What Do You Do When The Teacher Is The Bully?

by:John Sucich

Early in my teaching career, I was told by an administrator that she had asked one of my students how he would describe me.

“Strict,” was the student’s reply.

It was all very matter-of-fact. The administrator was just letting me know, not sending me any kind of message. And the student had me pegged. I was strict. Especially with that group of students. Because I thought they needed me, a brand-new teacher, to set strict classroom guidelines. I thought my approach was effective – I think I did a good job with classroom management and I think we had a very good year together.

As the years progressed, I think my classroom management skills progressed as well, to the point where I don’t think “strict” would have been the first words students used to describe me. Believe it or not, I think they might have even called me “fun”. But the truth is I didn’t change all that much.

What was “strict” with one class might have been “firm” with another, “fair” to a third, and even “fun” to some. It all depended on the makeup of the class and what they needed to create the best learning environment. Teaching is about more than just giving students information. In order to do that successfully, you need to create a safe learning environment for the children. This might be the most important aspect of teaching – because everything that follows depends on the students feeling safe to share what they know or, more importantly, to ask questions about what they don’t.

That’s why I was so upset to see the secretly-recorded video from a Brooklyn charter school this past weekend. What I saw was a teacher going beyond “strict”, into the territory of “bully”.

I was shocked by the way the teacher, ripping up a student’s assignment, spoke to her class. But what I thought was most notable was the reaction from the rest of the class. Or maybe the lack thereof. That reaction told me this was not a bad day caught on camera. This was everyday behavior that the students had grown used to – or at the very least had seen before. It didn’t just so happen this assistant teacher was videotaping every teacher-student interaction waiting for a blow-up. This was behavior that was happening often enough that she was concerned and recorded it on video to show others. It wasn’t something that seemed like it was going to change any time soon.

And it’s behavior that’s not acceptable.

We live in a time where there is legislation against students bullying each other. But what do you do when the teacher is the bully?

I think this is a good start. The teacher who took this video is being criticized for making a secret recording. I think that’s putting blame in the wrong place. I think she did something important – here’s a situation where someone in power is abusing their position (not unlike a police officer in South Carolina ripping a student out of a desk) where the only way change will happen is by people seeing and reacting. Students – especially first graders – don’t always advocate for themselves. This video is their advocate.

This is a school where a lot of emphasis is put on how students achieve through test scores. Here’s an instance where it’s about more than the test scores: maybe a check of the emotional well-being of students dealing with this type of behavior from adults is in order.

“Am I in trouble?” Click To Tweet

There is no such thing as a perfect teacher. I know I was less than perfect. Occasionally I raised my voice in the classroom. (If used judiciously it was an effective attention-getter as a teacher. I’ve found as a parent, if I do it too much my kids ignore me.) I called students out in front of other students occasionally, but as often as possible I tried to correct behaviors in private. (I also tried to praise students’ behaviors as much as possible, both publicly and privately.) Some students, even if you called them into the hallway to share  good news, met any one-on-one situation with a teacher by asking, “Am I in trouble?”

As a teacher, you never know which behaviors during the course of a school day are the ones that will stick with a child forever. Sometimes you don’t know until you hear from a parent what happened during the day that bothered a student – whether it was something another student did or something you did as the teacher.

But any teacher should know that the type of humiliating behavior caught on camera at Success Academy is not effective. Click To Tweet

But any teacher should know that the type of humiliating behavior caught on camera at Success Academy is not effective. It is never OK to fault a student for not having the right answer.

It can be a problem to draw too many conclusions from one-minute-plus of video. But it’s a bigger problem to turn a blind eye to it.

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