How to cope when you’re under attack

One of the toughest things to realize, as a young teacher, is that not everyone is going to like you. Not every student, not every administrator, and certainly not every parent.

Most people who become teachers are idealistic. We want to improve the world. We want to share ideas with young people and inspire them to do great things. We want to even the playing field for disadvantaged kids and help them go to college.

Many of us spend countless nights and weekends — at a pretty low salary — trying to develop engaging, meaningful lessons and activities that will really connect with our young students.

So when we get hostile e-mails and phone calls, or in some cases a student or parent yelling right in our faces, we feel crushed and dispirited. I’m doing all of this… for what? They don’t even appreciate me.

It’s not like we are store clerks just punching the clock, expecting the customers to complain. We invest ourselves in this job; it defines us. The criticism feels personal. No doubt, this is a major reason why 50 percent of us leave before we hit the five-year mark.

After 20+ years in the classroom, I’m here to tell you that the negative attacks don’t stop — no matter how good of a teacher you are — but you can survive them and put them in perspective. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind next time it happens to you:

It’s usually about the student, not about you

Looking back, I think most of the parents who have yelled at me were really frustrated with their children, not me. The most egregious dressing down of my career came from parents of a student I’ll call Chip. Chip had plagiarized a book review for my class, and this was his third case of academic dishonesty within two weeks. His parents really took it out on me — in fact, his mom threw a copy of the book at me!

But at some point in the conversation, Chip’s mom said, “What would you do with a kid like Chip?” That was the bottom line; they just didn’t know what to do anymore.

It’s hard to stand on principle, but you can (and should)

So many students and parents have asked me to change a grade, give a few extra points or accept something way past the final deadline — and they get angry when I won’t. I’m not a particularly rigid person, but I do believe strongly in equity and fairness.

Should I give a B- instead of a C+ to the middle class student whose parents keep calling? Or should I hold the line, knowing that no one is advocating for other kids in class, especially the low-income kids whose parents don’t feel empowered to lobby?

It would be so easy to give in and stop the pressure, but if I believe my grades are legitimate measures, then I have to hold firm. The parents who are begging for a handout are not thinking about the impact on other students, but we have to.

Without a good support system, you will burn out

I have been fortunate to have a supportive family, teacher friends I could lean on and many administrators who have my back. In the episode with Chip’s parents, after his mom threw the book, I calmly turned to the vice principal and asked, “May I leave now?” He said yes, and he took over from there.

If any student or parent starts yelling or saying demeaning things, I have learned to end the conversation and involve an administrator. No one has the right to insult me — or another teacher. We must insist on civil conversation, not allow professionals to be browbeaten.

If your administrator doesn’t have your back — or if they are the one yelling — you need to find a new boss.

Keep the thank yous

Early in my career, a colleague advised me to hang on to every nice note and card. Such good advice. The students and parents who have written thoughtful notes over the years far outnumber the critics, and they remind us why we are doing this job.

A few weeks ago, right when I was dealing with a handful of unhappy parents, the mother of one my 2014 graduates showed up unannounced in my room just to thank me again for how I had supported and influenced her son, who had been through some tough times in high school.

She had no idea how amazing her timing was — from my perspective, she was heaven-sent.

You will be able to laugh about it later

At the moment when Chip’s parents were lambasting me, I was sick to my stomach and trembling. I knew they were wrong, and I knew their behavior was inappropriate. But still, it got to me. I couldn’t help it. 

It took a few years before I could tell that story at parties, but once I stepped away from the emotion of the moment, I could see how absurd it was. They threw a book at me! They insulted me! On top of it all, I was visibly pregnant. Who does that?

Most teachers don’t have the Teflon skin of a politician or defense attorney, but if you’re going to stay in this game, you need to realize that some people won’t like you. If you learn to cope with it, you can focus your energy and attention where it counts: on your students. 

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