Thursday, January 7, 2010

Confessions of a one time teacher bully

Like many teachers who take a moment to reflect upon their beginnings, I sometimes wince at some of the things I used to do. Here is a particularly shameful memory:

I was in my first year of teaching and I was really, really green. I was doing everything in my power to keep one day ahead of the kids. I was teaching 5 language arts classes, including 3 different grade levels (grades 6, 7 & 8). I had never so much as observed a language arts class in university let alone taught one, and yet, here I was.

I can distinctly remember teaching a boy who was considered a 'bad seed' among the teachers and students for that matter. He was a bully and pretty rough around the edges. He couldn't have cared less about academics and wore this as a badge of honor. Needless to say, it was only a matter of time before him and I bumped heads.

I can remember having my class sitting in their neat little rows of desks as I chalked and talked my way through an intricately hair brained lesson that I had dreamed up most likely the night before. And I can remember catching the boy talking yet again while I had expected him to learn in isolation like the rest of the students. I knew I had to do something, so I ordered him to do 25 push ups right then and there. I guess I expected him to jump from his desk and do them in front of his peers, in between the rows of desks. And we were all going to watch him.

Except one thing.

He said no.

I of course was shocked, along with the rest of the students. I think I stood their in awe of his audacity for some time before I continued my lesson - like nothing had happened, but deep down I was horribly embarassed.

At the time, I think I was pretty pissed off. I'm sure I was upset at the gaul this little punk had for saying no to me and making me look like a fool in front of the other students.

However, today I look back at the way I treated that boy, and I am wholly ashamed of myself. Today, I am aware that the boy had nothing to do with making an ass of me - my own behavior was enough to do that. Today, I'm not pissed off at that boy for standing up to me - rather, I am glad he did because he was right.

Too often when we use the word respect, we really mean compliance, and that doesn't sit well with me. Big and small infamous moments of our history were born out of compliance. Edmund Burke may have summarized this nicely when he said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Despite my shame, I believe that this event was but one of the many events that happened in my career that pushed me to radically rethink my role as a teacher.


  1. Good post, Joe. I think most teachers wish they could have a "redo" on many of the things they did in their first year of teaching. Thanks for your honesty.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ted! I would imagine books could be written on the errors teachers make. A lot could be learned from those kinds of books.

  3. We all have things that we did as teachers, especially during our formative years, that we wish we could undo or redo. I think the important thing, though, is that we are reflective about it. It is only through conscious reflection on how we've taught that we can learn to move forward as a better teacher.

  4. I'm glad you retweeted this for us. I have been teaching for 30 years now and my first impulse was to respond with one of my shameful stories. I will spare you that. Suffice to say, Most of us can horrify you with the things we have done in the classroom.

    You are correct. When we ask for respect we usually are talking about issues of compliance. We all crave respect. Perhaps we need respect but we also need compliance. Societies rely on compliance and if you don't think so, then experiment with not complying with the traffic rules or being idiosyncratic the next time you play a team sport.

    Ronald Morrish presents all this in a respectful way in his book "Real Discipline". You are probably familiar with him. The documents linked below are useful too:

    Back to your main point of respect. Always we must respect the people we work with and avoid abusing our still powerful place in the classroom. In my first year of education I was taught two things: never create a rule you cannot enforce; and don't forget students are more powerful than teachers. Teachers must follow the rules, students do not.

  5. I'll never forget hearing a principal I worked for say to a kid who was, once again, in his office for some issue. He said "Now, I know you didn't get up this morning thinking of ways to make me mad." When I look at student behavior from this viewpoint rather than as a personal affront, things always end better.


There was an error in this gadget

Follow by Email