Teachers Can Be Bullies, Too

[Content note: bullying]

There’s a beautiful video that’s been making the rounds on the internet. It’s an animated version of a spoken word piece called “To This Day,” in which Canadian poet Shane Koyczan retells his own experiences with childhood bullying–and, really, so much more. Here it is.

The video really resonated with me because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own experiences with bullying, even though they actually had little resemblance to the stories told in this video. Although I was definitely picked on and called names by other kids at times, for the most part my tormentors were not children. They were adults. Specifically, teachers.

Teacher bullying is its own beast that can’t be addressed the same way as peer bullying, and likely has different causes. The teachers who bullied me seemed like they hated children. They seemed jaded about their jobs. Although I was often accused as a child of “thinking only of myself,” I picked up on this pretty quickly and I sympathized to some extent.

I think the reason they hated me especially was because, as a gifted, socially awkward kid, I asked for more attention than they probably felt I deserved. Once in fifth grade we were doing an art project in class and I wanted to find out if there were any other colors of construction paper available, so I asked my teacher. She burst out in front of the class, “You’re just trying to make my life difficult, aren’t you!” I still remember that, standing in front of the supply closet with her and being accused of somehow scheming to make things hard for her. By asking for another color of paper.

My 7th grade English teacher despised me for some unknown reason. Unfortunately (or fortunately) my memory seems to have blocked out whatever it was that she did, but I remember being terrified of going up and asking her questions, and I remember crying in the bathroom during lunch a lot because of something she’d said to me. If I wanted to, I could probably go back and reread my journal from that year and give you specific examples, but honestly, I’d rather not.

My 8th grade algebra teacher had a hobby of arbitrarily calling me out for no particular reason and accusing me of doing something wrong. She was lecturing once and I was taking notes in my binder. At one point I flipped over a sheet of paper because I’d filled it up, and she suddenly stops the lecture and goes, “Miriam, what are you doing?” My seat was in the back corner of the room, so naturally everyone turned and stared at me. I was older, more defiant by then. I looked right back at her and calmly said, “I was turning a page in my binder.” With no further comment (or apology), she went back to her lecture.

Of course, if these were just isolated incidents, it wouldn’t be bullying; it’d just be teachers lashing out and acting inappropriately. But they weren’t. Such incidents are the legacy of my middle school years.

I wasn’t the only one, either. I noticed other kids being bullied by teachers; some of my friends were among them. The terrifying thing is that a lot of anti-bullying measures focus on getting bystanders to intervene. Useful advice, perhaps, when other kids are the bullies. What about when it’s a teacher who grades your assignments too? Who could just as easily turn on you?

The sad thing about this is that initially, as a kid, I trusted and enjoyed talking to adults way more than I did my peers. I was always the kid who would rather corner some houseguest of my parents’ with a conversation about black holes or animals than sit at the kids’ table and listen to some boring conversation about Britney Spears or who had a crush on who or whatever.

But over time my negative experiences with adults began to outweigh the positive ones. When I was not mocked or falsely accused of imaginary classroom transgressions by my teachers, I was condescended to and treated like I was years younger than I really was–or felt. The fact is that kids of the same age vary widely in their emotional and intellectual development, and treating them all like they’re inept and immature is unfair.

(In fact, the condescension generally continues to this day, even as I’m 22 and about to graduate from college. It is almost impossible to have a conversation with someone more than a decade older than me that does not end up being implicitly or explicitly about my age, because nearly all the older adults I meet seem to be convinced that I need nothing more than their unsolicited advice and protection. Although this sort of thing tends to have very good intentions behind it, the assumption that children and young people are unable to make decisions for themselves and desperately need guidance is harmful overall. The more involved I get in online activism, the more older adults I meet who treat me with respect, but it’s difficult to forget the fact that for most of my life, adults outside of my family were often condescending or even cruel.)

And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. So many people bear scars much worse than mine. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, sometimes from family members, are terrifyingly common among children.

Bullying is tragic no matter who the targets and bullies are. But I’d say it’s even worse when the very people who are charged with educating children and helping them feel safe and accepted at school are the ones perpetrating it. In fact, in our education system teachers are often expected to impart morals to children, too. I remember the “character building” exercises and the lectures about treating others fairly and with respect. What a brutal irony that was, coming from teachers who shamed me in front of my peers for daring to ask a question or just for being different.

I have many wonderful friends who plan to become teachers. I trust that they’ll be good ones. But at this point I just want to say this: if you’re planning on being a teacher and there’s any doubt in your mind that you’ll be able to handle the frustrations of the job without taking them out on children, please find a different career. If you are a teacher and find yourself snapping at kids because you’re so burned out, please find a different career.

This is too important a job to do poorly. Children are too dependent on the validation of adults, too sensitive to the massive power differential that exists between them and adults, to always be able to just brush off your stinging words. It’s unfair to put that responsibility on them.

Teachers Can Be Bullies, Too

30 thoughts on “Teachers Can Be Bullies, Too

  1. 2

    As a teacher, I have intervened to stop other teachers on rare occasions from bullying people. And yes, I have had teachers who bullied me. Like my high school teacher who was a shrew with frosted hair and dark roots. She made us copy notes of the overhead and write and grade each others papers. She would complain about having married for love instead of money. She would try to target students at the beginning of the year to tell them they weren’t honors material to decrease her class size. I had another teacher in grade school who would talk about me behind my back to the class because my mother neglected me.

    So Yeah, teacher bullying happens. However, in my experience the majority of teachers are human beings warts and all not soulless monsters. Many students do not understand that the kid they think is just trying to be funny at someone else’s expense is wasting everybody’s time. They also don’t understand that teachers are in there without a safety net, as many cowardly administrators will not support them with an abusive student if the parent is also difficult.

    And still, some teachers are the only defense helpless children have from abusive parents. Caring teachers have often made my life better as a child.

  2. 3

    I can definitely sympathise here. One maths teacher I had in about year 9 used to pick on one of the girls incessantly for having no clue at all about simple maths. What a way to put a student of studying for life. I didn’t like the girl at all but I did at least manage a sarcastic comment to the teacher to let him know what I thought of his behaviour. I got away with it being a boy and good at maths, but I already was being bullied by the other boys for being a nerd. It is bloody hard deaaling with bullying especially with someone in authority over you.

  3. 5

    Thanks, Miri, for sharing these thoughts and excerpts from your school days. I experienced a little maltreatment from my teachers way back in the early 1960s in fist grade. This year I am taking a break from my work as an elementary school principal to write a dissertation related to abrasive teachers and how principals do or don’t intervene. I found your memories helpful.

  4. 6

    s a teacher who once did find myself getting snappy with kids I don’t think it’s always appropriate to say “just find a different career”. I did take a break from teaching when it happened and it did me the world of good, I came back a better teacher for it.

    But careers aren’t something you get by snapping your fingers. “Please find a different career” sounds a lot to me like “please flush your demanding postgraduate work down the toilet, but keep the debt for all those student loans – while you are at it kick start the whole process again and get a different career”. Fact is, it is a tough job, I’ve always tried to do my best-under pressure there was a time in my life I found myself slipping. I didn’t follow your advice and just chuck in my career, sorry!

    Getting jaded by a tough job doesn’t make you a permanently bad teacher it makes you a human being. Good teachers can go through bad periods, if you meet one who hasn’t I’d like to know their secret.

  5. 8

    I had a few borderline bullying teachers but fortunately it was in high school when I’d finally become the smartarse bastard I was destined to be so instead of being intimidated by it, I used to take the piss. Best part was learning faster than they could teach so any time they tried to trip me, I usually had the answer and it pissed them off more.

    I had one crap one in primary school that still felt like the cane was an adequate punishment for not paying attention, happily mum gave him and the principal a serve when I came home with welts and curiously enough, that abusive fucker wasn’t employed there the next year

  6. 9

    My 6th grade teacher was like this. I have severe ADHD. My whole family does. We’ve been used in medical studies, it’s so bad across the board. This made paying attention difficult, especially if I didn’t like a subject. And at that point I really didn’t like math, because I wasn’t good at it. I still had problems with long division at that point. In nearly every other subject I surpassed my classmates, so my teacher decided I was being bad at math deliberately to defy her and challenge her authority over me. She would mock me, laugh when classmates mocked me, and give me detentions if I tried to defend myself. I spent 6 months enduring this before I snapped and had my first rage episode, and it was all the scarier for how calm I was during it all. I even walked myself to the principals office immediately after, told the secretary what I’d done, and patiently waited for the principal to talk with me. It was like I was reading a book about my life, not *living* it. I was immediately suspended, but the upside was that the teacher ended up confessing that she had reacted negatively to this perceived challenge and the principal was furious with her. Principal tried to get Mom to keep me in that school, but she switched me out immediately. I had great teachers at the new school who knew how to handle me and get me engaged, and helped my math skills blossom. And my science teacher was really hands on and kindled my love of discovering answers.

    But the experience with the horrible teach really stuck with me. I have a fearsome temper that I mostly keep a chokehold on, thanks to knowing how violent I can be when enraged and that temper scares me. And I do NOT tolerate bullying at all.

  7. 10

    I had a teacher in fifth grade who took joy in making students cry. I was one of those kids who cried a lot in general, so I don’t remember any particular torment directed at me. I do remember that he would target other kids and bully them until they would cry. One boy, who had difficulty reading and was very shy, was forced to read aloud in class. He made a number of mistakes, and each time he did, our teacher would tease him until he was literally weeping and couldn’t read anymore. Another time he punished a boy who was goofing off (doing that thing where you put your fingers upside down over your face) by making him stand at the back of the room, doing the same face thing, while our teacher taunted him the entire time and encouraged the students to do the same. That boy also ended up crying. Our teacher just laughed. He’d also make us play baseball during class hours and then make fun of the kids who weren’t good at it. I don’t think any of the students in our class got through the year without crying at least once. When I remember that year, it was horrible. But, none of us ever said anything to our parents. It was pretty much drilled into us that we needed to go along with whatever our teacher was doing and that to challenge him would be inappropriate and disrespectful.

  8. 11

    Part of the solution is to give teachers more support and pay them better! Unfortunately we live in a society that doesn’t value the role of teacher and expects them to be saints, superhuman and miracle workers who work long hours and then go home and subsist on dog food. That said, yes there are genuinely sadistic teachers who are that way due to personality defects, and I feel for the children who have to encounter them. The type of person who goes into teaching generally isn’t that way, I think. I wonder how much bad teacher behavior would vanish if we gave these people the support and respect and just outright help that they deserve. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that since almost all of us experienced a few bad eggs, that those encounters ruled our childhoods. But tally the numbers. Each of us probably interacted with hundreds of adults as children.

    This is probably going to sound horrible, since I’m about to do just what you’ve outlined in this piece, give unsolicited advise, but hear me out before you tell me to take a flying leap: At your point in life I think there is value in “processing” the slights and mistreatment you’ve experienced, but at some point you’re going to have to let it all go. This doesn’t mean you have to fatalistically relinquish your commitments to making the world a better place, just that ruminating on past wrongs will compose a much smaller part of that effort. In many ways the shift is a liberation.

    All the people in your life who’ve come and gone
    They let you down, you know they hurt your pride
    Better put it all behind you; cause life goes on
    You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you up inside

    — “The Heart of the Matter”

    1. 11.1

      Yeah, you know, I don’t spend much time thinking about this. I’m an extremely busy person. Most of my time is spent going to class, doing my homework, taking care of my body, and reading for fun, not thinking about my childhood. I wrote this piece because I think this is something that’s not talked about enough and because I wanted to let other people who’ve gone through it know that they’re not alone. Your advice is well-intentioned but I don’t need it, and you’re entirely correct when you note that I specifically said I dislike it when people presume that I need their advice on how to live.

      1. Sorry, I should have just made that a general observation and not addressed it to you. Yes, unsolicited advice can be quite annoying.

        As for the observation itself, as I reflect on it, I’m not sure how useful it actually is. It’s easy to say that people should release hurt and pain, but in practice there’s no obvious way to do it. It’s like willing yourself success. Few have ever been able to actualize a prescription that simple. It verges dangerously close to the “get over it” dictate from the video. If things were that simple, there would be no therapists or psychiatrists. Nobody can just make it happen, not me, not Don Henley.

        The most that can be accurately said is that many people eventually do shift their perspective on this abuse, provided they make it that far. Perhaps the major factor is just the passage of time. They say time heals all wounds, if we believe it.

        1. I’m glad you’ve acknowledged the problems with what you said. It did indeed sound like “get over it” to me. And that’s problematic not only because, as you mentioned, it’s not quite so simple, but also because the fact that I refuse to just ignore the challenges I’ve faced in my life and “let it go” is basically the reason I’m an activist.

          Complacent people don’t make change. My personal pain is something I harness and use for good.

  9. 12

    Just agreeing with your title premise – I know from experience. We had a WONDERFUL drama teacher at my high school who took a yr off my senior yr, the only yr I could fit drama on my schedule. Her replacement was an elitist pig who couldn’t see past my weight and had to be forced to accept me in the class

  10. 14

    Unfortunately, this isnt just something from 10, 20, or 30 years ago. it is still happening. my son attends a gifted school and is also diagnosed with autism. two years ago he had a teacher who was a bully. we complained to the school on multiple occassions about our sons issues with this class and teacher, especially in regards to IEP problems. the teacher lied directly to the IEP team at a meeting and tried to claim he was helping our son and giving him extra assistance. this teacher would flirt with the female students (he taught 6-12 grade), taunted and teased kids he didnt care for, failed to grade assignments and just entered 0s in the gradebook (all confirmed to me by the subsequent teacher and one of my sons classmates). two months before the end of the school year, the teacher mysteriously resigned. the parents got no explanation, the students got no apologies for the torment and were stuck with the failing grades they received. i know the school administration were trying to protect themselves, but they did so at cost to the students.

    you cant simply expect children or even adults to just “let it go.” its not just a case of kids being cruel, its not something that all kids have to go through. bullying causes long lasting psychological damage. this is something that those who were bullied have known for a long time, despite popular opinion.

    incidentally, duke university released a study this past week on the effects of bullying as children become adults. they determined that being bullied or bullying as a child increases the incidences of adult psychiatric disorders. this was a long overdue study. http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1654916

  11. 15

    I was bullied by my third grade teacher, horribly. She was the ring-leader of the people bullying me as a kid. I’d stopped trying to tell my parents about my bullying the year before after endless repetitions of bullshit like “Nobody can make you feel bad without your permission” (mmmyes, because it’s totally my fault I felt bad about whatever crappy treatment I was subjected to that day…) and disbelief of the, “I can’t believe that someone would do that,” variety.

    My parents tell me now that if they’d known, they would’ve switched me out of her class, but that’s bullshit. If they’d known, they would’ve accused me of lying because calling me a liar was always easier to them than doing something about anything. If they called me a liar about something as big as whether or not I was sexually abused, they’d call me a liar about that, too.

    They only started to believe me about the extent of bullying I received both from her and my peers when my childhood best friend corroborated some of my stories to them when I was 19. Like the story about the time when she told me that I was a nasty little bratty ***** who would never amount to anything because I was lazy and deviant and stupid. I was seven.

    To this day, I downplay the extent of problems that I report to authority figures lest they think I’m a liar. And I always bring supporting documentation.

      1. It’s not always that. Sometimes they dreamed up a perfect child and then ended up disapointed by the actual living thing they got (which is your fault, obviously, you should have been perfect). Sometimes they’re stressed out and lack self-control. Sometimes they’ve been damaged by their own parents (frequently, actually).
        But I absolutely agree that the sooner they start resenting you the worse it must be. Knowing you’re shit before you start to talk, and being constantly reminded of that “fact” for twenty more years by the people who claim nobody will ever love you “as much as we do”? Is it any wonder it internalises self-despise so deeply and that it makes one go through the entire life with a huge sign “I’m a victim, kick me” on the forehead?
        Which inevitably results in being bullied anywhere you come (school included, both teachers and peers) and getting crippled inside more and more.
        And that’s why it’s so bad from parents. They hurt deep while enabling others to hurt further.

  12. 17

    Hello Miri,

    This is my first comment on your blog, the topic just somehow resonated in me.

    I’m not sure if I should describe my own experience with teachers as “bullying”. It was a long time ago, in a small town behind the iron curtain. Hair pulling, ear twisting, using the ruler or … whatever really :), none of these was unusual. Bullying? Possibly, but with the addition that it was a norm in my school. No one seriously complained, it would be like complaining about the weather. There was no point. I remember one teacher in particular, a middle aged woman, very engaged in her work. She had a lot to teach us, and I do not mean only the usual school topics. She was so full of passion. I think she really cared for us and tried to do her best. But yes, when she got angry you could count on the standard treatment, in this respect she was no exception.

    The reverse of this coin is that we expected this from our teachers; otherwise we turned into the bullies ourselves. There was this young girl who started teaching us, so introvert and shy, even shouting at us was problematic to her. We noticed it very quickly and I still feel ashamed when I remember what we did to her. After two months or so she quitted; I have no idea what happened to her and whether she still worked as a teacher afterward.

    I’m not able to assess how it influenced me. I have a social phobia and I’m prone to depression, but I have never really blamed my teachers. Bullying among peers was perhaps a more serious influence. Seeing how the bigger kids set your friend’s hair on fire – such stuff. I’m not really ready to talk about this and anyway it’s not the topic of your OP. So only this: if it teaches you anything, it’s something like “Hey, so you live in a zoo, and who the fuck you think you are to deserve better?” A boring and familiar story, I know.

    Thanks for this post.

  13. 18

    I am currently in the Irish equivalent to High School, and I have to say it happens all the time. Voicing you opinions to my English teacher often get’s them shut down.
    The worst case I know of is a friend of mine who got told by the math’s teacher in front of the entire class that she was “practically retarded” . Both offensive to those of us with learning or other disabilities,and just plain cruel. This was to a 17 year old, and she had to run to the bathroom after class to cry.

    It’s not just children…we are taught to listen to and respect teachers, to look to them for guidance. A teacher being cruel to you is like a parent being cruel

  14. 19

    I’m late to this party, sorry. Growing up in a Catholic grammar school, for me it was the nuns bullying us. And shaming us about our bodies, our sins, our childish imaginations, you name it. Yeah, I’ve still got some deep internal scars from years of that.

  15. 20

    Well written message. The public education system is changing into an institution that is no longer the haven of academia, growth and confidence. Kids are bullied by peers and the very adults entrusted to teach and educate them into responsible members of society.

  16. 21

    I’ve been bullied all my elementary school life, by peers and by teachers. Alot of the time the teachers joined my peers, seeing the awkward kid as an easy target to take out their stress on. I’m 21 now and almost graduated university, but it’s hard for me to trust people in general and I’m very cynical about human nature, so I don’t make very close friendships. I have a wonderful and supportive boyfriend who I put all my trust in, but it’s hard to trust anyone else otherwise. My mother especially didn’t take the bullying seriously even though I knew she knew about it, and when I asked her she said it was my fault for not telling me and said she couldn’t blame me. I now have a pretty shallow relationship with my mom, and as angry as I am about everything I just want to move on. I have no idea how, besides trying to be more social. Some people may see it as petty but I’ve never been able to forgive my mom, because of my teachers bullying and my mom’s ignorance I had suffered so much. Miri, any advice for moving on and dealing with anger would be very helpful, your blog really resonated with me and I wanted to thank you for writing it.

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