Bullying Teachers Are Nothing New
Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series may remember the teacher, Eliza Jane Wilder. When Laura eventually marries E. J.‘s younger brother, they become sisters-in-law (and, presumably, they learn to tolerate one another). But, in her childhood, Laura struggles with the fact that Miss Wilder is terrible at classroom management. Laura and her sister, Carrie, bear the brunt of Miss Wilder’s abuse.
Laura complains to her parents about the abuse, but her Ma and Pa advise her — I’m paraphrasing, of course — to suck it up. Children must respect their elders, they tell her. Also, Laura must be grateful for the opportunity to attend school so that, one day, the burden of sending her disabled sister to college can be offloaded onto her shoulders.
Young Laura tries to stand up to the bullying teacher, but what can she do? She lacks the life experience and the adult support that she’d need to push back. It’s a one-room classroom, so there is no school principal. And her parents can’t go inside the classroom, so they can’t see what’s happening.
Remote Learning Spills Secrets in Virtual Classrooms
But imagine if Ma and Pa could have been seen the abuse for themselves. What if they could have watched everything that was happening in real time?
That’s an opportunity that some parents and caregivers now have, thanks to remote learning. Adults are craning their necks to glimpse the screen during video classes, and some of them are honestly shocked and horrified by what they’re seeing.
Teachers are human. There are great educators who see teaching as a vocation. They view nurturing the children in their care as a privilege.
Others see the kids in their care as burdens. They apparently pursued a teaching career because it seemed marginally better than flipping burgers for a living. They teach grudgingly and, sometimes, they blame the students for their unhappiness. They are wholly unsuited to the job.
When they held absolute power within the private fiefdoms of their real-world classrooms, teachers could lord it over their students with impunity. No other adults actually knew what went on in those classrooms. Children could complain about teachers who were bullies, but their parents and guardians most likely told their kids to obey their teachers unquestioningly, just as Ma and Pa Ingalls did back in the nineteenth century.
But things have changed in some school districts because of the pandemic. Remote learning is now providing adults with a peek at the relationship between their children and their educators. In some cases, the parents and caregivers are shocked. They are watching teachers behave badly, and they’re unprepared to deal with it.
A recent Slate’s Care and Feeding column includes a plea for help by one parent whose young Catholic school student is being verbally and emotionally abused by an overly strict (and, undoubtedly, tremendously stressed-out) teacher. The teacher threatens to punish the children for acting like children; uses sarcasm to express herself; and blames the kids for her job dissatisfaction. The students are miserable.
How Should Parents Handle Bullying by Teachers?
How is a parent supposed to handle a bullying teacher once she has seen and heard the abuse for herself? If the mother intervenes, or if takes her case to the school principal, it could make things even worse. The teacher could seek revenge against the child.
Also, to what extent should the teacher have the right to her autonomy? Haven’t teachers always been entitled to choose how to educate and discipline their students?
Are parents supposed to let teachers do their jobs without interference?
If Ma and Pa Ingalls had been able to watch Miss Wilder oppress young Laura and Carrie (who struggled to survive one disaster after another on the prairie), perhaps they would have organized a town posse. Maybe they would have yanked E. J. out of the classroom permanently, even if it meant leaving the town without a full-time teacher.
And even if that meant having to explain to their daughters that authority figures weren’t always right.
At least, that would have demonstrated their belief that teachers should be doing something — anything — other than raising another generation of young people who believe abuse is normal; that it’s wrong to confront abusers; that they are fundamentally powerless; that they probably deserve to be bullied; and that they should expect to be mistreated by authority figures for the rest of their lives.
Would Ma and Pa Ingalls have taken the power away from the bullying teacher and given it back to their daughters?
Will today’s parents do that? Or will they look the other way while the people in authority abuse their children?