More kindergarten cruelty

This time it’s a kindergarten teacher in southern Indiana accused of humiliating a five-year-old boy in front of his classmates. Gabriel Ross told his parents throughout the year that his teacher, Kristen Woodward, was mean. He said other children didn’t like him because he was “bad and stupid.”

In mid-April, Tabitha McMahan and stepfather J.R. Edwards sent Gabriel to school with a tape recorder in his pocket.

“I’ve been more than nice to you all year long and you’ve been ignorant, selfish, self-absorbed, the whole thing! I’m done!” Woodward says to Gabriel on the tape.

She continues: “Something needs to be done because you are pathetic! If me saying these words to you hurt, I hope it does because you’re hurting everyone else around you.”

Gabriel can be heard crying on the tape.

The teacher encouraged the kindergarteners to reject Gabriel.

“So you guys think, is that somebody you want to be with?” Woodward asks the class.

In unison, the other students reply, “Noooo.”

“See, your friend doesn’t want to be with you. I don’t know what else to tell you. So you’re not going to have friends because of your actions.”

She was having a bad day and lost her cool, says the teachers’ union. Too bad that just happened to be the day she was on tape. After listening to the rant, the parents pulled Gabriel out of school.

Early in the year, the teacher, a 13-year veteran, said the school would set up a “behavioral plan” for Gabriel, says the stepfather. He says that when he tried to discuss the plan, Woodward said, “I don’t have time for this.” His report card was a mix of smiley faces and frowns, usually for being disruptive, but the teacher never asked to meet with them, the parents say.

I don’t care how aggravating this boy was. He’s five years old. The teacher had options — such as talking to the parents — short of berating him and encouraging his classmates to reject him.

Woodward has been suspended. She says she’s moving out of state and vows never to teach in a public school again. Does she think private schools welcome abusive teachers?

About Joanne


  1. Parent2 says:

    “ignorant, selfish, self-absorbed”

    Isn’t that age appropriate for a 5 year old? I feel very sad for the psychological abuse this child has suffered. I wonder if he’s been “bad”, or if the teacher has been encouraging the other children to perceive him as “bad.”

    Another thought: has she done this before? Has she been shaming kindergartners before their peers for 13 years?

  2. mjtyson says:

    One good thing is she won’t be teaching again.

    Sadly, it cost one little boy. Hopefully his parents will get him into a school with better teachers or home school him.

  3. We had to pull my son out of our neighborhood school due to similar circumstances. The result when all of this was happening was our then 8 year old son became so anxiety ridden at the thought of going to school, that he became physically ill. When he would tell his teacher that he wanted to go home, he was told to stop acting like a baby and to grow-up. While I admit we all have bad days, I think that when you have a child who previously had no problems going to school all of a sudden refuses to go, it may very well be due to what is being said to him or her by their teacher.

  4. I’m not usually against teachers’ unions, but to justify this behavior by saying she had a bad day is unconscionable. If a teacher had been treated like that by an administrator, the union would be up in arms.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    The kid complains that his teacher is saying mean things to him. So the parents send him to school with a tape recorder, and the teacher happens to have a bad day that day?

    Every other day, the teacher is a ray of sunshine, but when the boy is clandestinely recording, just by coincidence, the teacher is abusive?

    Yeah, sure, I believe that. Also I believe the Magic Toaster Fairy comes around at night and delivers toasters.

  6. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Reminds me of one of my first memories of interacting with teachers – to be specific, a kindergarten teacher who exploded with rage because I didn’t hold a pencil like the other kids. I wonder what she’d think now that I STILL hold the pen/pencil the same way and yet, have managed to do quite well for myself.

  7. Barry Garelick says:

    I wonder how prevalent such abuse is; could this be more widespread than it looks? And since boys tend to be more disruptive than girls at that age, I wonder what Sara Mead would have to say about it.

  8. I have heard of schools where peer judgment of students is part of the behavior code. If a student misbehaves, he or she is sent to the “bench,” during which time he/she wears a “bench” sticker or sign and is shunned by peers. The student must then write a letter of apology to the class. The class then decides whether or not to admit the child back into the fold. Apparently this very practice was outlined explicitly in a KIPP handbook:

    Now, I know there are misrepresentations of KIPP, but from all I can glean, this “benching” and shunning is part of KIPP policy, at least at some schools.

    Is this acceptable? No. Is it widespread? Yes. Does it go beyond individual teachers to entire schools and school programs? Yes. To me the most inappropriate part is the group shunning and group judgment. Punishments of some sort are necessary, and timeouts can help everyone involved. But the peers should be kept out of it.

  9. Tracy W says:

    On the bad day topic, yes, I’ve had bad days where, due to lack of sleep or some other cause, I’ve lost my temper and snapped at people. But then when my conscience kicks in, I apologise. Anyone know if there was any sign of the teacher apologising on the tape?

  10. Parent2 says:

    Dawn, we have a child at a really wonderful private school. Students are benched for infractions. At the middle school level, I don’t find the consequences you list to be oppressive. What would be oppressive would be a lack of consequences for bad behavior. Many public schools are too tolerant of bad behavior.

    What works for a child in middle school is not appropriate for a child in kindergarten. Also, in your posting on KIPPs policies, I didn’t see a section on “verbally belittling student in public.”

    It sounds as if this child was subject to a year of bullying from his teacher. If he had behavior issues, she had the duty to advocate for the child, and to pressure the administration to provide support to her, and to the student. He may not have any learning or behavior issues. The Indiana State Teachers Association rep said, “What do you say to a kid who’s rolling around, punching, biting, kicking? What can a teacher do?” I think many five year olds, if subjected to ceaseless persecution in the classroom, would revert to that behavior. At least this child told his parents, and his parents believed him. I wonder how many children suffer in silence?

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    There are elements of including peers in confronting behavior (how does that make you feel when Johnny calls you a name?) that are very appropriate. Exclusion (time-out) can also be used appropriately. Even something that might be called shunning (when Mary falls down and screams to get attention we won’t look at her until she stops and show us that she is ready to joing the group) can be used appropriately.

    One problem is that these techniques really must be used with some care, and some understanding of what one is trying to accomplish and why the particular response has been chosen. Inexperienced, or poorly trained teachers (or other people with responsibilities for children) can easily fall into something that “looks like” an acceptable response, based on limited knowledge, and get into deep trouble with it. A time out that is used inconsistently, for too long a time, or without ensuring that the child understands the offending behavior and what to do differently, can lead to frustration for both the child and the teacher. Manipulating peers to back up the teacher’s sense of frustration–as opposed to fostering social skills between children and leading to resolution of peer problems–teaches really bad things about the acceptability of groups ganging up on undesireable members.

    Throwing first year teachers, with minimal supervision, into responsibility for whole classes not only calls out these behaviors, but can lead to their becoming entrenched over time. There are many factors to support this reality, from the expense of providing approprate levels of supervision, mentoring and training, to the resistance of teachers to being evaluated.

    When the teacher is quoted as saying that she didn’t have time to work out a behavior plan, I can hear the echoes of all those who describe IEPs as “meaningless paperwork.”

  12. Private schools wouldn’t accept abusive teachers, but they would probably also be more likely to expel disruptive students.

  13. The most likely long-term effect of this is that audio recorders will be banned and children will be inspected daily for such contraband devices. Although that’s somewhat satirical, it’s not entirely unlikely. There have been a number of cases in which a school board has banned camera phones after kids used cameras to expose classroom problems.

  14. Next week we will hear an article about several parents complaining about how their kids are being denied an education because there is a unrully, undiciplined, disruptive 5-year old student in the class.

    They will interview the teacher who will say how she has tried everything, but the parents never do anything, and insist their child is really an angel.

    Two sides to ever story… though the teacher might of cracked under pressure, I imagine the kid and parents weren’t all innocent either.

  15. If a 5 yo child is unable to control him/herself in a group situation, perhaps the child is not developmentally ready to be in a formal classroom situation. I know that flies in the face of “get ’em off the breast and into school asap”, but children need time to mature physically, mentally, and emotionally to handle the stress of a classroom. And children should be able to mature at their own pace without having a label attached to them when they are barely out of diapers that follows them for the rest of their academic lives. Why not just chop off an arm or leg- it’d be less damaging, IMO.

    As far as this teacher is concerned, any adult that receives gratification from humiliating and emotionally blackmailing children is a pervert.

  16. Parent2 says:

    Rory, if she hasn’t arranged a meeting with the parents, she hasn’t even started to use the tools at her disposal.

    Yes, there are many unruly children in our schools. Yes, many have been raised to be unruly by their parents. That doesn’t mean that it’s proper, fitting, or even effective to persecute a child in this manner. I’m glad she didn’t beat him, but she seems to have done everything short of that.

    My daughter is most upset when a teacher publicly scolds another child in school. It’s not effective, it poisons the atmosphere, and it intimidates other children in the class.

  17. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I’m guessing this is pretty common, actually. When I was in Kindergarten, we were publicly humiliated for bad handwriting. But everyone knew that we had the “mean” kindergarten teacher.

    My first grade teacher, on the other hand, was INCREDIBLY kind and patient and loving….

    But every school has a mix of good and bad teachers… And it takes a special gift to handle a room full of five year olds, especially now that kindergarten is getting more “academic”

    This doesn’t excuse teachers verbally abusing and humiliating kids, but perhaps we’re asking too much of them when we want them to socialize 5 year olds AND impart academic skills…. maybe we should go back to Kindergarten as a place to learn basic “getting along” and save the academic stuff for when kids are ready to sit still and play nice….

  18. We have nanny cams. Perhaps its time for teacher cams. Wire all public school classrooms with web cams so parents can check on what’s happening with their kids any time they want.

  19. I once visited a day care center that had a bank of monitors in the lobby, one for each classroom.

  20. Eleanor says:

    Why not just bring back the dunce cap?

    And put it on the teacher.

  21. Walter E. Wallis says:

    In 1949 I spent several months as basic training cadre [the equivalent of DI]. At that time, abusive instruction was deemed unprofessional. Explaining and demonstrating the correct performance was [and still is] the only way to teach. One learns from the cursing, in your face screamer only how to avoid triggering an outburst. In my family, I applied the “hair on fire” rule to yelling.

  22. That teacher was busted bigtime. Good for the parents. Hopefully she will get a really good job in another state at McDonald’s or maybe evenWal-mart.

  23. We have nanny cams. Perhaps its time for teacher cams. Wire all public school classrooms with web cams so parents can check on what’s happening with their kids any time they want.

    The other benefit would be that kids would behave better knowing that their actions were monitored along with the teacher’s. It sure would decrease the “teacher said/student said” arguments that arise too often in parent conferences/meetings.

  24. Mike, a diag in Texas says:

    With one class I was so desperate that I put a box with a black circle on it and told them it was a camera.

    It really worked. Think of it as a placebo for the entire class.

  25. Sister Howitzer says:

    Slate has a link to the incident report.

  26. Oh my God, she claims to be moving to Pennsylvania!

    Grrrrrrrrrreat. My eldest starts Kindy next year!

    BTW, if she DOES move here, she might not get hired by a private school, but there are plenty of Catholic parochials that would LOVE to have her I’m sure.

    She’ll fit right in at one of those.

  27. I remember being in 7th grade (I’m now 49) and the teacher telling one of the worst anti-Semitic “joke” that is still the worst ever. I won’t repeat it, but it had to do with the Shoah.
    When my mom complained to the school, they moved me and didn’t do squat to him!


  1. […] can be heard crying on the tape.   Over at Joanne Jacobs, commenter Barry Garelick asks a question that’s probably on a lot of parents’ minds […]

  2. […] education writer and blogger Joanne Jacobs points to a news story about an Indiana public school teacher who was really mean to a 5-year-old boy in […]

  3. […] talking to teachers and reading the dozens of comments on my blog posts here and here, I see a […]