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.