This morning, just as I was about to walk out the door into the dark predawn to head to school, I saw a news story that both surprised and yet did not surprise me. In California, a teacher beat up a 15 year old student who became aggressive in an attempt to get her makeup back. In the cell phone video, the student can be seen bumping up against the teacher, talking trash and bullying the teacher until the teacher snaps and advances on the student, fists flying . The teacher and student end up on the floor, rolling and kicking and pulling hair, all while another student records the action with a cell phone. I imagine most people would be shocked, dismayed, and indignant. I was, for about three seconds: “How could a teacher do that? Doesn’t she know that our job is to protect these students?” Then I remembered.
In 2009, I came upon a couple having an argument in the hallway. It was my conference period and I was on my way to the front office. These two were in the middle of what looked like a pretty ugly disagreement. It was in the middle of the class period, so the halls were empty and quite frankly, it looked like this young woman might be in physical danger if I didn’t get them separated. I told them to return to class, then watched until the young lady got back into her art class. At that point, her boyfriend pinned me into a corner, balled up his fists, and seethed threats and innuendos into my face. I was all alone, the halls were deserted, we were out of sight of the security camera, and this was a 17 year old kid who definitely had the physical strength and stature to do me harm. I managed to keep a poker face until he finally left me, then I got myself to the front office and fell apart.
On another occasion I had to break up a fight between two girls and ended up punched so hard I could not move my arm at all for about an hour and had bruises in the shape of knuckles on my bicep for weeks.
My husband works in a post secondary trade school, where a student cut the brake lines on a teacher’s car in retaliation for what the student believed was an unsatisfactory grade.
We have to practice drills with our students to protect ourselves in case someone goes rogue terrorist.
Acts of aggression against teachers are not just physical. Every day, teachers contend with insults and defiance. Social media is used to rake teachers over hot coals of insolence. Surely you have seen the video clip of 68 year old bus aide Karen Klein being taunted for over ten minutes on a bus. The insults and language she endured are appalling.
We teachers are told over and over that we must rise above all of these unacceptable behaviors. We must be ever professional and calm, always responding to verbal or physical disrespect with cool detachment. Most of the time, in fact, nearly all of the time, we somehow manage to calmly walk away and fill out a discipline referral or call a parent, knowing that very little may be accomplished.
The mother of the young lady who threatened the teacher did not seem at all remorseful that her daughter had acted so inappropriately. She was full of righteous indignation that a teacher had defended herself. I just do not get that. If one of my kids advanced on a teacher like that, I think I would have some serious parenting issues to address.
This is from an article by Tim Walker in the National Education Association’s online publication:
“According to a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), 80 percent of teachers surveyed were victimized at school at least once in the current school year or prior year. Teacher victimization is a “national crisis,” says Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who served as chair of the APA task force on Classroom Violence Directed at Teachers. And yet, the issue is generally ignored or at least underreported by the media and given inadequate attention by scholars – a deficiency that has widespread implications for school safety, the teaching profession and student learning.”
The article goes on to explain the prevalence of harassment and violence against teachers, behaviors that are perpetrated primarily by both students and parents.
The American Psychological Association says:
“Each year, 253,100 (7 percent) teachers are threatened with injury…
- 78,500 (31 percent) male teachers
- 174,500 (69 percent) female teachers”
We teachers sometimes find ourselves in highly charged environments. The students significantly outnumber us and we are, in truth, only protected from them by our trust in their adherence to the social contract and their reluctance to get in trouble. Most of the students I encounter every day have absolutely no desire to harm me or anyone else. But all it takes is one simmering kid to boil over and hit, push, stab, or shoot.
Look, I am not saying that the teacher in California did right. What I am saying is that when big adolescents who outweigh us lift a hand and threaten harm to us, we might respond like any reasonable human. We might just hit back.
When students smear us on social media, we might just want to frame our own social media responses in defense.
When students steal from us and trash our rooms and belongings, we might just wonder what life in another profession looks like.
According to both the NEA and APA, the first defense against this insidious problem is to make the public more aware of its existence. Teachers also need more training in realistic conflict resolution.
I am here to tell you that not all children are innocent angels. Sometimes they are mean and violent and ruthless. Even the most precious young people can be capable of hurting another human. Parents, students, administrators, and legislators owe it to teachers to listen and protect them, and to work cooperatively to ensure safe classrooms and hallways.
Sometimes, it’s not JUST about the students.