It was during my first year of teaching and my first parent-teacher conferences when the threat came: “I’m coming to your door, with a gun, and I’m going to shoot you.” I was 21, just out of college. I was midway through my conferences when this parent walked into my room, drunk. I blithely went about my business. Reporting on the parent’s child, I came to the section on conduct. The child in question was prone to hitting, punching and fighting during recess. In those days the teachers supervised it rain, sun or snow. We shared a snowmobile suit in the winter, so whoever had playground duty would stay warm.
Because of these playground infractions, I had marked the child’s report card with N, needs improvement. That’s when the threat came, accompanied by screaming, yelling and more threats. I was terrified, yet when the parent demanded I change the grade I refused. At one point during this ordeal, I looked up toward the classroom door and saw the school principal and a former high-school classmate, my teaching partner, standing at my door. Both over 6 feet, they just stood there. I could see them, but the parent could not. They were silent, ready to intervene, but allowing me to tread my own water. Mercifully, the conference came to an end. My legs felt like water, I went home that night obsessing about what the parent had said, terrified that I could easily be found and the threat carried out.
So was my introduction to teacher bullying. I went on to teach for many years, and when conference time rolled around I was a mess. Anxious, sleepless, my stomach in knots. I attempted to laugh the incident off, and have retold the story enough times that it has lost its power. But it occurs to me that while this incident was extreme, the bullying of teachers continues — and in many forms.
Blaming, belittling …
When you read about the achievement gap and the blame is totally placed on the backs of teachers, you are seeing it. When the experience of teachers is belittled, and the years of training and workshops and development of teaching skills is being ignored, you are witnessing it. When parents feel free to send the angry email or organize parents to complain about a genuinely good teacher, that’s bullying too. The parent who doesn’t want to hear the sometimes difficult news that teachers are sometimes called upon to deliver, and so explodes in vitriol toward the teacher — yet another form of bullying.
I remember a lesson my Mom taught me. We chose and wrapped a beautiful stained glass window ornament for Mr. Peterson (thank you Mr. Peterson for teaching me in fourth grade how to take notes) for Christmas. I felt so generous and warm giving the gift, and I still have the beautifully penned note he wrote me in return. So when I had children of my own, and I thought about the work their teachers did for them day in and day out, I refrained from criticizing them, even when, as an educator, I disagreed with their work. It wasn’t about me, or my parental ego, or my superior expertise, or my better judgment, or my incredibly gifted and precocious child.
It was about the relationship between my child and another adult, an educator, a professional, trained to work with young people, leading my children in the best way he or she knew how. Adding to the parenting foundation my husband and I had created. I look back at the work teachers put into the hours that my children spent in school and it is breathtaking. I stand in awe of the creativity, innovation and emotional intelligence of these adults. They gave so freely of their talent.
I recently read a Facebook post that said only in teaching, of all the professions, do you see all your clients/patients at once. The posting challenged a doctor or lawyer to do the same. Think about the complexity of what we ask teachers to do. Then, think about what you can do to make their day easier, not harder. To leave them with good memories of their encounter with you, not bad ones. To speak words to them that will strengthen their work in the classroom, not tear it down. Because in the end, their work creates our future.
Kris Potter lives in South Minneapolis, where she teaches at a play-based preschool.
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