When I decided to become a teacher, I was met with many warnings about what lay in store for me, starting with a French cartoon that had been circulating the internet. In the cartoon, a couple from 1969 is standing by a teacher’s desk, angrily turned to their frightened child and yelling, “Explain these poor grades!” Next to it is a couple from 2009 yelling the same words to a frightened teacher as their child smugly grins behind them with their arms crossed.
It wasn’t very promising. I was only 3 years out of high school, and another 3 years from actually becoming a classroom teacher, but already, I was envisioning a young teacher, being bullied by his overcrowded class of students, and then bullied by parents after school. Did I really want that to be my life?
“But I’ll be such an awesome teacher, that will never happen to me,” I thought. “I’ll get kids excited about Latin and make it fun and resurrect the study of Classics and be an inspiration to all.”
Yes, every young new teacher thinks they will be different. They think the problem is older, tenured teachers too stuck in their ways and unable to relate. They think if they can just “make it fun,” the kids will all do the work. They think if they can show their passion, the kids will all become just as passionate.
Then we get into the classroom, and we’re shocked by how much we suck.
Worse yet, we feel like the fact we suck means we don’t actually care about the kids…because why else would we be so awful at our jobs? We don’t realize that every teacher is awful the first year, and it’s never because they don’t care, it’s because they are overwhelmed and filled with constant self-doubt.
I’m in my fourth year of teaching, and while I’m lightyears better than I was the first year, I’m still nowhere near as good as I want to be. When I see other first year teachers going through what I went through, I never look down on them. I see how overwhelmed they are, and I’m not any less overwhelmed; I’ve just gotten better at coping. I see first year teachers failing to do what they’re supposed to do, and I know it’s not because they don’t care. I know they come to work every day shocked by how the workload never seems to end, shocked by how little they are appreciated & rewarded for their hard work, even as they are expected to over-appreciate and over-reward teenagers for work of any quality.
And I see how parents treat these young new teachers, and it’s unbelievable to me. It’s unbelievable because I know how these kids treat that young teacher (how they gang up on her, make fun of her, make her hide in her car and cry, even), and seeing parents treat these teachers the same way is even more painful, because it shows that this complete lack of respect for teachers isn’t something the kids will outgrow; it’s something that gets reinforced at home by the adults they actually look up to.
I’ve tried so many times to understand why a parent would undermine and belittle a teacher in front of their child. How does this help the child’s success and personal growth? How can their child be expected to come to school and learn the next day, let alone for the rest of the year, when they have been shown first-hand that their teacher is not a person worthy of respect? I have never found a satisfactory explanation, but here are some thoughts I’ve had in my short time as a teacher:
Parents Think Teachers Are the Ones Who Have Changed
Watch a Chris Christie town hall. Read an Ann Coulter column. Turn on any conservative talk radio station in the country. They are all saying the same thing: teachers are overpaid, underworked, impossible to fire, spoiled with great benefits, don’t care about their jobs, and aren’t held accountable when they don’t do their jobs.
It’s only natural that a parent who subscribes to this worldview would feel it is their own responsibility to hold teachers accountable, since, according to Rush Limbaugh, nobody else will.
I wonder what Rush Limbaugh would say if he saw the cartoon I’ve shown above. Would he agree that this is a problem with parenting today, or would he say the problem lies in the teacher? Would he see a teacher being bullied, or would he see a teacher so incompetent that she needs children to get their parents, who are responsible adults with “real jobs,” to show her how to grade papers?
The conservative media dehumanizes teachers, so why wouldn’t its audience treat teachers as less than human?
When I see a young teacher being bullied by two parents and their child, I laugh a little, because those parents are a walking stereotype. They are living out a cartoon and are ultimately making themselves, not the teacher, look bad. They are doing their child a grave disservice, and the teacher should not feel ashamed. Yet we do feel ashamed. When parents appear unexpectedly at our jobs, yell at us and humiliate us in front of their own child and other students, we leave our jobs close to tears (or in tears) and immediately feel stressed by all the work we haven’t done because the feelings of shame keep occupying all the space in our brains.
The main thing we think is: what did I do to deserve this?
One reason we think this, particularly as new teachers, is because we believe it isn’t happening to other teachers. We believe we are the only ones being verbally abused at our jobs, and that all the other teachers are loved by the same parents who hate us…because they are all good teachers and we are so horrible.
In reality, those teachers are dealing with the same abuse that you are, but they’re often too embarrassed to share it because they worry you will judge them for allowing it to happen, rather than judging the parents for actually doing it.
The takeaway for teachers: you haven’t changed. You are not worse than your colleagues or worse than any other teachers that came before you. You know what needs to be done, so do it, and when you have slip-ups along the way, don’t allow other people to let your mistakes define you as a person.
Parents Think Teachers Are the Overly Aggressive Ones
Both of my parents went to schools where corporal punishment was normal. Many of my teachers in elementary school went to those schools, too. They were all hit when they got out of line, and now suddenly it was illegal for them to hit us. So instead, they yelled at us, called us names, and humiliated us in front of our peers, all of which did nothing to motivate our learning but simply got us to be quiet and “respectful.”
If I complained to my parents about teachers who yelled, I would get no sympathy, because my parents would each reply, “Do you know what happened to me when I was bad in school?”
I had an older teacher in elementary school who would encourage students to tease me. If I answered a question wrong on a written assignment, she would read it mockingly to the whole class and watch me get laughed at by a room full of my peers. It sent certain kids the impression that it was OK to bully me and sent other kids the impression that befriending me would hurt their reputation.
One day, I lost my lunchbox. She watched me spend the entire lunch period searching frantically for it, and then, at the end of lunch, as I sat at my desk with an empty stomach, she entered the room, glared at me, and held up my lunchbox.
“I found this in the girls’ restroom!” she shouted.
The whole classroom erupted in laughter. Nobody even entertained the possibility that someone had played a prank on me, taken my lunch box and hidden it in the ladies’ room. They all assumed that I had gone in there myself, with my lunchbox, and had left my lunchbox in their by mistake. It had to be true! The teacher said it was.
What’s worse is I wasn’t getting the support at home. My parents never made me feel protected from this bully pretending to be a teacher. Instead, they rationalized her abusive behavior. “She likes you and wants you to do well,” they assured me. “That’s why she’s so hard on you.”
Many years later, I told my mom in great detail about exactly what happened in that teacher’s classroom, and she knew I wasn’t exaggerating or distorting the truth. She knew these were real memories that had shaped my self-image and broken my spirit. She closed her eyes, inhaled, and said of that teacher: “I wish I could kill her.”
Every parent is ready to fight for their kid, but mine just had no idea. How could they, when I was too scared to speak out and worried I would be called a liar for telling the truth?
But now I’ve seen what happens when kids actually do come home and distort the truth about what happens in class (sometimes with selectively edited video, secretly recorded on a cell phone during class, of a frustrated teacher who has lost their cool), and I’ve seen what happens when parents are ready to fight for their kids in that very moment. The “I wish I could kill her” mindset, which my mom looked back on my childhood and felt about a teacher from years ago, is something that I have watched parents take out on their child’s teacher right then and there.
And what is a teacher supposed to say once things have escalated to that level? They want to say, “I’m sorry, but that isn’t what actually happened in class. Your child is distorting the truth and you are being manipulated by it.” But is the parent going to listen? The parent has already made up their mind that the teacher is someone they need to protect their child from, rather than someone who will help them protect and strengthen their child.
I have lost my cool in the classroom, just as I’m sure most parents have lost their cool when dealing with frustrating behavior. This does not mean I deserve to be yelled at in retaliation; it means I need to apologize to the child and seek to repair the broken relationship. Parents being openly hostile to a teacher only damages that broken relationship further, and it ultimately makes the child’s experience in the classroom worse, because their negative feelings about the teacher are being reinforced at home.
In the Consumer Culture that Dominates Education, Yelling Works
Teaching today is treated like the service & retail industries. Teachers are viewed as providers of a service, while students and their parents are viewed as customers looking to us to deliver a product. Just as Yelp has given restaurant patrons the authority to act like food critics, RateMyTeachers.com has made students feel like they are professionally qualified to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness.
The problem is a teacher’s effectiveness is long-term, and sometimes it takes years to see its results (or its damages). A teacher review should not read like a restaurant review, the purpose of which is to evaluate a specific experience of someone (or a group of people) whose job was to satisfy their customers. Teachers are not supposed to satisfy students with good grades; students are supposed to satisfy teachers with hard work and enthusiasm. Yet the expectations in our communities do not always seem to reflect this.
When restaurant patrons aren’t satisfied, they complain. When they feel their complaints aren’t heard, they voice them louder, sometimes by personally attacking the service workers. We would like to think the restaurant’s owner would step in and say, “You don’t talk to my staff like that. Get out of here right now! You’re disturbing other customers and preventing us from being able to do our job, which is to serve everyone at this restaurant, not just you and your table.”
But instead, the service worker wants to make sure the owner knows nothing about this confrontation, because with the way the customer is yelling at them, just imagine what they would say to the owner. The customer would get what they want, and the worker would get fired. So the worker does what the customer wants, and the yelling customer quiets down. Everyone wins, right?
But what if the yelling customer’s child sees that confrontation and thinks, “That’s how the world works.” What’s to stop them from yelling at their teachers?
I was a month into my first year teaching when I finally sent a student to the principal’s office. When I asked him to leave my classroom, he told me he had already been to the principal to complain about my teaching, and that he would just go back there and complain again.
I didn’t call his bluff. I knew I was a bad teacher (everyone sucks the first year), and I felt ashamed. I didn’t want the principal to know how little control I had over my class or how behind I was on planning, grading, and keeping parents in the loop. I thought he would fire me on the spot if he knew. So I told the student I was just kidding, that he wasn’t really in trouble, and to come back into class. Whatever behavior I had hoped to stop by sending him out of class instead continued for the entire period.
That was the first day I cried at my job.
Eventually, I called that kid’s mom, and when I spoke to her, I learned that most parents are kind and supportive, even to young, inexperienced teachers. Parents were there to help me, not to make things more difficult. By assuming that all parents were the scary monsters depicted in the French cartoon, I was shooting myself in the foot and depriving myself of a valuable resource that most teachers need in order to succeed.
The cartoon is truer to reality than I’d like to admit, but in its eagerness to call out a small group of difficult parents, it romanticizes a past that no educator should want to go back to. And it does so by depicting a caricature of the extreme and presenting it as the new norm. This is not the new norm. Most parents, then and now, understand that their child’s success depends on the success of the teacher, and they offer us kindness and gratitude for all we do to help their children achieve that success. It would be wrong for me to paint all parents with the same brush instead of offering the majority of them kindness and gratitude in return. So, parents, thank you for all you do.