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The bullying of teachers takes many forms; support of their work can too

I recently read a Facebook post that said only in teaching, of all the professions, do you see all your clients/patients at once.

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.

Kris Potter

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.

Breathtaking work

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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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 04/09/2015 - 08:48 am.

    Agreed

    Teachers do get bullied. A lot. Unfortunately, the bullying is justified by the actual existence of poor teachers and teachers who are, themselves, bullies. But, two wrongs don’t make a right and most teachers don’t deserve the poor treatment they get.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/09/2015 - 11:55 am.

    Teachers Are Indeed Bullied

    In my first teaching job (mid 70s SW Minnesota, K-12 vocal/general music), I had a pair of sixth-grade students who had a very bad reaction to me from the very first day in my class. Eventually they threatened to kill our family pets, which caused a great deal of distress when one of our cats disappeared a couple of weeks later. Luckily he was just lost and eventually found again. I’m sure these boys egged our front door as well.

    These boy’s aim seemed to be to be allowed to do whatever they wanted in my classroom which mostly involved harassing fellow students and disrupting what I was trying to teach. It probably didn’t help that, in the society of this community normal boys weren’t supposed to be interested in music.

    In conferences, one set of parents seemed to have the attitude that their son would never do any such thing in class, and implied that I must be responsible for his behavior issues. The other dad told me to call him if his son gave me any further trouble with the clear implication that he’d beat the stuffing out of him at home if I did (I didn’t).

    I soon discovered that both boys were likely being physically abused at home, and that my predecessor also used to “hurt” them to try to get them to behave. This was back before teachers were “required reporters” of such things and before county social service and law enforcement were equipped to handle such complaints with any level of finesse and skill.

    At this time, in this area, it’s quite possible that local authorities would simply have regarded it as a parent’s right to discipline their kids in any way they chose. The same would likely have been the case with the former teacher.

    The administration of that small rural school was certainly ill equipped to assist me, those students, or their families in any way.

    All of which is just to say that as a teacher in that particular community I was under threat of harm from some of my students, I needed strong social work skills to go with my teaching skills, and, together with most of my fellow teachers, was regarded with hostility as someone who, in trying to teach factual reality and bring an awareness of the beauty of something other than country music to the kids of that community, I was suspected of trying to warp those kids away from their parents’ “true conservative” values.

    I had a much more positive experience in my next teaching position in a school in Northwestern Minnesota, but I’ve always wondered if those two troubled boys managed to grow up to be reasonably functional adults.

    Those who have never stood within a community which may or may not be anything resembling functional,…

    before a group of that community’s youngsters many of whom may have been raised with a continuous barrage of disrespect if not hostility toward teachers and education in general because of the provable truth and factual information they impart,…

    and attempted to teach those youngsters things that they, as adults, will need to know or may come to truly appreciate, despite what their parents might “truly believe,”…

    just have NO idea what teachers are up against nor how much they owe those teachers if their kids grow up to function reasonably well in a rapidly-changing world.

    Kids, parents, and our communities would be far better off if the old aphorism about expressing your love for your children by loving your spouse were broadened to include, at the very least, respecting and supporting their teachers until you have factual (non-rumor-mongered, non weasel news-based) reasons to do otherwise.

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