Kerre McIvor: Don’t like their rules? Don’t choose that school for your child

OPINION:

You have to be a special sort of person to be a teacher. We all remember the good ones – their names, their many small kindnesses, their belief that we counted for something, that we mattered and that we would make something of ourselves beyond the school gate.

We also remember the bad ones – and they can be just as influential in our lives. I didn’t have any bad teachers per se. I was lucky enough not to have a bully have authority over me who used their considerable power to undermine me for the simple reason that they could. I do still blame my fifth form maths teacher for derailing my enjoyment of maths but she wasn’t a bad person – more a brilliant mathematician who understood numbers but not 15-year-old girls.

I enjoyed school, but then I enjoy rules. Some of them were stupid: like only wearing your blazer outside the school grounds, not your cardigan; like never eating on the street; like only ever wearing plain, brown, leather lace-up shoes – but that was okay. Those were the rules and they were clearly explained to me, and my parents, when we signed up to the school.

It infuriates me when I see stories in the media about parents complaining because their child’s school is enforcing rules that they signed up to and now want to subvert. Just like the story this week of the Chief Ombudsman, Peter Boshier, telling the board of Macleans College that they must apologise to a student for expelling him after an altercation with his house leader.

The 17-year-old student had told the teacher to “f… off” over an argument over the use of an iPad and not to touch his “shit”. According to the Maclean rules, a student can be expelled if they commit “gross misconduct that sets a harmful or dangerous example for other students”. The school board’s disciplinary committee decided his actions reached that threshold. But his parents believed the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

They complained to the Ombudsman – who found the board was wrong and told it to apologise. And so off we went on talkback – with some of us believing that a school had every right to set a certain standard and maintain a certain culture, and almost as many others thinking Macleans was over the top. I heard from the parents of pupils currently enrolled at the college, who said the school did indeed maintain strict rules and that was precisely why they’d chosen to send their children there.

I heard from a teacher who had enjoyed teaching there but who had sent his three children to another school because he didn’t think they’d fit into the strict college environment. I interviewed a lovely man, a principal of 40 years, who had never suspended or expelled a student in his career. And I spoke to Julie, the mother of the now 19-year-old boy who’d been expelled. It must have taken a lot of courage to ring. It can’t be easy hearing everyone’s reckons about your family, your son and your motivation.

She said there had been a history of friction between her boy and the particular teacher that reached a tipping point when the teacher allegedly made comments about her. She said her boy had apologised immediately after swearing and she didn’t feel the punishment suited the crime. She said she knew of other, far more egregious sins committed by students at the school, and they hadn’t been suspended or expelled. It simply wasn’t fair.

I asked her why she hadn’t moved her son to another school when he was having so much trouble with one of the teachers and didn’t enjoy the school culture, and she laughed ruefully and said hindsight is a wonderful thing. Her boy, she said, didn’t want to let this particular teacher “win” by driving him out of the school and so he stayed, until he was expelled. He’s doing well, she said. He studied for a year after leaving school and now has a good job. And the apology is enough for the family.

The Chief Ombudsman says his findings should serve as a message to schools that their response to infractions should always be proportional and they shouldn’t take the nuclear option of expulsion or exclusion and having to backtrack later.

His office was available to offer advice to any school board if they were unclear on what was a suitable response to bad behaviour. And surely this needs to be a message to parents too to find a school with a culture that is compatible with their values and their child’s personality. If your child is a free spirit, they’re probably not suited to a rigorous, rules-heavy college based on the grammar model.

If you see nothing wrong with your child having unicorn-coloured hair, don’t sign up to a school with rules about hair colour and style. I’m grateful for the rule breakers and the disrupters who have the courage to create and change. But I’m even more grateful for the majority of us who have signed up to the civic contract to (mostly) obey the rules that keep society functioning.

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