25 August 2009


Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:05 pm

Bullies play a critical role in coming-of-age movies, embodying the fear we all have of one another. The bully never goes away; eventually he must be confronted. It’s never a matter of brute force that overwhelms the bully, but a combination of wits, leverage, and teamwork. Most important is bravery — not bravado, but rather a willingness to confront one’s fears, risking humiliation in order to attain some new measure of autonomy and self-assurance on the road to adulthood.

Teachers have watched these movies, surely. Why, then, when the schoolyard bullies have been neutralized, do they have to fill the void?

Adorno, in his essay “Taboos on the Teaching Profession,” denounces the stereotypical teacher as a “classroom tyrant,” a “caricature of despotism” whose power only parodies that of other educated professionals. In knowing more than his charges and in wielding power over those obligated to obey him, the teacher is “not fair, not a good sport.” To be good, a teacher must set aside these advantages accruing solely to his function:

“Success as an academic teacher is due to the absence of every kind of calculated influence, to the renunciation of persuasion.”

So here’s the story. Our daughter Kenzie is a junior in high school. As a sophomore she took advanced placement American History, which entailed a huge amount of work. She got an A in the class and passed the AP exam “above expectations,” earning university credit. This year every class in which she’d enrolled is either AP or IB (international baccalaureate, if anything even tougher than AP). Three days into the semester she decided that the IB World History class, which by all accounts imposes an even greater burden than the American History, was just too much on top of everything else. She decided therefore to switch into a regular section of the history class. Anne and I supported this decision.

On Monday Kenzie, fairly certain of her decision but a little nervous about rocking the boat, goes to school trying to reorganize her schedule. She stops in to discuss her rationale with her teacher from last year’s history class, a tough old broad who is an excellent teacher and whom our daughter respects a great deal. The teacher listens patiently and agrees with Kenzie’s decision. Two other history teachers, overhearing the conversation, start talking to one another. “What’s with these kids? Did they lose half of their brain cells over the summer?”

Next Kenzie has to get a signature from her current World History teacher in order to get out of his class. She tracks him down in his office. The guy isn’t going to make it easy for her. “It’s hard for me not to take this personally,” he tells Kenzie. Kenzie describes her overloaded schedule. “But  art?” he asks disdainfully. Kenzie is an artist first and foremost; every other class is optional, but not art. Apparently the other two eavesdroppers had “discussed” Kenzie’s case with this guy based on what they’d overheard in the previous discussion. Clearly they had come to the conclusion that this girl is a slacker, taking art just to keep the grade-point average high without doing any real work.

Next Kenzie goes to the counseling office to find out whether any sections of regular-intensity World History have any empty seats left. Luck is with her: there’s an opening in the 6th period section. The counselor tells Kenzie that she has to go back to see her current teacher again, the one who takes it personally and who hates art. Why? Because they had given her the wrong form to be signed. Kenzie balks: “I don’t want to go back there.” At that moment this history teacher passes through the counseling office. Here, sign this, the counselor tells him. He looks at Kenzie and stands there, not signing. “You approved it,” Kenzie reminds him. “I didn’t approve it. I don’t approve. I’ll go along with it, but I don’t approve.” He signs and walks off.

Eventually Kenzie got it all worked out, having passed through this rite of passage bruised but not crushed. But I ask you, is this bullshit really necessary?


  1. Ego, it’s one of Freud’s little big things…and then there’s self interest, the guy had probably already looked over his potential students and decided that Kenzie, and others of her standard, were going to make his teaching look really good. You should all be flattered that he didn’t make it easy for her.


    Comment by sam carr — 26 August 2009 @ 4:47 am

  2. Hi John,

    “Teachers have watched these movies, surely. Why, then, when the schoolyard bullies have been neutralized, do they have to fill the void?”

    Someone’s got do it. Human nature, innit.

    Less flippantly, I’ve found that a many teachers think that occasional severity and disapproval will win hearts and minds. I had a similar experience to Kenzie when changing a course at school many years ago. Perhaps this pantomine of signing her “release papers” under duress was intended to win her back through shame: “Look what you’re making me do.” Or perhaps he’s just a shit. In any case, he handled it abysmally.

    The shame strategy seems to be often employed in classes of higher ability students. My girlfriend went to a grammar school (a remnant of an old-fashioned two-tier UK education system that New Labour is pig-headedly trying to reintroduce) and the bullying was definitely of this kind – both from teachers and fellow students. A little competition and shame gets the students grafting, you see. It can also lead to feelings of isolation and failure if you don’t get straight As.


    Comment by NB — 26 August 2009 @ 5:37 am

  3. Adding to what’s already been said, it sounds like he might be protecting a fragility about teaching below his station by creating and populating a little fantasy enclave of excellence in his class. Kenzie’s defection would possibly move her from the good pile into the bad pile, calling the teacher’s judgment into question; or if his original judgment of her was good, calling his validity into question. In any case, his behavior probably was ‘necessary’ for him, but certainly not for her.


    Comment by Carl — 26 August 2009 @ 8:34 am

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, guys. I passed them on to Kenzie and she really appreciated it. She said that another kid who wanted to switch out of her history class had a similar encounter with the teacher: I take it personally, etc. History was one of Kenzie’s favorite classes last year, but the curriculum people seem obsessed with piling on the reading homework. Maybe by sidestepping this avalanche she’ll retain her enthusiasm for the subject.


    Comment by john doyle — 26 August 2009 @ 2:52 pm

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