Twelve percent of school principals report verbal abuse of teachers as a problem
"Who gave you permission to leave the room?" junior Amanda Thornton's teacher inquired last semester as Thornton casually sauntered from the doorway of her classroom back to her seat.
"No one did. I'm 17, a junior in high school, and I don't think I should have to ask to get permission from you to leave," Thornton indignantly replied as the rest of the class snickered in amusement.
Thornton reflects that she feels a sense of triumph when she talks back to her teacher. "I feel like I've won my battle when I yell at her," she says defiantly. "Of course it's abuse, but that doesn't change anything. We all yell at her," she declares.
In fact, a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education reveals that incidents in which students verbally abuse teachers are not uncommon, as 12 percent of public school principals report that verbal abuse of teachers is a moderate to serious problem in their schools.
Math teacher Monty Mortensen says that although verbal abuse is not routine in his classes, he still receives his fair share of rude comments from angry students. "I have been told to shut up, and students say things like ‘this is boring,' or they'll use foul language," he recalls.
Sometimes the abuse even gets downright personal, says Thornton. "I've told a teacher that she should quit her job because she doesn't even know the material she is supposed to be teaching," she says, shrugging frankly. "But she didn't care. She just grunted and walked away."
When words wound
Other teachers, like social studies teacher Anne Manuel, have more difficulty disregarding offensive comments from their students. "I'm absolutely shocked and appalled during those rare instances when a student yells at me," says Manuel. "I think, ‘Why do I even bother teaching?'"
In fact, Angela Carr, a clinical psychologist for the United Federation of Teachers' Victim Support Program (established in 1989 to provide assistance and psychological support for teachers following violent incidents) says in a recent edition of Teacher Magazine that verbal abuse from students can often negatively affect the mental health of teachers. "It really chips away at the core of a teacher's identity. Most teachers experience a roller coaster of emotions. At first they're numb, and then it sinks in," she is quoted as saying.
In the same article, Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, says that abuse "is a traumatic experience for a teacher. The question is, how do you deal with it?"
Math teacher Paul Grossman says that when a student yells at him, he tries to brush off the comment and understand where the student is coming from. "I have to remember that what a student says to me in the heat of the moment does not necessarily reflect what that student truly feels," he says.
Freshman David Cheam's teacher was less forgiving when Cheam said that his grade was "so [expletive] up." "When I cussed, she kicked me out of class," he says in annoyance. "But I just had to let her hear it."
According to Assistant Principal Patricia Hurley, penalties for verbal abuse range anywhere from detention to suspension, depending on the situation. However Hurley maintains that there is a substantial difference between physical abuse, which she says "only occurs about once per year," and more frequent verbal abuse.
Although physical abuse of teachers may not be too common at Blair, a 2000 U.S. Departments of Justice and Education report reveals that between 1994 and 1998, an estimated 668,400 violent crimes were committed against faculty members at public and private schools.
Math teacher Catherine Malchodi recalls that she once felt somewhat threatened by an angry student. "One time a student was upset about a grade and so he yelled at me and got in my face," she says.
Despite the uncomfortable situation, Malchodi says that she feels secure at Blair. "That was a very isolated incident, and overall, I feel very safe here," she affirms.
A little respect
Thornton admits that she sometimes feels guilty for being impolite to her teacher, but she maintains that respect is a two-way street. "I feel bad disrespecting a teacher, but you get the same respect you give," she says.
And while many teachers are forced to endure cruel comments interspersed with disdainful stares and demeaning shouts, Manuel says that she believes that the roots of teacher abuse are grounded outside of the classroom. "There is a trend in society towards questioning authority—which is not necessarily bad. It's great that students challenge answers and think for themselves," she explains. "But sometimes it simply goes too far."
Jennie Breads. Senior Jennifer Breads is the Managing Health Editor for this year. Aside from writing lots of health stories, Jennifer enjoys playing soccer and lacrosse and she is excited to be part of the Silver Chips team! More »