What Would You Do if Your Child Were Being Bullied—By a Teacher?

The topic of bullying gets a lot of ink these days—bullies on the playground, on the school bus and in the cafeteria. But what if the bully in your kid’s life is a teacher?

The truth is, most teachers don’t bully. But my kids, who were always pretty outspoken, have been bullied as much by their teachers as their peers.

At first I couldn’t believe it was happening. My kids were telling me things I couldn’t quite see. But when the teachers just made excuses or blew off my questions, I knew I had to do something. The solution, like the ending of a novel, wasn’t always a happy one.

It feels funny sending a kid off in the morning to be taught by someone who has violated him. Even if it was just in a small way and even if it only happened once. It goes against my better judgment.

I felt privileged that my kids talked to me. My role, I believed, was to empathize; but more than that, I helped them role-play possible dialogs and brainstorm ways of dealing with the situation. I told them they could ask for help, and as always, I backed them up.

One day my fifth-grade son appeared in the living room at an odd hour. “What are you doing home from school?” I said.

Flushed and angry, he let it all out, sobbing. “Every day Mrs. Smith yells at this one girl and makes her cry. I told her to stop. She doesn’t need to do that!”

I hugged him then. I had never felt so proud.

Kids know when something is wrong. It’s a funny feeling they get in their tummies caused by an increase in stress hormones. They need to learn to trust that feeling and do something about it. My son had reached the point of fight or flight. He did both. The teacher’s behavior not only affected the child she was bullying, it affected the whole class.

My oldest daughter’s sixth-grade science teacher gave the class an assignment: make a model of a cell using unusual materials. My daughter and I brainstormed about how she could do the project using materials we had at home. Being a sewer, I had lots of fabric. I showed her how she could use appliqué to represent the different cell-parts. She ran with it. The end result was  impressive and she was proud of her work.

The day she turned in her project was the last either of us saw of it. “What grade did you get on your cell?” I asked.

“I got an ‘A’.”

A week or more went by. “Did you get the cell back yet?”


“Ask her about it, please.”

“She said she can’t find it.”

I went to the teacher to ask about the appliquéd cell. She said sometimes students let her keep their projects for the benefit of future classes. She just misplaced this one, she said. She’d look for it.

That’s when I knew the truth. She thought she needed the cell more than my daughter did. On the last day of school my daughter brought home a bag with some cheap fabric scraps. “The teacher said I could make another one if I wanted to.”

I apologized to my daughter for the missing project and told her what I thought. We were both disappointed. She thought she could trust her teacher. I wanted her to do her best in everything, without  reservation.

That science teacher was a bully.

My kindergartner, a little girl with a huge sense of justice, had problem with verbiage used by her PE teacher. “She calls the kids ‘motor-mouths’ when they’re talking and she shouldn’t do that,” My daughter said,  pronouncing the word “motor-mouth-es.”

I could imagine twenty squirming five and six-year-olds all trying to get attention. We talked about other ways the teacher could get the kids to quiet down.  “What do you want to do about it?” I asked her.

“Tell somebody,” she said.

“Want to tell your teacher?”

“I think I should tell the principal.”

My six-year wanted no help from me. I watched her march up to the office and ask to see the school principal. The principal wasn’t available, so the secretary made her an appointment for the following day. At the scheduled time, the secretary went to the classroom and got my daughter. The principal heard her out and asked, “What do you think I should do about it?”

My daughter looked at her, I’m sure quite incredulous. “Tell her to stop it!”

And the principal said she would.

When my daughter told me about her conversation with the school principal, I could not have been more proud. The gym teacher had been bullying the class with her name-calling and thought nothing of it. A six-year-old called her bluff.

More than once I have subbed in classes where the teacher-aide had an attitude problem.

One aide thought it was her job to be mean and punitive. I was convinced she made a habit of it. She barked at the kids as they came in. She barked at a little disabled girl on crutches, telling her she could not retrieve her snack from the coat area, an alcove not more than twenty-feet away and part of the room.

The woman’s tone was curt and negative. “You should know by now to bring it in with you in the morning!” she said, dismissing the child.

I bent down, level with the little girl. “Do you usually remember your snack?”

“Um hmm,” she said.

And then, in front of the aide, I gave the girl permission to get her snack. I have never felt more liberated in my life. That teacher-aide was a bully.

I would take my kids’ word any day over their teachers’ because some of the same things happened to me when I was a kid.  When your children tell you something happened in school, listen. If they need help finding something, go with them. Don’t wait. If a teacher’s comments are out of control, ask them how you can help stop it.

If you suspect something they value was stolen in the classroom, by anyone, tell the teacher you are writing a notice to the principal and then follow up on it. Give the teacher a copy. Pass out notices of the lost item to other parents. Ask if the same thing has happened to them. Post signs saying if the item is returned to the office, no questions will be asked. (That one really worked for me.)

Let your child know you are an advocate and an ally.  By letting your kids disagree with you and encouraging the expression of different views, you are helping them develop their own voice.  They will have words to defend themselves, or someone else, in the face of a bully – even if the bully is a teacher. FFG

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