When Your Teacher Makes You Feel Worthless
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Health and Wellness

When Your Teacher Makes You Feel Worthless

Shame can have lasting effects.

When Your Teacher Makes You Feel Worthless

This is not a sob story about a mother who pushed me into doing glitz pageants and threw a fit if I didn't win Ultimate Grand Supreme Warrior Princess, and it's not a story about a father who stood on the side of a soccer field berating me for losing control of the ball or failing to score. When we think about adults shamed as children, these are the kind of stories that spring to mind. They're the stories that get the most attention because parents are the most influential people in their kids' lives, and we shudder to think about what the kind of behavior mentioned above does to those children as they grow into adulthood. Some stories, though, don't involve the parents at all. They involve the people your parents trusted to mold your mind and love of learning: teachers.

I spent the majority of my undergraduate career studying Middle Grades Education (I know, I was insane). If anyone can appreciate the amount of work that goes into being a teacher, I can. I can also appreciate how much children depend on their teachers for guidance, support, and affection, particularly when they are young. Students spend about (and sometimes more than) 11,000 hours of their lives in the care of their teachers; that's more than one year of their lives that they are influenced by someone other than their parents. To say that teachers play an important role in our lives is an understatement.

Imagine you are 6 years old again, walking into your first grade classroom. It smells like crayons, new backpacks, and sharpened pencils. You're only 42 inches tall, and your brain is still growing at a tremendous rate. If you were like me, kindergarten was only a half day so first grade was the first time I would be under formal instruction all day long (like a big kid, as I used to say). My school used a model for their primary grades that I have not heard of anywhere else: we spent first through third grades in the same classroom, with one "homeroom" teacher who was paired with another teacher so that they could split the responsibilities of teaching reading, writing and math.

I don't want to toot my own horn (yes, I do), but I was ahead of the curve when it came to reading, writing, and language skills. They had come quite naturally to me, and I had already delved into the realm of creative writing at home (stories about cats wearing glasses...really groundbreaking stuff!). It was smooth sailing until the day I received my first math lesson. My "homeroom" teacher wasn't the one teaching math lessons; I switched to the other teacher for that class and we are going to call her Ms. R. Ms. R was not like any adult I had met previously. First of all, she didn't find me adorable and didn't turn into a puddle of rainbows when I spoke. That was new. Secondly, she yelled at me within the first five minutes of our meeting because I had dared to glance out of the window as she was talking. I was horrified to have gotten in trouble, so I internally vowed never to do it again.

It didn't end there, though. Coupled with the fact that math did not come naturally to me, was the fact that Ms. R seemed to single me out and yell at me for the smallest of offenses. I was afraid to ask her for help, because every time I spoke I just managed to piss her off. I could sense intense disdain whenever she spoke to me. I wished to be another kid so someone else could be me for a day, and my classmates' pitying eyes wouldn't be on me at all times. Some classmates were even afraid to help me, lest they got caught in the crossfire. Learning wasn't fun anymore. School became a threatening place, where I had to keep my guard up at all times. At six years old, I began experiencing anxiety. I didn't have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain what was happening to my parents, and I never wanted them to know that I was always in trouble at school.

They began to catch on, though, because I still had to spend second and third grade with Ms. R. The anxiety grew worse and math homework was a battle. Ms. R did not relent in her daily remonstrations. Here's the thing: I did not have any behavioral problems. No ADD or ADHD, no behavior disorder. I was a laid-back, sensitive, and quiet kid. It did not make sense that I was a target. But I was. The first time we had to give an oral report to the class, I was understandably nervous. I had worked incredibly hard to make my report decent so I could impress Ms. R, but by then I had already developed an anxious habit that has followed me into my adult years: picking. Whether it was my own skin, paper, or paint on the walls, I picked. I didn't notice I was doing it. I had bravely volunteered to go first, so I stood up to read in front of the class and Ms. R, but didn't notice that I had started picking at the perforations of my notebook paper.


I snapped to attention.


In the middle of my report, I had to stop and pick up the little pieces of paper I didn't even realize I'd dropped. Shaken, I had to continue reading and do my best to fight back tears, but I was choked up.


When I made it back to my seat, I cried as silently as I could and took mental notes. Nobody else was interrupted during their report, even if they were talking softly or fidgeting. Any corrections she had to make were done so calmly. Again, I was too young to know that the problem was not me, so I continued to feel "not good enough". I started comparing myself to my classmates obsessively and developed a pathological need to outperform them.

It all came to a head in the third grade, and I received my vindication. Do you all remember Accelerated Reader? We took computerized reading comprehension tests for every book we read in class or independently, and the system would report at what grade level you were reading. By third grade, I was reading at a sixth grade level. That year, I had rejoiced when I learned that Ms. R would be teaching reading and writing instead of math. I naively thought I could finally show her what I was capable of, but Ms. R had other plans. As I sat at the table with the other third graders, I noticed that the book Ms. R was handing my classmates was one I'd already read over the summer. VICTORY! I was glowing at the opportunity to be the group's star. Except Ms. R did not give me a copy of the book. She had only brought enough for my classmates.

I dared to ask where my book was, wondering if she somehow knew that I'd already read it and was going to give me a harder book (hahaha, kids think the darndest things). "You aren't reading this book, Meaghan. You aren't even going to be in this group because you are going to read with the second graders." I desperately avoided eye contact with my peers as she led me to the second grade reading table. The book she had assigned them to read was paper thin: something I could read in a matter of hours. I finally broke. I told my parents what happened and they were understandably furious. They could barely get me to go outside and play for all of the reading I insisted on doing at home. The jig was up.

They contacted the school and demanded answers. Ms. R tried her best to play it off, saying that she put me with the second graders because I would be able to help them (because it's an 8-year-old's job to be a Teacher's Aide, I guess). Then she suggested that I had a learning disability. Nobody was buying that, given my Accelerated Reader reports and standardized test scores. I was promptly removed from Ms. R's classroom and sent to another teacher for instruction.

The damage was done, though. My self-esteem had been torn apart for the better part of three years, and the effects would follow me all the way to present day. I now display many characteristics of an adult shamed as a child: extreme shyness, the belief that nothing I do will ever be good enough, avoiding commitment, severe humiliation over the slightest criticism, debilitating guilt, feeling I must do things perfectly, depression, and compulsive behavior (binge eating, impulse shopping, skin picking, etc.). My parents and I trusted Ms. R to help me grow and develop during vital years of my life, because that is a teacher's job. Even as a Higher Ed administrator, I deal with students I don't particularly like but I am constantly aware of development theory and my role in their transition into adulthood. I'm also painfully aware that environment and genetics go hand in hand with mental health disorders. The environment Ms. R provided me set off a trigger on my genetic potential for mental health issues. Ms. R failed my parents, who spent years and thousands of dollars in tutoring and therapy trying to reverse what she had done. Ms. R failed me by destroying my self-worth (and now that I'm older, I'm the one spending tons of money on therapy). She shamed me at every possible opportunity.

I'm not blaming all of my mental health problems on Ms. R, because other things have occurred over the years (internally and externally) that have exacerbated my issues. I'm simply pinpointing the person who poked a sleeping bear. To this day, I don't understand why I was the target. I don't understand what she may have been going through in her personal life (though that is not an excuse for her behavior). I don't really care. What I wish for is the chance to tell Ms. R to take a seat, and explain to her that what she did was indefensible. I was 6 years old when I first felt like I wasn't good enough, and she was directly responsible for that. Then, I'd like to wave my degrees in her face a little bit and say, "Despite your best efforts, Ms. R, I succeeded. F@$% you."

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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