Not long ago a student confided in me that a teacher had insulted her in front of the class. "I asked a question," she said, "and the teacher replied, `OK, you are limited to five questions and you've asked three. Don't slow us down.' Everyone laughed. I was so tempted to just walk out, but I didn't."
I told her I was glad she hadn't left and that it sounded to me like her teacher was having a bad day. "It was a cheap laugh and he shouldn't have said it," I concluded. "I'm sorry that this happened, but try not to take it personally."
No matter how balanced we teachers may try to be, we will inevitably have moments of pettiness or crankiness, irritation or anger. Sometimes during a moment of impatience we will make a remark that we later regret.
Humiliation by a teacher can be one of life's most grievous, most memorable traumas. Victim or witness, who of us has not felt its sting? That sting can last a lifetime.
One of my undergraduate professors, for example, held up an essay of mine and said before the entire class, "Mr Salwak, your conclusions are at best whimsical."
Try as I might, I could not rise to his expectations. I continued to learn in the course but it was because of my own initiative, not his inspiration. That painful moment lingered like a bitter aftertaste, tainting the remaining class sessions.
Such an experience is minor compared with some of the horror stories I have heard. I wonder whether teachers at any level of education realise that students never forget being humiliated.
One of the problems with speaking unkind words is that although they may merely reflect how a teacher feels on one particular day, they are never the last words on any subject. The teacher moves on, passions cool, attitudes change, but the hearer of the damaging words ruminates upon them and, like a child coming from a background of abusive parents, might repeat the pattern. If he or she becomes a teacher, the ripples could reach into another classroom even years later.
One of my colleagues, for example, promised himself that he would never descend to humiliating his students in the ways he had experienced during his own academic preparation. He was not far into his teaching career, however, when he began to realise that he was unconsciously using the very tactics that had made the past few years of his graduate studies such misery.
Luckily for him and his students, he was able to identify bad habits and establish new ones that were much more supportive of both teaching and learning.
Unfortunately, as the experience of the student at the top of this column shows, not all teachers attain such a degree of self-understanding and empathy.
Whether it is rooted in insensitivity, insecurity or sheer laziness, professors who insult their students demonstrate a degree of moral vacuity that demeans the entire profession. They betray the reciprocal trust between teacher and student that is integral to the process of education. Sadly, ridicule brings only loss to both their students and themselves.
Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US