I had a job interview recently. Even though I am pretty well known for my work with older students I was interviewing for a K-2 classroom. There are lots of reasons for the change but there is one reason I have kept to myself. I’m kind of ashamed to say it.
I’m tired of getting beat up.
I don’t mean beat up in the “teaching is hard” kind of way. I mean getting physically assaulted. It’s the nasty secret that not many educators or districts like to talk about. But the truth is we have teachers, counselors, behavior management specialists and para-educators who are getting beaten regularly as part of their job.
I don’t mean an occasional push from an angry student. I mean a full on beating where you find yourself being taken to the ground by a student as big, if not bigger than you are.
I’m struggling to figure out how to put this into words. Words might not be enough.
My husband recently asked me how many times a student has threatened my life and as I moved through the list in my head I was kind of shocked when I passed 20. I didn’t answer his question because that’s another side to this part of the profession. We don’t really talk about it. I asked my assistants once how they handled questions like that from their spouses. They said they don’t share those stories unless they have to explain bruises or scratches. We were all hiding our abuse.
So I’m going to talk about it because that abuse in my past, is impacting the choices I’m making for my future. I’m tired of being beat up. I’m tired of being threatened. I don’t want people to say, “You’re a saint for putting up with that.” I want them to say, “How can we change the system so you are safer?”
If you are thinking I’m exaggerating about the threats to my life, I’m not. Twenty is where I stopped counting. That doesn’t include things like this picture a student gave me a few years ago.
I thought hard whether I should share this picture. I decided if I was going to discuss this darker side of being a teacher, then I have to share what I see. There is no humor in this picture. It breaks my heart to show you because any child in distress breaks my heart. The fact they are targeting me with their anger doesn’t change how I feel.
But that anger can often lead to violence.
And that violence is often directed at educators.
I would like to share a picture with you.
This was the day I was named Teacher of the Year. It’s a day most people would remember as a great honor. But the truth is I am thinking of something else. You’ll notice I’m kind of hunched over and my shirt is laying oddly. A few days before this picture was taken I was beaten to the ground by a student. They used a TV cord to whip me and then bit me so badly I was sent to the hospital. I’m not sitting up straight in this picture because my abdomen is wrapped with bandages and gauze.
As I sit here in this picture, at a surprise assembly with every local news channel filming, I am thinking two things: One, I’m worrying my wound is weeping through my shirt. Two, I’m debating if I should make a statement about violence against teachers and take off my shirt. My supervisor later told me she was thinking the same thing and said she was psychically telling me, “Don’t take off your shirt! Don’t take off your shirt!”
I didn’t take off my shirt and five years later I still kind of wish I had. I wish I had started this conversation then, when the media was right there ready to take note. Because nobody is paying attention. And nobody is keeping data.
And so I made a list. I kept some data. I’m going to share it with you. Be warned, if you have been a victim of violence, this list may be a trigger. It was for me.
Four times I have been sent to the hospital by a student.
I have been hit and slapped more times than I can count.
I have been bit on the shoulder, wrist, stomach, buttock and both forearms.
One of those bites infected me with hepatitis, there was no sink where I was bit so I had to pour hand sanitizer into the wound. I don’t recommend that.
I’ve been hit over the back and head with a chair…twice.
I’ve been hit in the head with a stick, and later hit with a bigger stick.
I’ve had enough books thrown at me to start a small library. Besides books I’ve been hit by a stapler, a tape dispenser, rocks, dirt clods, shoes, scissors, several lunches, a broom, balls and had a live mole trap thrown at my head…I could go on but basically, if it is in a classroom, it’s been thrown at me. I’ve replaced four sets of glasses from students hitting me in the face.
I’ve had my eye spit in multiple times.
If you lined up all the scratches end to end I would not be exaggerating to say it would be over 20 feet of torn up skin.
I’ve been punched so hard I saw stars, not once, not twice, but three times.
I’ve been kicked in the face, kicked in the groin, kicked in the stomach, kicked in the groin again and again and punched there once so violently I had to go to the doctor and was bruised for over two weeks.
I can go on. Seriously. This data is incomplete. I didn’t even talk about the student who, according to district data, tried to hit me over 300 times on one day. The student would walk in the room and start swinging. That student sent me to the hospital three different times, jammed several of my fingers trying to keep his punches from landing. After the student snuck up behind me and hit me over the back and head with a chair I quit teaching for seven years.
That’s my data.
If I was a boxer they’d probably call me a prizefighter and retire me. But I’m not, I’m a teacher.
And I’m tired of being beat up.
And I’m ready to talk about it.
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the author of a series of support books for people with autism and also writes frequently on issues faced by LGBTQ educators. This post originally appeared with Education Post.