on learning from bad teachers

There’s a fairly wide-spread belief in the Harry Potter fandom that Delores Umbridge is a more hated character than Lord Voldemort.

There’s a reason for this. Voldemort is like Darth Vader or Wizard Hitler, however you want to put it–scary and terrifying for the things he can do, but not something that readers (especially kids) can actually connect to on an emotional level. Harry’s experiences fighting Voldemort aren’t something that kids can really empathize with, because most kids aren’t going around fighting giant snakes or breaking into government buildings to steal prophecies, etc.

But every kid has had a teacher like Umbridge. The teacher who, no matter how you tried, never respected the things you said. The teacher who always had to be right. The teacher who wrapped hypocrisy and condescension in sweetness, who shot you down for any opinion that didn’t match their own, the teacher that doesn’t just punish you for expressing your opinion, they punish you and then tell you you earned it.

(a little extreme, maybe, but the point stands.)

These are the teachers that you can’t self-advocate with. Self-advocacy is a great buzzword, especially for social workers. Someone treating you poorly? Advocate for yourself! Your needs aren’t being met? Self-advocate! Yay, self-advocacy!

But self-advocacy only works when you feel safe, and with teachers like Umbridge, you can’t feel safe. You can’t go to an office and say, “I felt disrespected when this happened,” or, “I’m concerned about what I observed in class today,” or, “Can we have a conversation about the way conflicts are addressed in class?” You can’t do this because not only is there a skewed power dynamic, but there is an almost definite assurance of negative consequences. And this is always terrifying, because these teachers do so within the rules of the educational system. They punish you in ways that you can’t prove or protest. A lack of validation of your ideas, little acceptance of your needs for scheduling or academic accommodation, negative reinforcement, even altering your grades. You try to report them to a supervisor, and get no help.

I have a teacher like this now, and I am stuck. People who know me in real life know that I have very, very low tolerance for bullshit and disrespect, but even I have a line that needs to be drawn. This teacher determines whether I not I receive my degree in August. I have already reported her once for disrespectful and triggering language, and received an email back that said–you guessed it!–“this is a great opportunity for self-advocacy!”

These aren’t situations when you can self-advocate. Students have a right to feel safe, and education professionals have a responsibility to ensure that. (To clarify: when I say “safe” I don’t mean that every student has a right to perfect grades or having every opinion validated and supported, especially if those opinions are harmful to others. When I say “safe”, I mean that students should not be afraid to approach teachers with questions, and should be able to express concerns about a teacher’s behavior in class in a respectful way without fear of retribution.) What is the course of action when students can’t self-advocate and the administration doesn’t offer support?

(let me dream)

At a certain point, you have only three options:

  1. Stand up for yourself and others as much as you can, and accept the consequences.
  2. Learn how not to act when in a position of power.
  3. Collect anecdotes for an absolutely scathing letter that you will send the millisecond this teacher no longer has power over you.

Or, in my case, do all three.

I might be an exception to some rules, but (and yeah, we’re going Harry Potter again, deal with it) I think this is where my inner Gryffindor actually comes out pretty clearly. My bullshit tolerance level is extremely low, and my tolerance for people in power being disrespectful to people not in power is extremely extremely low. So I tend to call it out. And I try to do this in a respectful manner, using affirming language, “I” statements, contextualizing my opinion, etc, though I’ve still been told that my voice says “friendly” but my eyes say “murder.” This is something I’m half-heartedly working on.

I see it as a sort of tiny ounce of civil disobedience. The criticisms I give are within the bounds of respectful discourse (although the teacher in question doesn’t see it that way), and if nothing else, the rest of the people in the class get to see at least one person refusing to lie down and take the you-know-what she doles out. And I’m fairly sure that that’s how I’ll handle the semester: call things out as I see it. Know when to step down and end a conversation, even if I don’t have the last word. Refuse to let problematic statements stand without challenge, because a class full of social workers in clinical internships needs to see positive modeling of language and skills, not a clear example of how not to act.

Which brings me to the next point.

You can learn a lot by watching a bad example of power dynamics. You can watch how the people around you react to things someone says or does, and feel the changes of emotion in a room. You can see what happens when someone tries to voice an opinion or advocate change, and is struck down by someone who can’t stand being questioned.




(literally this is how it feels sometimes)

And when this happens, you get to make goals for your future. You get to make professional promises for yourself. You grow up enough to realize that this is not an okay way to treat people. That as a professional, as a leader, you have a responsibility to create safe spaces for the people you work with. That if you are a trauma-informed professional who genuinely embraces the tenets of trauma-informed practice rather than just paying lip service, you will question yourself, and take criticism of your actions with grace, and understand that the intent of your words matters less than the perception of them. You’ll take responsibility for the things you say and do that are hurtful, rather than placing the blame of injury on the person who is hurt. You will not say, “sorry for the miscommunication,” but rather, “I’m sorry that hurt you with my words. What can I do in the future to be better?” This is how to learn from a bad teacher: you mark each and every thing that they do wrong, and commit yourself to doing the opposite.

But the end of a class doesn’t mean the end of your responsibility. When a teacher no longer has the power to hurt you, this is the time to act. Whether it’s a letter to their supervisor, a letter directly to the teacher, or simply a sit-down meeting (maybe with a mediator to protect your safety), you have a responsibility to future students to make it extremely clear that the teacher’s behavior is not okay. Keep a record of what they say and do that is harmful. Write down comments, actions, anecdotes, and present them to the person or their supervisor. Demand that action be taken. If nothing else, you have explicitly told someone in power that this person is not actin appropriately. You can’t necessarily make a change, but you can make a start. And if you can get others to join you, all the better.

(Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of YOU ARE AN AWFUL TEACHER.)

Ultimately, I have found, the best revenge is to live well. With crappy teachers, sometimes the best thing to do is to simply be better. Take the things that they do that make you feel small and powerless, and pledge to do the opposite. Raise people up. Make them feel empowered. Never believe yourself to be above criticism, and take critiques with grace. Call out harmful words and actions, and teach people to be better. Unlearn the harmful lessons and dismantle the structures that put the wrong people into power.

The best thing you can learn from a bad teacher is how to be a good one.

So go be better, and bring others with you.

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