The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Far off, men swell, bully, and threaten; bring them hand to hand, and they are feeble folk."... ...Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Commentary of the Day - October 4, 2003:  Looking for Trouble.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Way back in the Middle Ages, anxious Europeans kept watch on the shores of the North Sea.  "God save us from the Vikings," they prayed fervently. They had plenty of reasons to be fervent.  The Vikings were typically less than polite when they dropped by to visit.

Of course, people were still people in those days, so burnt mutton and the bills got under their skin, too.  But the little things took a back seat when you were being pillaged.

Public schools are like those beleaguered villages.  We don't need to magnify our daily troubles. And we definitely don't need to go looking for more Vikings.  We've got plenty of big, real problems already.

We've yet to overcome a generation of touchy-feely, student-centered, content-light, bad ideas.  We've got a new education law founded on the impossible promise that all students will meet new, high standards when they already aren't meeting old, allegedly low standards.  Add to those woes the tsunami of frivolous lawsuits, disruptive students, budget crunches, and non-academic demands on school time and resources.

Now tell me the wise man's still looking for another school issue.

Well, ready or not, here it is.

It's bullying.  We're not talking about old-fashioned bullying like getting pushed around on the playground.  We're also not talking about the new and improved, hypersensitized brand, which experts define as "any written or verbal expression, or physical act or gesture…intended to cause distress."

Your mother wears combat boots.


The new frontier for anti-bullying warriors involves the "most unexpected bully of all," the classroom teacher.  And the experts aren't just talking through their hats.  They've got "new research."  Unfortunately, while talking through your hat is hardly the surest route to the truth, it's usually more reliable than most education research.

Dr. Stuart Twemlow is a "bully researcher."  He's codirector of the Peaceful Schools Project, which develops and sells anti-bullying curricula to schools.  He titled his new study "Teachers Who Bully Students: A Hidden Trauma."  Not surprisingly, he's discovered that teacher bullying is a bigger and more expensive problem that anybody thought.  Twenty-five percent of the teachers he surveyed admitted to bullying students "a few times."

To put that statistic in perspective, imagine a survey asking parents if they've ever snapped at their kids or used the fact that they were bigger and in charge to control their children.  Do those "few times" make most parents bullies?

Everybody's either got or heard a story about the evil first grade teacher who wouldn't let some six-year-old color the grass purple.  Anybody who thinks that constitutes a life-changing trauma needs to spend a few hours in Liberia.

Everybody's also had or heard about a mean teacher.  Mean teachers shouldn't be on the job.  Neither should mean nurses or desk clerks.

On the other hand, we need to be cautious when we're relying on the perceptions of children to define and identify what's "mean."  I've heard countless students complain that their teacher "yelled" at them when the teacher hadn't raised his voice at all.  That's because kids often define "yelling" as telling them something they don't want to hear and "meanness" as denying them something they want.

Parents already know this.

Bully warriors object when teachers "sigh" or "roll their eyes."  They're outraged by sarcasm and yelling.  They condemn standing against the wall at recess as "public humiliation."  Some demand that teachers avoid intimidation by "kneeling to speak to students at their own level."

Half the time when I roll my eyes, I'm laughing at myself.  Other times another student's asked the same question I've already answered nine times.  Most kids understand this.  That's because they have a sense of humor.  Also sometimes they roll their eyes, too.

Try keeping order in the company of twenty adolescents without ever raising your voice.  Come to think of it, try keeping order in the company of one adolescent without ever raising your voice.  I don't yell often, but sometimes it's the best way to make an impression.  Other times it's the only way to be heard.  It's not, as Dr. Twemlow asserts, because I possess "poor social skills" or suffer from "feelings of inferiority or powerlessness."

Memo to Dr. Twemlow:  Try cafeteria duty for a few weeks.  Then get back to me about yelling.

It's ironic when bully warriors complain about standing kids against the wall during recess, especially when those kids are usually there because they've been bullying other children.  And while I've often sat with a kid to console him, there's no way I'll be kneeling down to explain to a disruptive student the finer points of why he should want to shut his mouth so the rest of us can study history.

I don't set out to publicly reprimand, let alone humiliate a student.  But when his misbehavior is public and immediate, I have little choice.

This isn't the moment to be fabricating issues and epidemics.  Besides, our present problem isn't that we have too many teachers who can control a classroom.  If I can't raise my voice, or alter its tone, or change the look on my face, or goad a kid into behaving with my words, or remove him from class, what exactly can I do to preserve the order necessary for a safe, productive learning environment?

My voice, my words, my eyes, and my bearing are the tools of my trade.  I don't want to use them to hurt anybody.  But sometimes they're essential to keep my students from hurting each other and themselves.

©2003 Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vermont. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer messages addressed to him in care of the editor.

The IP comments:  The IP thinks Peter Berger is on to something here.  While most everyone would agree that it is a desirable goal to reduce the level of bullying that goes on in schools, one has to wonder if the number of genuine teacher bullies is large enough to warrant the kind of effort that Dr. Twemlow is promoting.  To be sure, a few teachers probably are sufficiently overbearing that they could be classified as true bullies.  Over the years the IP has run into exactly one teacher out of hundreds he has known at both the K-12 and university level who might meet the definition.  However, folks like Dr. Twemlow have a way of taking behavior that is well within normal boundaries and blowing it out of proportion to serve their own ends.

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