Bullies in the Classroom

We probably all have memories of our favorite teachers, the ones who inspired us and still make us smile years later.

And then there are the ones who are like Grendel at the banqueting hall in Beowulf, casting a long shadow. Like my fifth grade teacher who made that whole year hell for me and a lot of other students she didn't like for reasons I'll never know. There was one in this group whose last name was Greif (pronounced to rhyme with "knife"); he was argumentative and she kept caling him "my Grief." He finally snapped, threw his books down when she ordered him to the principal's office for some infraction and ran off. I don't know about the other students, but I was thrilled by his defiance. I remember her being very big and broad and terrifying. She once called me a liar when I said I had forgotten a project at home. I froze and couldn't defend myself.


There was a cynical, snotty junior high school social studies teacher who had a knack of bringing even the boy students come close to tears. I can't recall exactly what his method was, but I do remember that he once sneered at me when I was trying to answer a question and said, "You think you're pretty intellectual, don't you?" For some reason, it stung. I'm not even sure I fully understood the word or why he was attacking me, but I got the intent all right, and he even made the label sound like something despicable. I hated him as much as he disliked me or maybe all of us -- or teaching itself.

I was luckier in high school and college, though in graduate school there was a professor in my MFA writing program who eviscerated one of my short stories after every student in the workshop had already had their say and doomed it to story Hell. There was no need for him to toss any more wood onto the bonfire, but he did. I felt mugged. Soon after, the story won the department's creative writing context. The outside judge was Martha Foley, the famous editor of The Best American Short Stories yearly books. That didn't impress my professor: in the next workshop, he said "It's still crap, but it's crap with a prize."

Now that I'm teaching as a guest professor at a university, I hear disturbing stories from students about what they observe happening in classrooms across campus, and I'm sure ours isn't any different than others -- why should it be? As a well-published author whose work has been taught at many colleges, I've spoken widely at universities around the country. All these schools, from community colleges to the Ivy League, are very similar in many ways, so I'm sure that what these students are reporting is happening elsewhere, too.

I've heard how some professors talk down to their students as if they're lower forms of life. How some professors -- in the Humanities! -- demand that student work blindly conform only to their idea of what's right and don't leave any room whatsoever for student individuality. How some professors openly deride certain nationalities. How some professors refuse to take anxiety or depression seriously, and fail to understand their severity, even mock when students can't come to class or perform as well as they might otherwise.

These professors are the exceptions, but the stories make me angry and make me think that people like that should not be in the classroom.


Lev Raphael's 25th book, Assault With a Deadly Lie, is a novel of suspense set in a fictional Midwestern college town. You can check out his other books here.