Teachers’ Dirty Looks
Less Dramatic Than Paddling, But Emotional Abuse Still
Teachers may not realize the long-lasting
effects of intimidating their students. Some students remember
the humiliation decades later.
by Claudine Chamberlain,
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In talking to hundreds of people about their worst school
experiences, Irwin Hyman has gathered quite a collection of
One student was humiliated when the teacher pointed out to the
entire class that he was scratching his rear end. A
misbehaving ninth grader was put in a corner of the classroom
with chairs piled around him and told that he was being “caged
just like an animal.”
A first-grade teacher taunted one of her students by chanting
“crybaby, crybaby” as the child walked by. A sixth-grader was
proclaimed a “slut” by her teacher when she showed up in class
wearing lipstick left over from being in a school play.
Some Scarred for Years
While these examples might not be as dramatic as a paddling
from the principal, or being slapped by a teacher, they’re
forms of abuse nonetheless, says Hyman, a professor of school
psychology at Temple University and an outspoken critic of
spanking in schools. In especially bad cases, he says, the
psychological damage lingers for years.
Hyman says his research, which he describes in the new book
Dangerous Schools, has shown that emotional abuse by teachers
and school administrators can leave as many as 1 to 2 percent
of all students so shell-shocked that their symptoms qualify
as post-traumatic stress disorder.
While that may not sound like a lot, it turns out to be a
significant number of students. In a school district like New
York City, for example, that would mean 10,000 severely
Post-traumatic stress disorder, usually associated with combat
or natural disasters, is marked by troubling nightmares,
depression, reliving the ordeal in your mind and avoiding
situations or people that remind you of the trauma.
Will This Year Be Worse?
Hyman fears that things will be even worse now, as the new
school year begins and educators are more anxious than ever
about violence after the previous year’s shootings in
Colorado, Georgia and elsewhere. Schools are more likely to
react with increased security and discipline rather than more
mental health counselors for kids.
What they don’t realize, Hyman says, is that emotional
mistreatment of students can contribute to the problem of
violence in the first place by making the kids feel rejected
“The real danger in schools,” he says, “is the ongoing
physical and emotional maltreatment by teachers and staff.”
That usually takes the form of intimidation, ignoring
students, being overly critical, verbal assaults like sarcasm
and name-calling and failing to intervene when kids are teased
or bullied by their peers.
School Stress Trouble Signs
Here are some signs that children may be suffering from
school-related post-traumatic stress disorder:
Child has difficulty paying attention or focusing on
Child has nightmares or other sleep disturbances.
Child is aggressive, hostile or makes threats.
Child avoids school, teachers or anything related to the
Child has repeated unwanted thoughts about an event.
Child has health problems like headaches or stomachaches that
seem to be stress-related.
Child seems depressed or has lost interest in activities he
Kevin P. Dwyer, president of the National Association of
School Psychologists, says Hyman overstates the problem by
placing so much blame on teachers. More than three-quarters of
students say they’re happy in school, Dwyer says, and almost
half can easily name a teacher who changed their life for the
Judging by his conversations with students, he says, students
are far more concerned about the emotional abuse kids give
each other than what they get from their teachers.
Teachers Don’t Get Help
However, kids can often tell you about a teacher who
humiliated them or made them feel dejected. Dwyer knows one
student who drank liquid drain opener after a teacher told her
she was too stupid to learn algebra. Thankfully, she survived.
Although it’s too soon to tell, Dwyer says he wouldn’t be
surprised if things get worse this school year.
“I would suspect that teachers do feel more tense,” he says.
“And school systems haven’t given teachers the resources to
deal with the anxieties and frustrations they’re probably
having this year. When people have anxieties and frustrations
they usually don’t behave effectively.”
Plus, Dwyer says, teachers get very little training in how to
be sensitive to their students’ psychological needs in
disciplining them. More than a few teachers would probably say
they’re the ones being emotionally abused, bogged down by huge
classes and unruly students.
“Problems like this are directly related to the amount of
support they receive in how to handle their classrooms,” he
says. “And if you don’t know how to do it, you yell. You bully
the people who are irritating you,” he says. “I’ve never met a
teacher who didn’t want to learn other techniques for better