Thick skin, warm heart. An oxymoron?

How thick a skin does a teacher these days need to have?

A friend of mine recently related a horror story about his time as a public high school teacher.  He explained that he gave detention to a young woman who chronically talked in class despite being asked not to.  She rarely turned in an assignment on time or if she did, it was never completed.  She eventually earned detention one day for failing to write a single word while the whole class diligently completed an in-class assignment.  She sat in the back of the classroom for forty-five minutes doing the assignment while my teaching friend was at his desk.  He had arranged for other teachers to poke their heads in the door during this time to see that things were going as they should (he had a premonition, apparently).  After she was done and apparently waiting down the hall for a ride after school, my teacher friend graciously asked her if she needed to use his classroom phone to call for someone to pick her up.

Within a day the young woman decided to exact her revenge by saying my friend made sexually explicit comments while she was being kept after school, against her will, for no reason at all, in the classroom.  She claimed that my friend then asked for her phone number and wanted to give her a ride somewhere.

This has got to be a nightmare that many male teachers have.  I can’t speak to what nightmares female teachers have, but I certainly know this one.  Despite being highly principled, ethical, a good teacher, a responsible disciplinarian, gentle, caring, and a consummate gentleman, he was brought before the principal, the young woman, and her mother to answer questions about his alleged behavior.

Fortunately, the non-threatening situation in the classroom, while the woman was completing her assignment, was corroborated by the teachers who my friend had asked to stop by.  At the kind suggestion of my teacher friend, the young woman transferred into another teachers class, and her outspoken, hostile, and flippant behavior completely disappeared.  It was as if the young woman was a dedicated student and my teacher friends “caused” her to “act out”.

End of story?  Not for my friend.  This was one of many straws that broke the camel’s back.  School teachers get beat up emotionally every day.  Students bring charges of emotional abuse, suggestive language, inappropriate advances,  and all manner of things against faculty members because they can.  In our hypervigilence to be sure that the tiny minority of unethical and immoral faculty members are swiftly brought to justice, we’ve lost sight of the unseen damage this does to reputations and mental health.

My friend has dropped out of teaching, discouraged and disenchanted. We’re losing good teachers like him because the cost of dealing with such a barrage isn’t worth  the damage to their emotional health.

I don’t know the answer to this.  There are those who would say that regular challenges to one’s integrity are all part of the job of teaching.  I’ve noticed that those who say that aren’t teachers themselves.

The irony is this:  In order to be a really empathetic, understanding, and excellent mentor, teacher, and role model, you have to be vulnerable.  But in order to survive in teaching you have to have extremely thick skin, and be essentially invulnerable.

I just know that you can’t have it both ways.

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About eric

I am a storyteller who enjoys using a variety of media, especially visual, to teach about life and the natural world. My portfolio can be found at www.ericstavney.com.
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