Thursday, May 1, 2014

I Was Bullied by a Teacher: Giving Educators What They Deserve

I want to take a moment today to talk about teachers.  There's been a lot of debate going around over the last few years about teachers, their rates of pay, their worth, their impact. One side says that teachers are waaaaay underpaid, that they work extraordinarily hard and receive very little in return. And, another side argues that teachers are paid perfectly well because they don't do that much anyway.

As with most things, there is, of course, more to it than that. But, that's the general break down of it.

I tend to side with the former camp-- teachers do a lot for children and young adults every single day.  To ignore that is to ignore the fact that many of us are likely where we are today because of teachers, even if it is just one, that has impacted our lives. Sometimes, in no small way.  I've read so many stories about teachers saving a kid's life--or helping a kid get back on the right path, helping kids go to college, when no one else thought that would an impossibility.  Teachers providing inspiration where there is none.

The same people who critique teachers and how "little they do," are the same people who got into college with the help of a teacher or two by way of a letter of recommendation.

In my life, I've had some amazing teachers, that's for sure.  

Mrs. Collier was my first grade teacher at Box Springs Elementary School in Moreno Valley, CA circa 1992.  This woman inspired in me a deep love and passion for reading.  My mom had always encouraged me to read, but Mrs. Collier really took it to the next level.  I can't even recall how, but I know for a fact that it was in her class that I learned the power of a book, and how magical it was to get lost in one.  It was in her class that I read 100 books in one quarter.  That's right, one quarter (not semester).  This is also probably around the time my mom would beg me to go outside and play, and I would insist that I just wanted to read. I remember absolutely devouring Ann M. Martin's The Babysitter Club Little Sister books.  (Despite what the Barnes and Noble cashier said, I know these books exist [i still have some of them], and they were centered around a little sister (step sister, I believe) named Karen to one of the girls in the Babysitter's Club, though I can't remember which one).  Anyway, Mrs. Collier inspired me to become a voracious reader who, in 9th grade, would read before the morning class began, while everyone else chatted.  She inspired a love of reading that still exists to this day--and which likely led me to major in English, and go on to receive my Master's in the same subject.

Yes, I have indeed been lucky to have some amazing teachers who inspired me and really taught me a lot.

In middle school, there was Mrs. Blakemore--she taught science with such passion, that I couldn't wait to go to her class every day (and not simply to pet the class bunny named Darla), Mr. McMahon, Mrs. Kent, Mr. Branstetter (who had more faith in me than I did in myself when it came to math), and Mrs. Jennings.

In high school, my very first teacher on my very first day of class was Mr. Kossak.  He remained a part of my life all through high school, acting as a second father to me.  I still keep in contact with him, and I am thankful for the leadership he gave me back then.

There was also Mrs. Nagy, Mrs. Lofquist, Mr. Williams, Mr. Karlan, and Mrs. Williams (who insisted, after I came to her class after the Senior AP test that I was sure I had failed ["I'll be lucky if I even get a 3!"] that she would be surprised if I didn't get at least a 4. [I got a 5--not without the assistance of Mrs. Nagy, Mrs. Lofquist, and Mrs. Williams, who spent years fostering a further understanding of and passion for the English language/written word]).

In college, I was so lucky to work with amazing professors like Heather King, Claudia Ingram, Fran Grace, Anne Cavender, Ralph Angel, Bill Rocque, Karen Derris, Emily Culpepper, and a myriad of other professors who were so brilliant and passionate about what they do. The University of Redlands was the absolute best place for me, as an undergraduate.  In Grad School, Brad Campbell, John Hampsey, and Kevin Smith proved to be great resources in furthering my studies.

All of these people have inspired me in one way or another--many of them still continue to inspire me, even now.

But, unfortunately, there is another side to this story.  While I have been extremely lucky to have these fabulous instructors in my life, all of whom fostered my love of learning in one way or another, I have had some bad terrible teachers. 

I feel like this notion of a bad teacher falls into one of two categories: it is of the awful, news-making, our kids are not safe variety.  Or, it is of the quiet kind--some sort of nebulous idea of a bad teacher, but no one really knows what it consists of (not following a lesson plan/appropriate curriculum, sitting at the desk eating donuts/jack in the box, 'read the book' as a lesson, showing up but not caring, etc.).  Yes, everything in the parenthetical might be said of a 'bad teacher,' but an actual bad teacher can be so much worse than that--can be so much more damaging than that. 

My story happened before the invention of cellphones with cameras in them--I know, it seems like a lifetime ago now.  But, it was the late 90s, and I was in the 6th grade (Middle School at Elsinore Middle School went from 6-8 grade).  I was excited, I was nervous, I was a bit green, I was scared, and I was insecure.

First, though, a little about me prior to entering the 6th grade: as you might have guessed based upon my previous exaltation of Mrs. Collier, I was an extremely good student.  I got straight A's pretty much throughout elementary school, and scored in the top percentile on my standardized tests.  

So, imagine the surprise of my parents when, in sixth grade, I started bringing home D's, instead of A's. I was going through a rough time with some friendships (perhaps another blog for another day), but the crux of the problem was this: I was being bullied by a teacher.

I know, I know--there's this thing going around about how millennials are so spoiled, and we got a trophy for everything, and it was always the teacher's fault... and no.  It is not always the teacher's fault.  Believe me, I get that.  However, to say it is never the teacher's fault would also be an inaccuracy.  Because, in my two first period classes (Language Arts, and another subject at which I had previously excelled), I began pulling the lowest grades I'd ever seen--and, it turns out, I would ever see again.  And it wasn't my fault.

For whatever reason, Ms. Jackson had decided that she didn't like me.  To this day, I cannot tell you why.  But, at 10-11 years old, I was bullied by my sixth grade teacher, a grown woman, for an entire school year.  She would make me feel stupid for asking questions in class, she would not call on me if I raised my hand to answer a question, and eventually she began to belittle me in front of the entire class.  For some reason, back then, I had this odd habit of talking in a baby voice-- I'm not sure why, but she chastised me for it in front of the whole class.  I was stunned, and always one to easily cry, I had to sit there and fight back the tears, as my classmates snickered around me.  The progress report came to the house, and my parents were completely shocked.  They had never seen grades like that from me before.  

Concerned, my mom called Ms. Jackson, and my mom told this teacher that she didn't understand--how had I gone from getting straight A's in elementary school, to getting D's in her courses?

Ms. Jackson said that that happened a lot with students from my elementary school.  They came in extremely behind, and etc., etc., etc.  Went from straight A's to D's and F's.

At one point during the school year, we had to do a book report on a book of our choosing-- we could choose any project to do at the summation of reading our selected book.  Some students did a diorama, some students did a report, etc.  For my project, I decided I was going to be unique and do an "Interview With the Author."  Of course, I couldn't really interview the author, but I made the report like I was a journalist asking the author questions about her book--it was creative, and it showed that I had read the book.  I even used information from the 'About the Author' page regarding where the author lived, etc.  I took some liberties, sure, but right on the cover page of the report I had written "An Interview with the Author" (Fiction) By: Natalie McDonald.  I received an F.

Then, came the parent-teacher conference, where Ms. Jackson told my parents how terrible I was doing--how the work I was turning in was completely sub-par.  "Like this," Ms. Jackson said, waving my book report around, "What is this?  I can't tell what this is--did she actually interview the author?!"

My mom responded by taking the report from her, and pointing out where I had clearly marked it as 'fiction.' My final grades in both of those classes were D's.

To this day, they are the only D's I have ever received.  After I got out of Ms. Jackson's class, I entered 7th grade, and was met with some brand new teachers--any guesses at what my grades were that year?  Yes. Straight A's.  I was not, as Ms. Jackson claimed, "way behind" the other students in my grade.  In 8th grade, one letter dominated my report card: A.

I still don't know why Ms. Jackson hated me so--I don't think I'll ever know.  Bad grades would have been one thing, they didn't ask me on my college applications what grades I got in 6th grade Language Arts class, but the actual thing that Ms. Jackson did was publicly humiliate a 10 year old girl in front of her peers because she arbitrarily decided she didn't like her.  Or, I don't know, maybe she had a really good reason, I'll never know.  Either way, her actions weren't appropriate.

This is the first time I am telling this story in a public forum, and I am doing so for a very specific reason. The number of good teachers I have had far outweighs the number of bad teachers I've had (I've had more than one, but Ms. Jackson went above and beyond), but no one seems to talk about the bad unless it is in the extreme (teachers committing crimes, etc.).  Ms. Jackson could have done far worse damage to me than she did.  And I am extraordinarily lucky to have parents who believed me--who didn't just think that I was blaming my poor performance on a teacher to get out of accepting responsibility for my behavior.  As far as I know, Ms. Jackson was never held accountable for what she did to me--and I can only hope that she didn't do it to anyone else, either.

My grades suffered that year, my self-esteem and self-worth suffered that year, my psyche suffered that year--and that was due, in large part, to Ms. Jackson.  Luckily, I was able to pull myself out of it the very next year--others might not have been so lucky.  The truth of the matter is this: bad teachers are dangerous.  Which brings me back to the beginning of this post--bad teachers are dangerous, which is why it is absolutely imperative that we treat the good ones in the manner that they deserve.

Obviously, this is still something I think about from time to time, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a traumatic experience.  But, the truth of the matter is: it hasn't impacted my life in the slightest. 

So, Theresa Jackson, wherever you are, despite your best efforts circa 1997-98, at Elsinore Middle School in Lake Elsinore, California, your behavior and actions had absolutely no impact on my life whatsoever.

And to everyone else mentioned in this blog: thank you.  Without ever knowing my story, every single year you helped reaffirm that it was okay to trust teachers, a sentiment I lost a little bit in the late 90s.


  1. If Ms. Jackson reads this, she might think it's fiction!

    I had a teacher who was a bully too. My 1st grade Catholic school teacher, good old Sister Mary Ann! She chastised me in front of the whole class for not wearing the required, uniform-brown shoes! It was a couple of days before summer, and my parents saw how wrecked my old shoes were. Thinking it wouldn't make headlines... they chose to buy me nicer, non-brown shoes instead of purchasing something I would wear for three days and abandon (likely never to wear again since I was still growing).

    What was funny to me, is how quickly my peers in the class (FRIENDS INCLUDED) all started glaring at me, scornfully. Sin of all sins! But, I guess that's Catholic School for you. Guilt galore!

    I have also had A LOT of really good teachers, ones that inspired me to pursue my own passions (UCSD woo hoo!!!). But, I agree that bad teachers can be dangerous.

    My mom was unable to afford the price to keep me in Catholic school and in 3rd grade I was attending a public school. My 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Grajalva changed my life! He was fun, first of all. Soccer was a big thing we played often in his class. It was quite a culture shock going from a school where I had no friends and was made to feel guilty about everything, to a school where everyone was excited to make friends with the new kid, and where the teacher was totally fun, awesome and made learning a fun experience!

    The good teachers are the ones who inspired me the most. I will never forget them.

    P.s. sorry for the deleted comments, I was having trouble posting this for some reason and accidentally posted multiple times.

    1. Awwww. :( At least you moved on to a better school with better experiences. :)

  2. My sons first grade teacher was horrible, he went from being top of his class in kindergarten (learning first grade curriculum before any of his peers) to D's!
    I felt so helpless, he would come home looking like a zombie and every morning he would fight me tooth and nail to keep him home. I brought it Up to his principle on several accounts that she was screaming at the kids and would drill these poor first graders with packets after packets instead if actually teaching them but they kept reassuring me she was AMAZING at her job.
    Finally! He was out of her class and second grade came along, within the first week of school i received a phone call from the principle telling me that Mason had tested above his classmates in their testing and that they wanted to move him into an advanced 2-3rd grade class.
    I couldn't believe that this was the same person who was siding with his previous teacher just last year about how Mason just wasn't understanding her curriculum the way others were.
    Apparently she has been here since the stone age because i talked to other mothers how said she was mean to them when THEY WERE GOING TO SCHOOL HERE. Just goes to show that it didn't matter how horrible or scarring a teacher is as long as she has a ten-year.
    Go Box Springs lol

    1. Kerilyn, That is so awful!! I'm so sorry that happened to your baby. I'm glad he shook it off, though, and is now doing better. Ironically enough, Mrs. Collier was at Box Springs, haha--and she taught first grade. It's a shame she's not still around.

  3. I can identify with this story so much.
    Grades K-6, I excelled so much and idolized my teachers. I still keep in contact with my 2nd grade teacher on FB because she touched my life so much at just that right stage where I needed that kind of guidance. My third grade teacher though- Mrs. Little... I loved/hated her.

    Remember when parents would go to the conferences and then your parents would get home and tell you how amazing you were or what you needed to work on? I mostly was told that I was amazing, but Mrs. Little thought that I was odd. I still can't shake it either. The summer before the school year, we had visited Nashville and then Graceland to see Elvis' grave. The tour guide told us about the urban legend of him still being alive. I loved the stories and was a really observant/curious child, so when the school year started and we had to share about our summers, I told the class all about Elvis and the urban legend. Apparently, Mrs. Little thought that I was a little too into this legend and felt that I was too caught up in fantasy. Well, Mrs. Little... did it ever occur to you that my I was very much into fantasy because my world was crumbling at home? The beginning of my 3rd grade year also began the separation/divorce of my parents. As an oldest child, not only was I thrown into a role of having to be strong for my little brothers, but I was mourning having to leave my dear childhood home, my best friend across the street, my school and of course, my father moving out of our house. It was traumatic! So yeah, I WAS acting weird and I WAS focusing on ANYTHING other than my home-life. BUT I was also 8 years old!

    My mom did not report to me what she said either. I was nosy and went through my mom's purse to find the progress report. I can still see it though, "Odd." Who says that about an 8 year old? She knew what I was going through too. Other than that, I loved Mrs. Little, but maybe more so because I hate to have anyone not like me so I worked hard to please her.

    The only other awful teacher I had was a long term sub, who was filling in for my 9th grade English teacher while she was on maternity. English was my favorite class and I had never received any grade lower than an A on anything. Well this sub, did not like my controversial essay about animal testing, which was extremely well written. She gave me a D for lack of substantial evidence. In retaliation, since I was the Opinion Editor of my school newspaper, I published the article and dedicated it to my supportive substitute teacher, Mrs. Best.

    1. Aw, I'm so sorry that you had to go through that, Nikol. It's incredible how these experiences can just stick with us. I wonder if these teachers remember us and feel badly for what they did to us. How hilarious that you were able to get that awful substitute back like that! :D