Double Take: When teachers bully

Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: What do you do when a teacher is the bully?

Last semester, one of my daughter’s teachers repeatedly yelled at her in front of the class for asking questions, requesting help using classroom equipment, asking to go to the bathroom, etc.

I downplayed the severity until I met with the teacher to discuss a grade that seemed unfair. In response she began yelling at ME, accusing my daughter of lying about her treatment in class and verbally attacking me.

My daughter was a senior honor student, and I’ve always gotten praise for her demeanor, work ethic and class participation. This teacher said she has the backing of the administration and it’s her word against ours.

Katie: As students, we depend upon teachers for feedback, both supportive and critical. We need them to make us feel comfortable and safe. It sounds like this one had the opposite effect on your daughter.

When any bully, regardless of age, damages a child’s experience of school, the parent’s first job is to build a protective shell around her self-esteem. At home, you can remind your daughter that she is a smart, capable young woman, and nothing a teacher tells her can change that.

Nevertheless, parents should presume a teacher innocent until proven guilty. Most would be horrified to learn that they had caused a student such anxiety and would immediately work to improve the situation.

Parents need to comfort teens without losing their own heads around teachers, and it sounds like you handled this perfectly, by meeting in person to assess the situation for yourself. Too often, parents assume that once kids enter junior or senior year, they can solve independently any problems they encounter at school. High school really is a great time for students to start communicating with teachers on their own, but even adults are sometimes cowed by bad bosses or intimidating authority figures.

Unfortunately, your story proves that peaceful resolution doesn’t always come easily. Thus, parents should always keep a paper trail of communication with teachers to bring to administration if need be. The teacher may have mentioned her administration backing as a defense mechanism, but with evidence of your long-term worries in hand, administrators will not turn a blind eye to a student’s suffering.

If not, a bullied student should look into transferring out of the class. High school is tough enough as it is. No teenager should worry about harassment from an adult she’s supposed to be able to trust.

Dr. Wes: Katie is right. It’s hard to be judge, jury and prosecutor on a situation like this, figuring out who is to bless and blame.

But you’ve done your homework, and if your story is accurate — and I read a much more detailed version in an earlier draft — this teacher broke an implicit contract with your daughter. While it would be inappropriate for a superior to call her out in front of you, I would have taken it on to the principal for review and let him or her handle it in private. The calmer and more businesslike you were, the more likely a favorable outcome.

Unfortunately, that might sour the teacher on your daughter once and for all, just as reprimanding bullies often leads to an uptick in their bad behavior when nobody is looking.

Thankfully these situations are comparatively rare, making this one stand out from the background like a big neon sign of dysfunction. Most teachers do not act this way, and many are unsung heroes, which is why we know a bad apple when we see one.

The current reality in education, both locally and nationally, is that classroom sizes are growing, job security is diminishing, the political climate is toxic toward public school teachers, and salaries are flat or declining. This creates an incredibly stressful work environment, and it’s possible your daughter got caught in that crossfire.

That is, however, no excuse. Moreover, this teacher showed a pattern of such behavior over time, suggesting more than a stressful day or two. As adults, one of the best things we can do for kids is know when to apologize. There is no humiliation in sorrow, but instead a strength of character that we pass on to our children by simply saying, “I’m sorry.” This teacher would be wise to practice that kind of diplomacy and make some amends before she loses the backing of her community.