My oldest was a toddler when a friend told me I’d want to get involved with PTA as soon as she got into school.
Her reason surprised me.
My friend, mother of five, said I’d want to be a familiar face around the school.
“It’s the best way to protect your kids. You may find a couple of the teachers or staff members are bullies. Having them know you will help your kids. And if you do have to complain, it will more likely be taken seriously.”
I’ve written a lot about bullies, but I was reminded of that advice this week when two readers separately pointed out I’ve only covered part of the story. They’re right. Faced with incidents of teachers or staff picking on kids within my view, or told the stories by others, I’ve carefully been on my best behavior, if I addressed them at all. And I’ve never written about incidents, even obliquely. Who wants to irritate someone if there’s a chance it could ricochet and hurt my children?
One reader wrote: “Talk to any parent at any school and you’ll hear ‘hush hush’ that there are teachers who pick favorites, who lose their tempers frequently, who are just too hard on the kids, and who no one wants to get.”
The reader said she’s been a parent, room mom, PTA officer and even substitute teacher. She’s certainly seen classes with difficult children and met difficult parents. But she’s also encountered difficult teachers, like the one who demonstrated the word “slapping” on a student’s head, or one who bestowed a nickname that was degrading and embarrassing.
She wrote of an ill-tempered teacher who always blamed the students for her own outbursts and another who singled out one or two children to harass and scapegoat for everything that went wrong in the classroom each year, as well as teachers who made clear which students were favorites — and which ones weren’t.
“This isn’t just one teacher and it isn’t happening at just one school,” she wrote.
I have many friends and relatives who are teachers. In the course of my own schooling I saw a lot of teachers, most overwhelmingly supportive and dedicated and genuinely nice. That’s largely been my experience at my daughters’ schools. But it certainly isn’t the only story.
How is a student to handle a teacher who calls him “Tardy Boy” and won’t drop it, though the boy was late once because of a schedule change — and would have explained it had the teacher stopped ridiculing him long enough to listen? What should a student do when a teacher counters a youthful yawn with a three-minute harangue on whether the child flosses — “Doesn’t look like it to me,” he was told — delivered against a backdrop of students laughing at his misery?
And should we really be surprised if some of those students later make their own mean little jabs? How should one respond to a word that under no circumstances does a teacher EVER want to hear from a parent? I assume that ban is lifted if I want to help the PTA provide a meal or send a little gift or write a note of appreciation.
Decades after I graduated from school, I can still remember which teachers helped me learn, made me laugh and went the extra mile to see that I understood something or found the solution to a problem.
I also remember vividly the teachers who weren’t nice — the ones who demeaned someone or failed to get involved in a problem or who waved away a plea for help. I encountered some heroes and some bullies along the way, as have my children.
Teachers have the power to become unforgettable figures in a person’s life and there’s a high degree of consensus about what kind of teacher someone is.
Bullies know who they are. So does everyone around them.
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