Harry Potter versus Snape: who was bullying who?

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The title of this post is an obvious attempt at grabbing your attention. If you’re reading this, it means it worked. I don’t think we need to talk about who was bullying who when it comes to Harry and Snape, do we?

Bullying by teachers is an unfortunate reality, but fortunately enough steps have been taken and a system of checks and balances has been put in place to make sure that teachers don’t abuse their power.

However, it seems that to a certain extent, this plan might have backfired. For some reason, teachers are now being bullied by students. While I don’t know the statistics, I do have many friends who are teachers; some have been doing it for decades, others have just started, and all agree that there are more and more incidents nowadays of students being disrespectful of authority and bullying their teachers when they don’t get their way. I was particularly horrified when I was told of a 13 year-old whose parents responded to a teacher’s note asking for a meeting to discuss the student’s terrible grades with a threat of a lawsuit. Another teacher was told by a 14 year-old student that her parents didn’t want her to do more than two hours of homework a day, and that if the teacher gave her detention, her parents would have him fired.

How… adorable.

I have often wondered how things got to this point. Teenagers have always been ‘rebels’, but that used to be a good thing. They were the ones to question authority when it was abusing its powers; they were the ones demanding justice; they were the ones that brought about positive change, especially when they had been empowered to do so by adults who saw that capacity in them and gave them tools to do so. The troublemakers were still good kids, just mischievous, a little rambunctious and making everyone (even teachers, although they would never admit it) laugh. We had cigarette problems, but nothing noteworthy. While most were in awe of the cool kids, no one was really scared of them; only occasionally was there a scary kid that no one liked.

Seems like scary kids are the rule rather than the exception nowadays.

It’s been a little while since I went to high school; the one huge difference between then and now is the availability of information in quantities never before imagined through the medium of the Internet. Whereas before, tween and teens would come home and more of less be isolated from the rest of the world, they are now connected everywhere they go. Before, when a teen was home, their reality was that of their family; the people they would talk to and complain about were their parents and the couple of friends they had time to call. Discussion and consultation about particular problems were limited to the capacity of the tween/teen, and would grow as that capacity grew.

It’s an ideal portrait, I admit, but one that is a good reflection of what happened in most houses; it is also certainly a portrait more prominent 10 to 15 years ago than it is today. This portrait is also one that increases the odds of reaching adulthood sane and able to deal with the often overwhelming contradictions and stresses of society.

These days, tweens and teens are constantly connected to huge numbers of networks on top of their normal school, community and home network, starting with extracurricular activities, job-related networks, and Internet interest-related networks. The number of conversations tweens and teens are having exceeds that of tweens and teens from a couple of years ago; have we had time to tool them adequately to hold these simultaneous conversations?

Probably not, since we’re all still learning how to use this medium. But interestingly enough, the permissive society in which we live gives them full access to something we don’t know enough about ourselves without offering them the supervision, help and place to discuss it that they would need to develop healthy Internet communication habits. More than that, the consumerism that also pervades our society encourages everyone to use and abuse everything.

In this context, the time tweens and teens would spend learning to communicate and filter through the feelings and emotions that these years of intense change bring about is instead taken over by other activities that aren’t being carefully monitored. How can we expect our tweens and teens to express themselves in any other way than in anger? In this context, is it really a surprise that they respond to authority figures by bullying them when they can?

The increasing frustration of tweens and teens, the permissive society in which we live and the rising turmoil at local, national and international levels affecting every single one of us, are factors that are coalescing around us, whose effect is most noticeable amongst tweens and teens, the most fragile members of our society. This is not only keeping them from achieving their potential but is also increasing their angst. Not having developed their capacity to express themselves, be it within the family unit, within the community or within their school, they bottle everything up; once the pressure reaches a certain point, they explode. The chances of this happening at school is extremely high for the simple reason that the lives of tweens and teens are spent mostly in one of two places: at home or at school.

I feel sorry for teachers, who have what could potentially be one of the most satisfying jobs on the planet, but who now have to basically moderate groups of highly stressed tweens & teens unable to express themselves and seek the help they need, teachers who are more negotiator than educator and who have to step very lightly around a group whose anger seems to be increasing daily.

But teachers are starting to speak out, and for that, I applaud them. Too long have we let them bear the brunt of the consequences of a permissive society; hopefully a rise in awareness will create an environment in which these students can be heard, limits can once again be set, and the example of good parents whose parenting is often deemed as ‘harsh’ will actually be emulated.

Here is a great piece written by Robert Smol for the CBC. In it, he tackles the subject of teacher bullying by students; his take on it is very interesting, and his eloquence makes this difficult subject pretty easy to read about.

A teacher speaks out on students bullying teachers

We assume it only happens to naive substitute teachers and to those new to the profession. But students bullying teachers, often referred to as teacher-targeted bullying, is quickly assuming endemic proportions and is preventing a growing number of teachers from doing their job.

A 2005 survey conducted by the Canadian Teachers Federation revealed that 35 per cent of teachers had witnessed a student physically assaulting or intimidating a teacher.

The same study found 60 per cent of teachers had seen a student verbally abusing a teacher at a level “more than just an angry exchange.”

In Ontario, the statistics are even more disturbing. A recent survey commissioned by the Catholic and public teacher unions in this province stated that “bullying of teachers by students is more prevalent than any other form of bullying.”

Overall, almost 40 per cent of teachers in this province reported having been bullied by their students. Of this group, the most severely affected are the intermediate (Grades 7-9) teachers, where 50 per cent reported having been bullied by their students.

Why are teachers being bullied so much? To answer this, we have to look at what I call the three problem p’s: permissiveness, parents and principals.

I entered the teaching profession indoctrinated in the belief that young people today have changed. This is not true. The basic moral fabric of the child or adolescent today is fundamentally no different than it was in 1978, 1958 or 1908.

Instead, it is our society’s attitude and moral guidance that have undergone a fundamental transformation for the worse.

Defy authority

We give our children a licence to irresponsibly question and defy authority and we call it empowerment. In the past, empowerment was more directly linked to maturity, meaning you had to learn the responsibility that came with the exercise of power.

While challenging authority may be necessary at times, it comes at a cost. All too often, belligerent students and students who bully have no appreciation of what that cost might be.

Parents need to understand that to care does not necessarily mean to coddle. When it comes to teaching respect and self-restraint, this generation of parents seems all too willing to defer their obligation to teach basic civility to a mean-spirited, materialistic, secular society where indulgence and instant gratification are seen as the mark of success.

When discussing students bullying teachers, a colleague of mine aptly summed up the attitude of principals as: “Work to rule.”

Citing new progressive discipline legislation or issues seemingly beyond their control, principals seem increasingly reticent to deal with students — and the students know it.

Effective referrals to the principal’s office are becoming increasingly problematic. Older retired teachers I have spoken to are shocked at the degree of due diligence needed to get the office to do something with an abusive, disruptive student.

Incident reports, phone calls and letters to the parents, along with detentions are frequently required before what often amounts to a mere slap on the wrist can be administered at the office. The disciplinary brick wall that was once the principal’s office has been replaced by a speed bump.

Teachers, myself included, cannot do it alone. I simply cannot confront the belligerent, abusive student in my class in the same no-nonsense manner I may have once confronted such behaviour on the street or at the local pub. But knowing that I cannot fight, I cannot flee either.

Getting away with it

Don’t let their advocates fool you; students who bully teachers know they are doing something wrong. Time and time again, I have seen alleged misguided behavioural students who intimidate and bully teachers work at their part-time jobs in the community showing all manner of courtesy to managers and customers. These students know where they can prey on authority and get away with it, and it is not at the local fast-food restaurant.

Frankly, I have to admit that we teachers are also partly to blame for this problem.

All too often, the mark of professionalism as a teacher means, on an individual advocacy level, keeping your mouth shut and taking on a level of abuse that would never be tolerated in any other profession.

We teachers are often prone to rationalize the abuse we receive from students. “Well you know Johnny is stressed because his parents are going through a divorce — that is why he is abusing me,” or “You’ve got to understand that Suzy is frustrated because she did not get accepted into college — that is why she is always calling me a —-.”

So where is this problem heading? Costly absenteeism and therapy aside, teachers are trying to adjust, as they always seem to do, to the new challenges in their classroom, meaning they will be teaching less and managing more.

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