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When Your Kid’s Biggest Bully Is the Teacher

Classroom still life of apple, pencil and homework with copy space for customized text.

My daughter expected that she would be hazed by upperclassmen in high school. She heard all the horror stories about freshmen being shoved into lockers and sent on wild goose chases through the hallways, but these tales never materialized. To her surprise, the older students she interacted with daily in the halls in her elective classes and on sports teams were welcoming and kind. On her second day, an older girl walked her to her class on the other side of the building, knowing she’d be late to her own class.

My daughter least expected that degradation would become the norm in an honors class, in which she (and most of the students) maintained a solid A. And the source was even more surprising: the teacher.

“This tissue box is NOT for freshmen, and your cough is disturbing my class, so quit it.”

“Freshmen may not approach my desk unless given permission in advance. And don’t bother me by asking questions.”

“Freshmen may not see me during study hall without an advance appointment, and may not approach me without properly inquiring as to my wellbeing, my weekend and life.”

“I hate teaching freshmen.”

“And don’t you dare call me ‘Mrs!’ I’m a “DOCTOR! ‘Doc’ for short, is acceptable.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Was the teacher joking? I had heard lots of rumors about her and she’s known for her “pickiness,” but I wonder if her approach rises to the level of bullying. Are terror tactics really necessary, and what exactly are they meant to accomplish in a room comprised of some of the brightest and most compliant students?

I recently served on an anti-bullying committee, which included a task force of parents, teachers, and administrators. We were trained using a nationally recognized curriculum and helped organize assemblies and events. I learned that bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that is characterized by an imbalance of power and repetition.

While the programs were successful, one key component was missing: We failed to address the trickle-down effect. The school climate and culture is dictated and perpetuated to a large degree by teachers. Repetitively modeling unnecessarily rude and aggressive behavior by teachers, who clearly hold a position of power, creates an atmosphere that is not conducive to learning and wellbeing during an already difficult time in a child’s life.

To be fair, now that these teens are in high school they’re old enough to not be truly afraid, but they’re also old enough to know better. Most of the students found ways to get around the teacher by turning to each other and to older students who had taken this class. But the nagging issue remains: They are expected to greet their teachers, behave with respect towards one another, and rise to the standard dictated by this advanced class.

Shouldn’t the same be expected of the teacher?

When my daughter was in 5th grade, we moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Leaving family and friends was hard even for my then resilient 10-year-old, who eventually adjusted and blossomed. But that first year was tough. While her homeroom teacher made every effort to help her integrate, her gym teacher negated all positivity with his warden-like M.O. He couldn’t accept that she had sprained her ankle and couldn’t run the mile (is running the damn mile the bane of everyone’s collective memory, or is it just me?). He accused her of lying. When she handed him her doctor’s note he screamed, “Your mother is a liar!” in front of the entire class. Not that saying it privately would’ve been OK…

“You may live in Pennsylvania now,” he pointed out the obvious, “but you need to Jersey up!!!” Really? Well, I Jerseyed myself right up to the school and met with the guidance counselor. She assured me that he was “just like that” and “does that to everyone.” Good to know.

To console his sister, after the gym incident, my son reminded her of the third-grade reading teacher who threw his book against the wall to teach him a lesson. She was upset that he underlined a word in the book, instead of on the numerous post-its he used to annotate the chapter. Somehow he got distracted and wrote in the book and he came home in tears. “So she grabbed your book and threw it against the wall to teach you to respect books?” I asked. The smile spread across his face slowly, appreciating the irony even at the ripe age of 8.

These instances were the exception rather than the norm, but they are part of my children’s collective school memories. While traumatic at the time, we laugh about them now, yet that doesn’t make it acceptable. Teachers are only human after all, and their job is just that: a job. Loving our children, coddling them, and indulging them is not part of the job description—but showing them basic respect and good manners is. I get that teachers are under a ton of pressure, that many kids are spoiled and difficult, and that many parents are impossible to deal with. Starting the school year off with, “I hate teaching freshmen,” is just not OK.

Both my teens have had their fair share of favorite and not-so-favorite teachers, but for the most part, they’ve lucked out and benefitted from outstanding educators and role models. As this year comes to an end, there are so many teachers who deserve that shiny red apple. And I need to be grateful and remember that one or even two rotten apples truly don’t ruin the bunch.


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