Israelis must protect their children from abusive teachers - opinion

Hardly a week goes by without a troubling report of young children being accosted and violently handled by nursery school teachers.

 PARENTS AND supporters protest outside a hearing at the Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court last month, for two kindergarten teachers allegedly seen on video abusing toddlers. Slogans on the placards include ‘Justice for the toddlers’ (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
PARENTS AND supporters protest outside a hearing at the Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court last month, for two kindergarten teachers allegedly seen on video abusing toddlers. Slogans on the placards include ‘Justice for the toddlers’
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

My friend’s wife ran for many years a religious-oriented nursery school in Jerusalem. A professional educator, she made a special effort to provide appropriate explanations of the holidays and customs that were celebrated throughout the year and ensured the safety of the children during activities that involved fire, such as when lighting the Hanukkah menorah. She also provided concise biographies and understandable summaries of the events and individuals that are chronicled in the Torah.

Yet, despite her experience and skill as a teacher of young children, she was never able to find a way to properly put the akeida – the dramatic episode of Abraham preparing his beloved son Isaac to be sacrificed, as commanded by God – into a perspective that preschoolers would not be negatively affected by.

The trauma of a human sacrifice is conceptually difficult for anyone to comprehend, but she felt that adding to the picture a father intentionally putting his son to death was too much to burden her young charges with. Better, she figured, that they study this pivotal interaction when they’re older and a bit more mature.

Although her concern is understandable, it might have been somewhat ill-placed. Violence is not something entirely unfamiliar to Israeli children. We live in a country and region where individual and group violence is, unfortunately, routine and commonplace. There is no way to hermetically protect children from the reality of current events, including terrorism, war and sexual abuse.

 Israeli children celebrating the launch of Lockheed Martin's MadaKids science kindergarten in Beit She'an on March 15, 2022 (credit: ODED KARNI) Israeli children celebrating the launch of Lockheed Martin's MadaKids science kindergarten in Beit She'an on March 15, 2022 (credit: ODED KARNI)

Parents and teachers share the responsibility of explaining in language suitable for their specific audience how wrong it is to injure or cause harm to others. It is imperative to convey to children that what they see on television or often hear adults speak about is not an acceptable norm, and that there are very special places and times when physical violence and the use of weapons are considered acceptable.

Not everybody, though, who has been given the okay to assist in the raising and educating of our children acknowledges this as a serious professional obligation. On the contrary, hardly a week goes by without a troubling report of young children being accosted and violently handled by the nursery school teachers to whom they have been entrusted.

That discreetly placed closed circuit cameras are becoming standard equipment alongside play mats, building blocks, puzzles and art supplies is a biting indictment of our educational system. Indeed, areas that were once considered secure and safe environments need to now be examined through differently configured lenses.

Granted, the number of incidents that have been reported is but a small segment of the total number of teachers that run or work in nurseries and kindergartens throughout Israel. What we can only speculate, though, is how many incidents have gone unnoticed or unreported. Young children have not yet developed the communication skills required to adequately convey pain and fear; what parents see as behavioral oddities may in fact be symptoms of emotional turmoil and distress.

It’s no secret, moreover, that in many communities it is culturally taboo to wash dirty laundry in public and many community leaders would prefer that any known incident of preschool violence be handled without involving law enforcement or social service personnel. We cannot, in other words, be certain just how widespread this problem is or isn’t.

THIS SITUATION is not unique to Israel, but whereas other countries are taking preventive measures to minimize if not entirely bring these incidents to an end, our system, for the most part, focuses on the use of punitive threats as a reminder that corporal punishment will not be tolerated.

I am not, admittedly, an educator or psychologist, but even a layman would have to question whether this approach is achieving the desired objectives, which are, first and foremost, to ensure that children enrolled in nurseries are not mistreated. Ways must be introduced to prevent such criminal actions from occurring and worry less about how best to punish those that commit them.

Participation in intervention workshops that focus on redirecting violent tendencies and effective use of positive discipline techniques, for example, have become in a number of educational systems a requirement for nursery school teachers. Although the structures of these workshops are not all the same, these workshops focus both on veteran teachers as well as those with little or no previous classroom experience.

Among the positive conclusions cited by the evaluation and results of these workshops is the likelihood that the children will benefit not only from immediate, short-term protection from volatile and mercurial teachers, but will likely realize reinforcement to their overall health and emotional development. A focused, proactive intervention workshop, in other words, may prove to be a sound investment not only for the children but for the society in which they will grow up in, as well.

Such workshops, to be sure, are not simple and need to be researched both carefully and cautiously. The proper structure and content need to be designed on the basis of the types of violent behavior typically committed by preschool educators, as well as the experiences and effects that such behavior has on the children, as well as on what remains festering inside of them, as they progress through the higher grades and different school systems.

However, intervention workshops are by no means the only approach used for bringing an end to preschool violence. On the contrary, something should be done to better understand why this violence occurs and to derive, if at all possible, models that might aid in predicting the likelihood that a teacher might be inclined to aggressive physical contact and other types of deviant behavior.

There may be, for example, environmental conditions that contribute to uncontrolled outbursts. These extenuating factors do not excuse the abuse of a child at the hands of a teacher, but they may, if nothing else, provide some context that can be applied as preventive measures.

Research into preschool violence cannot, of course, ignore the possibility of geographical, socioeconomic and cultural factors that might contribute to this situation. Ours, to be blunt, is a divided society, which has no small impact on day-to-day policies and practices. Our elected officials have not infrequently accused some segments of our society of practicing one sort of racism or another, and the divide between our religious and secular communities have not significantly narrowed over the last seventy-some years. It would surely be no surprise to learn that these differences are being expressed in terms of preschool violence, as well.

Nobody wants that Israeli nursery schools and kindergartens must hang signs prominently displayed on their walls cautioning “These premises are being monitored by CCTV,” but we are becoming alarmingly close to that happening. Parents have the right to be confident that when they drop their sons and daughters off in the morning, they will be picked up in the afternoon with positive enhancements brought about by dedicated and resourceful teachers.

Many of those children, instead, return home mournful and depressed, which is harmful not only to the children and their parents, but to the rest of us, as well. Which is why we dare not let these seemingly isolated incidents of preschool violence go unchallenged. Resources must be found and devoted to ensuring the security of our future, for that is exactly what these youngsters represent.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting non-profit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.