Experiences With Teachers Bullying Students
From my time in the U.S. public education system, I remember several instances of teachers bullying or humiliating students in front of the entire class. I’d like to share these memories with you and my thoughts on them.
My goal here isn’t to call out individual teachers, but rather to point out the larger phenomenon of teachers bullying students. So I’m not going to name any names and I’ll do my best to keep everyone anonymous by excluding identifying details.
Some of these events took place over a decade ago and my memory isn’t perfect, so take them with a grain of salt.
The Drill Sergeant
It started in elementary school (years 1-6 for international readers). I had this teacher who acted like a drill sergeant in the marine corps. At the beginning of each session, all us students gathered together while he instructed us on what we would be doing for the day.
There was this one student who kept talking while he gave instructions. In reaction to this, he regularly shouted at the student in front of the entire class. I don’t just mean telling the student to be quiet either. If my memory serves me correctly, he at one point implied that the student didn’t have a future. He was really hateful and insulting towards the student. So naturally, the student lost respect for him and continued talking in class anyways.
At one point, I was talking with a friend in class while he gave instructions. I’d never been reprimanded for talking before, so it was my first “offense”. Apparently that wasn’t taken into account because he started screaming at me in the exact same angry hateful tone he used for the other student who routinely talked in class.
His reaction to my talking in class caught me off guard. I didn’t understand why he was being so hateful. If he had just kindly asked me to wait until after the instructions to speak, I would’ve obliged. But he opted for screaming his head off instead. His reaction seemed so disproportionate that I genuinely didn’t know how to react. So without thinking, I started acting like who he was treating me as: a soldier. I stood up in the middle of class, straightened my posture, raised my right hand to salute him, and enthusiastically replied “Yes, sir!” to everything he shouted at me.
Next up is a teacher I had in either middle school (years 7-8 for international readers) or high school (years 9-12 for international readers). There was this one female student who had no interest in school, was bullied by other students every day, and preferred children as friends rather than students her own age. I won’t speculate on what, but it was clear even from a distance that something about her whole situation was off.
Unfortunately, the teacher made her life even harder than it already was. She arrived late to class on a near-daily basis, so he called her out in front of everyone every single day at the beginning of class. When everybody passed their homework forward row by row and hers wasn’t there because she never completed it, he loudly complained to where the whole class could hear, humiliating her.
Grades and homework are supposed to be a private matter between teacher and student, so it pissed me off that he basically outed her as a failing student. I didn’t even sit near her in class, so I shouldn’t have been able to know that. It was no one’s business, but the teacher made it everyone’s business anyway.
Yet another teacher I had who bullied students was this sanctimonious Christian woman in high school (years 9-12 for international readers). She always carried this “holier-than-thou” attitude. In her class were a few “bad apples”. They were the type of students to get drunk from the alcohol they smuggled into class and high from the weed they smoked in the school bathroom. They didn’t take education seriously and copied off me whenever given the opportunity.
What ticked me off about the teacher wasn’t so much what she said to students, but the tone in which she said it. She talked down to the “bad apples” in class. I remember one day, before the beginning of class, one of the “bad apples” walked in and started telling her about how she had found this new online school she thought would work better for her. Knowing her, she probably would’ve still slacked off in the online school. But that didn’t justify what the teacher did next.
The teacher started mocking her proposed new online school, despite that she knew nothing about it. I don’t know if it was the teacher’s intention to humiliate the student, but her intention didn’t matter. The students who had arrived to class early could easily hear the whole conversation.
What made this teacher a bully wasn’t what she said most of the time. One could’ve printed off a transcript of a conversation between her and the “bad apples” and it probably wouldn’t have strongly suggested that she was a bully. It was mainly how she said it. It was obvious through her condescending tone just how little she thought of the “bad apples”. She also sometimes complained in a grouchy voice when a student wasn’t doing an activity correctly.
Several times, it reached a point where the “bad apples” couldn’t stand her instigating anymore, prompting them to flip desks over, storm out of the classroom, and yell at her. Then she would metaphorically shed crocodile tears saying she was just trying to help and acting like she had no idea why they behaved that way. Since these were “bad apples”, any complaints they made about her to school administration had basically no chance of being taken seriously. When she mistreated them, they had literally no recourse.
At the same time I had the sanctimonious teacher, I also had the tyrant. He was originally a pretty decent teacher. Even though the subject he taught wasn’t my favorite, I appreciated that he tried to make the class fun. That lasted for most of the year until one day when he blew up on the whole class.
We were near the end of the class period when he assigned us a project and put us into groups. There was a lot of chatter going on and he couldn’t get the class to listen to him, so he became irate and started scolding the class. He was very emotional and the rest of the class passed in dead silence until the bell rang. It was very awkward.
After that episode, I assumed that was the end of the ordeal and he would reel himself back by the next class. After all, we were a good class. There were no “bad apples”, everybody tried to participate, and it was probably just an isolated bad moment.
I was wrong.
The next class period, the first thing he did was project a slide of new rules he had decided to institute for the class. On the whole, the rules had little to do with what had transpired the previous day and many of them seemed baseless. For example, one of the rules was that we weren’t allowed to bring water bottles into class. Our class never had any problems related to water bottles before, so it’s hard to imagine why he instituted such a rule. It could’ve been that he found students drinking water distracting, but he never gave a rationale so I’ll never know.
For days after that, the classroom environment was quiet and awkward. Even though he had regained control of the class, he never atoned for instituting oppressive rules or yelling at the class. He just went the rest of the year acting like it never happened, not even enforcing the arbitrary rules he made. After that, I never felt comfortable in his class again.
The next teacher I want to introduce is a high school (years 7-8 for international readers) substitute teacher substituting for a class that was totally out of control. He couldn’t teach because several students in the class kept talking. He kept telling one of the loudest students to stop talking, but she wouldn’t. So, because she was Hispanic, he shouted “POR FAVOR!” which means “please” in Spanish.
I believe he was banned from teaching at our school after that incident.
I don’t want to put teachers in a bad light. I assume the majority of teachers throughout U.S. public education are good. I understand that teachers are human and have bad moments just like everyone else. I’m also not saying that it’s impossible for students to bully teachers. I know schools where teachers get bullied so badly by students that they can’t be paid enough to stay and teach there.
My point though in this entry is to raise awareness of an issue that hardly gets attention: teachers bullying students in U.S. public schools. Student on student bullying gets nearly all the attention, but it seems like schools don’t want to admit that it’s not just the students. Schools hire teachers, give them positions of power over students, defend them when they abuse that power, and students have little recourse when that happens.
I don’t know how common teacher bullies are. I’ve heard they’re even more common in private schools. Regardless, I think it’s something all schools should pay more attention to.