident from becoming part of Suarez’s record. She should know without a doubt that her behavior is not acceptable and is inconsistent with the culture Carvalho endeavors to establish.

Banyan’s principal should use this moment to discuss with Suarez’s class why her behavior is unacceptable and give them an opportunity to talk about what it means to treat people fairly and respectfully. They should also have a larger conversation with the entire school community about this episode — allowing it to buzz around the school underground does little to reinforce what the district says its values.

Carvalho must do more than have his spokesperson trot out statements of what the district’s culture is expected to be when trouble brews. Talk, as they say, is cheap. Everyone who works and learns in Miami-Dade and who engages with the district as a parent or vendor has to feel and experience the values the district espouses through their interactions with people in the district in order for them to be realized.

A school district’s culture, the way adults and kids behave and make decisions, is the secret sauce that can fuel Miami-Dade’s efforts to become a best-in-class school district — one that people are proud to work for and that parents are proud to send their kids to. Setting the tone for this starts at the top.

Etienne R. LeGrand an education researcher and writer who lives in Miami.