Teach with rancour. Call it success.

I heard on the news the story of a young Italian gymnast who denounced the psychological abuse her coach had subjected her to while a member of the national rhythmic gymnastics team. The coach weighed her along with the other girls before practice. Every morning, her coach would lash her with a tirade of harsh comments regarding her weight. Finally, the young gymnast resigned and went public. Many others came forward to decry similar abuse.

While physical violence is becoming increasingly rare, sexual and psychological abuse has become commonplace. A quick search on Google Italy illustrates this. For example, a teacher in Caltanissetta (Sicily) stands accused of sexual harassment after he groped one of his 11-year-old students. In Cagliari, the Sardinian capital city, a math teacher will have to pay damages to his school after being found guilty of sexual harassment. In Arpaia (Benevento), a 12-year-old student accused his teacher of sexual misconduct after she had forced him to perform certain sexual acts at school and via WhatsApp.

The social and political context in which this is happening feels ripe. In a recent speech, the Italian minister of education and “merit”, Giuseppe Valditara, announced that humiliation is a “fundamental factor in the growth and shaping of personality.” He said students should endure the humiliation of the entire school and engage in community service because it is only in this way that they become responsible individuals. Schools should teach students a “culture of respect” and a strong work ethic so they do not become “deviants” and a threat to society. We need to teach them to mature and grow at all costs. Teachers seem to confuse humiliation with humility and they adopt it as a teaching method.

On Twitter, Fratelli D’Italia (Brothers of Italy), the national-conservative and right-wing populist political party, stated that they are ready to support “sports and healthy lifestyles” because they represent an antidote to deviances such as drugs, alcohol, and violence. They’ve also made a point they’re going to take measures against rave parties. Ideologically, this sounds enticing. We all dream of a society in which everyone is living a happy and healthy life. But such matters also reek of eugenics and corrective measures. They engender images of tall and fit citizens who will one day become exemplars of the culture that created them. A political party that puts that on their agenda sounds somewhat paternalistic, and uncannily familiar.

Psychological abuse often goes unnoticed. We can always take back words, mollify them, and render them innocuous with laughter and a pat on the shoulder. We know from songs and bedtime stories that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. The thought that someday this distress will help us all motivates us to march over our predicaments. There’s no gain without pain, we’re told. What doesn’t kill you strengthens you, or so the story goes. On a TV interview, the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni once thanked her bullies because it was because of them she became a better person and lost twenty-two pounds in two months. With the benefit of hindsight, such instances might emerge as a watershed in our coming of age. Yet, some choose to end their life before they get to reap that benefit.

Tensions with our teachers are something we have all had. We admire them, but more often than not, we perceive them as unfair, blind to our true talents, cruel, or downright evil. They set the bar too high; they push us to our limits, exploit our weaknesses, and abuse us in ways so subtle they would send shivers down a psychotherapist’s spine. We resent the fact that they already know everything and can enjoy the summer and winter holidays while we need to study and read and write essays. They just don’t seem to understand. So, why have we teachers come to loathe our students so much? How have we come to see them as individuals needing such violent rectification? 

A teacher with her students. Probably in the 90s (the uniforms were different before 1989).

I grew up in the nineties in a tiny village in the northeastern part of an allegedly democratic Romania. The village stood about twenty miles away from the Ukrainian border, and my teachers were utterly despotic. My elementary school teacher, a short and plump woman just inches from retirement age, spoke Ukrainian and foamed at the mouth when she got angry. Her hands shook when one of us forgot to do our homework, and she had no qualms about telling us we would fail at life if we didn’t study enough. One of my classmates peed his pants when asked to read a poem in front of the class. When another one allegedly said something inappropriate to another teacher, she grabbed him by the ears, lifted him off the ground, and swung him like a cat. We watched with dismay and hoped we wouldn’t be next.

The fear of disappointing her governed our lives. I woke up every morning dreading her punishment. There was always something I did wrong: my handwriting wasn’t curly or straight enough, or my drawings for the arts and crafts class showed haste. She walked around the room carrying a wooden stick in her hand and slapped the palm of our hands whenever she thought we did something wrong. It wasn’t just the pain that we had to endure. But the shame that came with it. The looks and stares during the breaks and the threat of someone telling our parents about our humiliation infinitely multiplied that pain. In our teacher’s eyes, the slap resulted from a moral failure on our part. We just hadn’t tried hard enough. It was our fault. 

Teachers hung the works of those who excelled in my class on the wall of fame. The back of the class had a glass cabinet that held their notebooks. Parents and grandparents used that achievement as conversation stoppers or simply to add insult to injury. It was a competition with winners and losers. They all felt a sense of pride when their children filled notebooks after notebooks of handwriting during the summer or received excellent marks on their tests. It was their success as well, not just their children’s: they were exemplary parents, and they wanted their children to excel. They knew when you failed, because their child told them everything, and they reminded you of that whenever they had the chance.

The entire village knew when you got a shameful four out of ten. It was a mythological creature that also bore the name “upturned chair.” When it happened to me, I ran home and kneeled in front of my mother and begged for clemency. The saints that colonised the walls of our home seemed to watch me with scorn. I felt as if I had disgraced my parents and ancestors. It had branded me for life. It meant I didn’t deserve any Christmas gifts for at least two years. From then on, I had to live a pointless life in which I would pick potatoes and smoke filterless cigarettes.

At the end of the school year, our head teacher ranked us according to our performance. She gave us certificates and placed wreaths on our heads. In return, we showered her with flowers and gifts, which she carried proudly on her arms resembling the wife of a communist dignitary. The parents of those who didn’t make it hid their shame. They all looked as if they had committed some sort of unspeakable sin. It was okay to come in second. But coming in third verged on not getting a new pair of shoes. Not making the cut meant you had to work shovelling manure forever.

The rancour that came with all this seeped into our daily lives. We turned against each other. The top classmates deemed themselves superior and saw my brother and I, who never got first place in elementary school, as losers. They avoided playing with us because their parents had told them to steer clear of us. So my brother joined the group of outcasts. Those who had trouble spelling their last names and thought learning French was pointless. I found solace in books and longed for playmates. Whenever I saw the top students in my class hang out together, I felt a pang or remorse and envy. They spoke a language I had never heard before. In comparison, I acted like a child who still longed for toys and games.

I carried that shame with me into middle school. My maths teacher read my homework in front of the class and laughed at it along with the class. Frequently, he told me I would never amount to anything because I was lazy and my parents had failed to raise me properly. My classmates nodded at this and called me a fatso. One of them, in particular, took pleasure in teasing me about everything I did: the tiny drawings I made during classes or the fact that I sewed stuff in the arts and crafts class. Once, during German class, I drew a tiny devil standing next to a cauldron, and when he caught me in the act, he grabbed it and threatened to tell the teacher. I begged him to give me my drawing back, but he laughed, sadistically, and carefully placed it in his pocket. The teacher told me I should be ashamed of myself and threatened to punish me accordingly.

Yet, the teacher that we feared most was our biology teacher, who also was the school principal. The mention of his name was enough to silence us and send shivers down our spines. Like a hawk, he watched us, and at the slightest trespass, he would precipitate on us as if we were his defenceless prey. He would then grab the loose skin under our chin between his thumb and index finger and squeeze it and twist it until we submitted to his will. He threatened us with lawsuits and police files for even the most insignificant things, such as jumping over the fence or pushing our classmates around during the break. His presence was everywhere: at the park or playground, during field trips, at the back of our minds, in our parents’ and neighbours’ reprimands. He was our archenemy.

The one thing our principal hated the most was seeing our shoes dirty. Every morning before class, we lined up in the front yard of the school to await his inspection. One by one, we stopped by the main entrance and showed him the soles of our shoes. If they were dirty, we would get a hard slap behind our heads and sent away to clean them. And only when they were clean enough were we allowed to enter. Often, during breaks, his cronies (i.e., the balding math teacher who always carried a stick with him on his inspections) raided our classrooms in search of signs of “moral depravity” such as sitting or not enjoying the fresh air outside. “You stink,” his voice echoed through the hallways, “get out of the classroom, get some fresh air!” He later married the physics teacher, who was thin and tall, and delicate, and to this day, I have never understood why.

Discipline and cleanliness are valuable virtues to own. Yet what the hawkish principal and his chums failed to realise was that those virtues were also markers of class and social status. My shoes were always clean because we lived in a part of the village that had paved roads. My other classmates weren’t as fortunate. They had to walk for miles on muddy roads when it rained. Some others worked on their parents’ farm and had to feed the animals before coming to school. For some of them, soap and detergent and clean shoes were luxuries. We bought new clothes only at Easter and in August. Some of us wore the same clothes at home and at school. I, too, fell into the same cognitive bias. Akin to my teachers, I believed that if only people would pay more attention to their shoes and clothes, or simply got a grip on their existence, all would be better. They would get higher marks and finally be successful like the other kids.

Our principal also failed to address the shortcomings of our other teachers, to whom he did not apply the same rigorous and punishing standards. The history teacher, who was also nearing his retirement age, never actually taught anything while I was his student. He came to class, sat down behind his desk, and asked us to summarise a chapter from our textbook. If you filled pages and pages with notes and drawings of maps and charts, you got a full mark. Similarly, if you knew how to sing a song about a certain Spanish bullfighter, you also got a full mark. While we toiled away at our summaries, he sat by the fireplace and ate bananas. He also lived with the idea that somebody brought a radio to class and turned it on just to disturb him. There was no radio, and we had never heard of the Spanish bullfighter.

A PE teacher became a fully qualified “technology” teacher over the summer. Whenever he came to class, which was a rare occurrence, he sat down and read from a book about tractors and ploughing depths and speeds, and expected us to write everything down. Everyone knew he was the husband of the school secretary and had no teaching experience. The principal knew that the village priest, who got paid to teach religion at school, rarely came to class and gave us marks for knowing prayers by heart. The German language teacher soon became the Romanian language teacher. Whenever she didn’t feel like coming to class, she sent her daughter or son to teach. Every once in a while, they taught the arts and crafts class as well. We asked our principal to replace the Ukrainian language classes with English classes, and he said we needed Ukrainian more than anything else.

All of those teachers expected us to shower them with extravagant gifts on the first and eight of March, mundane events that school tradition had turned into special occasions. Every year, teachers clashed with parents over the gifts they received, which ranged from bath products and flowers to microwave ovens and fancy lamps. My Romanian language teacher berated us when the gifts she received were not big or good enough. She said we should be ashamed of ourselves. “These devils,” she would confess to my mother, “they bought me a lamp. What am I supposed to do with a lamp?” My elementary school teacher, the one who foamed at the mouth, told us once that she expected Persian carpets and gold necklaces.

Our parents’ attitude did not help. They condoned such behaviour and seemed to encourage it. When teachers told them we were not doing well in school, they simply said we deserved a good beating. If you didn’t know your multiplication table by heart, you deserved detention and the shame and anger you experienced when everyone else in your class went home. I trust all of us told our parents about the lazy history teacher, or the unfair treatment to which our maths teacher subjected us. We complained about the money we had to raise for gifts every year and our parents simply gave us the money. Looking back, they all seemed as if somebody had drained them of their confrontational powers.

Our parents accepted whatever came their way. They all had anecdotes about the teaching methods they themselves observed at home. My mother used some of those stories in casual conversation. My older brother could not remember what seven multiplied by eight was, so my mother slapped him with a notebook fifty-six times. That way, she explained, he would remember it for the rest of his life. My grandmother’s best friend, who was a teacher, applied similar methods to her students. The trauma and the shame that came with those corrective practices etched that knowledge into our brains. When you coloured outside the lines, there was a wooden stick ready to slap you the instant you did it. So you did not venture into that unmarked territory. That is where the archenemies lived.

My elementary and middle school in Maritei, Suceava (Romania). This is how it looks today. When I was a student, the toilet was a hole in the floor and there was no toilet paper.

Everyone held teachers in such high regard. No one, not even our parents, dared to say anything in return. Back then, common wisdom held the idea that teachers were high priests in moral terms. They knew what was best for them, for the community, and for us children. My elementary school teacher publicly humiliated me because my hair was too long or because I didn’t have a uniform. Going to school was a minefield. You had to act a certain way, talk a certain way, otherwise they would scold you or your parents in front of everyone else. My brother’s elementary school teacher often asked for respect from her former students. She spoke of them as if they had become geniuses or millionaires thanks to her teaching methods. She demanded respect, even from those who had not been her students. To her, she deserved that respect, simply because she had been a teacher.

Things changed at high-school and I had my fair share of good and bad teachers. My math teacher got angry if someone wore flip-flops instead of sandals to school. Whenever my classmates talked or laughed during his class, he became tense and told them the kindergarten was somewhere else. Our chemistry teacher was not okay with A4 notebooks and she let us know about that. “University students use these, not high-school students like you,” she told one of my classmates. The lazy-eyed history teacher gave good beatings to anyone who remotely seemed to smirk at whatever he said. The PE teacher, a tall, overweight woman in her late fifties, called us many names. She called me a sissy and reprimanded me when I reported her to our tutor. “It was a joke,” she told me during her class. I was the one to blame because I dared to confront her.

My favourite ones were the English and the physics teachers. They both taught and spoke with maternal kindness. Going to their classes didn’t feel like a chore, and studying was akin to revisiting a place that held pleasant memories. They intertwined notions of language and physics with casual remarks naturally, which helped us to imagine that knowledge wasn’t the preserve of the elected few. I dreamt of once becoming like them: secure in their knowledge and bodies. Contrary to my inclinations, and everyone’s expectations, subjects such as physics and biology, genetics in particular, became things that thrilled me.

Things changed again at university. Most teachers there acted as if they had lost whatever excitement they had had for their subjects a long time before. To them, we were just another group of students to which they had to teach something that had become a Nietzschean vision of the rest of their lives: monotonous and inevitable. The phonetics professor, who students dreaded the most, locked the door when he came into the classroom so that tardy students wouldn’t disturb him. He treated us with utter contempt whenever we tried to approach him. Rumour had it he was gay and lived with another man and therefore unloaded his gay frustration on us. Student magazines referred to him as a draconian teacher whose secret desire was to make students suffer. Out of hundreds of students, only ten passed the exam. Some of them changed departments just to avoid his exam.

I have mixed feelings about my time as a university student. There were professors such as the phonetics professor whom I feared and loathed, but there were also professors whom I loved and admired. The general linguistics professor made us laugh and frequently referred to his dog, whose adventures became memorable stops on our journey through Saussure and Coseriu. The problem is that, even now, I can still recall what they taught me, and I find it difficult to make peace with the fact that such diverse teaching methods led to such similar outcomes. Thanks to the phonetics class, I learned to pronounce unfamiliar words just by looking them up in a dictionary. It also taught me how to explain pronunciation to others. The linguistics class, which I enjoyed and studied for readily, helped me understand how language works, and how interwoven it is with who we are and where we live.

All these experiences helped me calibrate my teaching methods. While I was a student, I pledged to become a teacher who would listen to students and cater to their needs. I wanted to see them as people in search of guidance and support rather than correction. My greatest desire was to become the teacher that I had never had: informed but with a heightened awareness of my students’ emotions; sweet but firm; funny, but in the right amount. On particularly happy days, I imagined myself becoming an inspiring teacher like John Keating in Dead Poets Society. My classes were supposed to make a point about teaching other-wise, and become living proof of the fact that teachers do not have to be dull to be formative.

In reality, things stood differently. When I got my first teaching job at the university, I didn’t know what I was doing, and my insecurity soon morphed into disappointment. My supervisor gave me a set of books and a list of things students needed to know for the final exam. I felt like an impostor. Suddenly, the confidence I had gained during my doctoral studies waned and I struggled with the most basic things. One morning, while I was teaching English grammar to my second-year students, I felt I couldn’t breathe and my knees wobbled. I ran to the bathroom and almost soiled my pants. In the bathroom mirror that morning, I saw a haggard face I could not recognise as my own.

Then there was the question of money. Soon enough into my alleged teaching career, I discovered that having just one teaching job wasn’t enough. So I had to take another one, and then another. I also took on translation and editing jobs. During the summer and during the winter holidays, I prepared test questions for private companies that wanted to test their future employees. I squeezed into my schedule whatever private classes I could. In the meantime, student emails piled up in my inbox, each of them with a different story and a specific request. I wanted to reply to each one of them, but I soon found myself copying and pasting stuff from the department’s web pages and previous emails. It dawned on me then that I was becoming one of those teachers, and I was failing myself and my students.

Anger and resentment are also part of a teacher’s emotional repertoire. More often than not, the students just don’t seem to care when you tell them they need to find a learning strategy that works for them. You want to help them, but they also seem oblivious to your attempts to do so. They want a magic trick that would solve all of their problems. I want them to avoid the mistakes I did when I was a student their age, but they seem to be very keen on doing those same mistakes. That can be very frustrating and it often makes me lash out at my students. But as soon as those waves of anger vanish, I resent them. I tell myself they don’t deserve it and I apologise.

Teaching and learning are processes riddled with emotions. They’re not just about the physical discomfort of having to sit for hours on end listening to someone or reading in a library. Both of them result from an accord: between student and subject, and between student and teacher. I’m intentionally avoiding the word relationship here, because relationships entail exchange, a certain do ut des. Accord doesn’t imply that. It denotes harmony, and the relief of being and doing as one wishes. Yes, students need to take certain steps to get to a point, but each of them gets to that point with different emotional baggage. Some of them are faster and some of them are slower. The important thing is to realise that we as teachers will have to deal with a lot of that emotion, and to do that, we need to be emotionally agile.

“There are students,” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in Touching Feeling (2002), “who view their teachers’ hard work as a servile offering in their honor […]. There are other students who accept the proffered formulations gratefully, as a gift, but without thinking to mimic the process of their production. […] Teaching privileged undergraduates, I sometimes had a chilling intimation that while I relied on their wish to mirror me and my skills and knowledge, they were motivated instead by seeing me as a cautionary figure: what might become of them if they weren’t cool enough, sleek enough, adaptable enough to escape from the thicket of academia into the corporate world.” (154)

I do not want to be a cautionary figure because becoming a teacher is not a failure, although the pay teachers receive might make it look so. But it can become a failure if we do not address the emotional issues that come with it. What continues to shock me is that in a job that requires such advanced metacognition, we are still unprepared for its emotional side. We know how to solve complex equations, but we silently ignore the emotions that drive us toward the solution to that complex equation. Most importantly, we are unable to teach those emotions to our students. We ask them to find the solution and punish them when they don’t. Then, we ask them to try again. And so we end up with students who know things but are emotionally crippled.

In order for teaching to become sustainable, we must cease to ignore the emotions that all participants in the learning process have. This might seem like an arduous task, because emotions are always complex, and many factors have to be taken into consideration. But expressing our emotions and being honest about them might be a good starting point.