As I taught my classroom full of teachers, I looked around the room and my heart grew heavy. Often, my classroom deviates from the class lesson to discuss practical application of our learned principles and today I had to discuss something that bothered me on a personal level. I was teaching my students about the development of the young minds that they would help shape and role model behavior at impressionable ages and they far outnumbered me, the new teacher of two years. Frankly, few things intimidate me, but I was going to call them out in advance on something that they needed to learn now, before they did something that could hurt someone tremendously and I wasn’t looking forward to a potential negative response. However, fear has never stopped me from saying what needed to be said, especially when I had the opportunity to use it as a teachable moment and I wiped my hands on my jeans and turned to them.
“You all want to be teachers. We’ve talked about bullying, but what you probably don’t realize is that some of the biggest offenders of bullying in schools are the staff. That’s right. I’m pointing my finger at all of you and telling you now to be careful how you conduct yourself because your actions can be just as, if not more, harmful than the actions that these students deal with in their peers. I recently read a study that told me that teachers instigate bullying on a regular basis. The ways they do this are by ignoring children that are “dumb,” laughing at the jokes children make at another child, feeding into the relational aggression ala Mean Girls by taking sides or allowing it in their classrooms, lunch rooms, gymnasiums and hallways, or, what I consider to be most hurtful, going into their teacher’s lounge and commiserating about children and actively working against the better needs of the child by making the child a pariah amongst the adults as well. They also do this by writing intentionally vague and negative comments that stay in a child’s report card file until they graduate high school. This is all BULLYING and YOU are going to buy into it…unless you consider it and stop yourself now. You can do this with self-awareness and the knowledge that you will NOT be that kind of teacher and that you are teaching to make a positive impact and not crush a child’s will.”
By this time, I was gaining momentum. The room was completely silent. I have my class write journals and I knew that some of them had been bullied by teachers. One of the ways I teach my students is to share stories with them about my experiences both as a student and as a teacher. Now was the time for me to wince and share some of my personal experiences. Earlier this semester, I’d had them do an experiment on assumptions and write a journal about it. One assumption they made about me was that I’d never been bullied. It’s not true. I’d been bullied by a few students, but what really impacted me was the way some of my teachers treated not only me, but my fellow students.
“When I was in high school, I was pretty naive. I thought that teachers always had your best interests in mind and that they could be counted on to act like adults. I’d had an experience in junior high where I’d made the mistake of acting like I was going to throw my basketball at my coach. She flipped out, screamed at me in front of my team and shamed me. I didn’t play much that season and I never tried out for basketball again. Looking back on that behavior as an adult, I’m appalled and curious as to why no one thought that behavior was irrational at the time? However, in high school, I had this idea that everything was going to be different. New friends, new classes, new teachers, a new start and that things were going to be ok. I was wrong.”
“See, adults still do the petty things adults do, even when they teach. Professionalism is key. An English teacher lost her cool and called an entire sophomore class “a bunch of bitches.” She later apologized, but I don’t remember her getting into any real trouble for something that, as a parent, I would take serious issue over. We weren’t acting like a “bunch of bitches” that day. She was having a bad day, we were all working on projects and we weren’t moving quickly enough is what I remember. I was surprised and vaguely concerned that she’d lost her marbles. She also put on the school’s musical. I was helping with sound and when a tape was played improperly she went berserk. It heavily defined my high school years. Not only did she go crazy on me for what another person admitted was that person’s fault at having not rewound the tape earlier in the evening, but she didn’t bother to defend me to an angry cast of people. She walked out of the auditorium and left a freshman to deal with something that was beyond her control. I dealt with the fallout from that for not days, not weeks, not months, but YEARS. I still have nightmares about that. As adults, you are responsible for YOUR responses and for helping to calm the responses of others.”
As I spoke, some students began to look nervously at their hands and what I realized is that they weren’t bored. They weren’t uncomfortable with my story. My story had triggered their stories. I went on.
“Around that time, because of the issue with that teacher, I began lying about things to look better. I was miserable with life. I felt like I had no support and that people weren’t listening when I’d defend myself with the truth so lies were better. Because of that, when I auditioned for something that meant a lot to me, I didn’t make it. When I went to talk to the new sponsor for that activity, it ultimately boiled down to my not being able to be in the activity because a couple of the guys in that activity couldn’t get beyond it and they were short on guys. It wasn’t my lack of talent. It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable. It was that the guys couldn’t get beyond and they couldn’t lose them. The teacher had not only allowed the bullying, he’d promoted it. He didn’t help their growth and he shattered my self-esteem.”
I took a deep breath and sat down at my table in the front of the room.
“Why am I telling you this? Do I need you to feel sorry for me? Absolutely not. I am less than a year from getting my doctorate and I have no idea what path my life would have taken had I not developed the resolve that those experiences gave me. I’m telling you this because every single action you take as an educator COUNTS. Every minute of every day, every smile, every frown, every word, every shrug. It all counts. When you take actions to make your everyday life easier at the cost of hurting a child, you have no idea what the repercussions may be or how long-lasting. I remember those teachers. Let me tell you what else I remember. I remember the fourth grade teacher that wrote to me for 2 years after I moved because I was lonely. I remember the high school communication student teacher that taught me how to be a confident speaker. I remember the band teacher that gave me a chance to learn an instrument when all of the other students had been playing for years. I remember the community college professor that listened to what I wrote and proclaimed it brilliant. I remember the undergraduate professor who still writes me to tell me he’s proud of what I’m doing. I remember the masters professor who comments on my accomplishments with such happiness that I smile to know that she genuinely cares. I remember the doctoral professors who cared enough that in some dark days they cut me a real break when I needed it. I remember ALL those teachers. The good and the bad. What kind of teacher will you be? Whatever kind it is, you will be remembered. But HOW will you be remembered?”
I closed my eyes, shuffled my papers and waited. My students are insightful and this sparked discussion as to the experiences they had and the problems that they’d encountered. Those aren’t mine to share. As we grow up, we forget what it is like to be a child. We forget that people aren’t always nice and those that are supposed to protect us, advocate for us, don’t always do their job. Hopefully, I reminded them and they take it with them. If they don’t, they can always email me and I’ll give them advice.
It’s my job.