Help for kids dealing with a mean, aggressive teacher

Dear Dr. Bluestein:

Hello. My son is in the 5th grade. He’s an honor student was nominated by his teacher to attend a camp that teaches about leadership. My question is how does a good student deal with mean, ugly, and rude teachers? For example, a problem just happened a couple days ago when a teacher got right in front of his face, almost nose touching, and was yelling at him in front of his classmates. Or the same teacher trying to get his head and his friend’s head and put them together as if conjoined twins. How does a student deal with this kind of teacher behavior and still show leadership?

Reply:

Well, this is certainly not the kind of “leadership” we would want our children to aspire to! So let me share what I’ve told young people who have come to me with similar complaints—which, unfortunately happens more often than I’d care to admit. I try to remind them of two things:

First: People don’t generally go into teaching for the money or status. We come to the profession because we care about kids and want to make a difference. (Even with no more information than you’ve given me, I want to believe that this is true about this teacher as well—or at least was at one point.)

Second, teachers are human and sometimes we lose it and act inappropriately.

In any situation where we are being harassed or insulted by someone with a great deal more power than we have in the situation (in this case, a teacher or, for example, a cop or a boss) AND when that person is clearly overloaded with stress hormones and a bit over the edge emotionally, it’s probably not a good time to confront. This is especially true, as in this case, when this is happening in front of the class where the teacher has a great deal of “face” at stake.

I’ve seen some resources recommend calmly requesting being treated more respectfully or walking away—a good thing to do with an abusive peer—but may not be especially practical in this case with an angry adult. In my experience, that advice may end up creating additional problems or outcomes your son may not wish to face.

There are a number of issues to consider here. For one thing, is this a one-time thing or is this something that happens often. It’s always a good idea to document what happened, what was said, who was present, and other factual details. (NOTE: This email was sent to me several years ago, a bit before cell phones were common in classrooms. Today, I would imagine that someone would likely be recording something like this, which could certainly work in your son’s favor.)

Another issue concerns your son’s behavior. If he was acting up or doing something inappropriate, while I can’t imagine anything that would justify this kind of teacher behavior, he might regain some of his own power and dignity by simply owning up to it: “You’re entirely right. I was inappropriate. I apologize for distracting you.” ( NOTE: I do not recommend telling the teacher how the behavior made your son feel, which can actually reinforce what may have been intentionally degrading, embarrassing intentions.)

As long as it doesn’t sound sarcastic, he may find this statement extremely disarming. Many teachers would be so shocked by a student taking responsibility for his or her behavior that they’ll quickly shut up and back off. (This example would also be a good role model for the teacher and the rest of the class.) It think this is also excellent leadership behavior, even if he wasn’t really doing anything “that bad,” assuming he was doing anything at all.

In fact, you might want to reassure yourself that no matter what he did, he did not cause his teacher’s behavior. As a professional who still cringes at some of the things I said or did in the classroom (especially in the early days when I was still figuring out effective power dynamics and didn’t know any better), I will assert that at all times, I am (and was) responsible for my own language, attitudes, and behavior. My kids did not cause me to lose it. It was my lack of skill, experience, or maybe confidence that was triggered—in other words, my stuff! 

I could also see the benefit of your son approaching the teacher privately, one on one and not in front of the class, and when cooler heads prevail. Likewise, he might gain a bit of ground by apologizing for whatever he did and maybe by asking if, in the future, the teacher could please ask your son for more desirable behavior in a slightly less aggressive way. (Putting this in writing may be more effective than a verbal exchange, even a calm, private one. And yes, keep a copy.)

I don’t know the parties involved so I’m not exactly sure what this would sound like, but I wouldn’t recommend provoking this teacher. I would recommend getting all the facts straight and letting someone in the building administration know what happened. 

I wouldn’t push for an intervention (much less a reprisal) unless your son experiences another attack or if the behavior is part of a pattern, especially if it’s one that escalates in any way. Good documentation will always be on your side, especially if it’s factual and not accusatory. (What was said, what would have been observed, rather than interpreting the behavior as angry, shaming, or crazy, for example.)

Certainly, if the behavior continues, you may wish to seek some form of mediation or have your son talk to some safe adult in the school (a counselor, an administrator, someone in the school he trusts) about what’s going on.

One final note: Throughout our lives, we will encounter mean and rude people who behave in ugly and aggressive ways. You can validate the reality of his experience: “Wow! That sound awful!” or something similar to let him know you can appreciate the impact this might have had. 

Stay calm and watch the tendency to automatically side with the teacher (“What did you do to him?”) or show anger, indignation, or judgment toward the teacher. Ask questions to help your son explore the situation as well as what options he has: “Have you ever seen this teacher talk to other kids like that?” “What do you think he wanted from you?” “What are you willing to do differently?” for example.

Learning to do things like agree with them, ask them to be more respectful, refuse to engage while they are being abusive (“We will continue this conversation when you can talk to me without yelling.” ) or simply walk away can be very effective in a peer relationship, but kids are at a disadvantage in dealing in a power-imbalance situation such as this one, and doing the things we want them to do in the real world to take care of themselves will often get them in deeper trouble when they try to use these valuable skills with the adults in their lives! Sometimes less really is more!

I hope that this was just a really bad day for that teacher (and your son) and that no further action will be required. If this teacher is open, there are certainly more positive means for him to assert his authority and generate the kind of behavior he wants from his students. In the meantime, there is the potential for a valuable lesson for your son about how we treat people and how we can stick up for ourselves.

Related resources:

“I’m Calling Your Mother!” An article about how involved should you get in problems that arise between your kids and their teachers. Written from an educator’s point of view, this piece helps you set boundaries and support the teacher and child in the process.

Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting
Book: The Book of Article ReprintsAlso, individual articles available.

Reasons to Not Ask “Why”
What’s So Hard about Win-Win?
What’s Wrong with I-Messages?
I-Messages: The Handout
An Alternative to Advice Giving: Questions to guide problem solving
The Dignity Stance
Obedient vs. Cooperative Behavior
Survey: Is Your School an Emotionally Safe Place?

© 2008, 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

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