Worst teachers ever.

Trying to avoid grading final exams? Slate offers a diversion with a feature called “What’s the worst thing a teacher ever said to you?”

The Slate writers had some pretty funny stories, usually involving teachers who were irritated about being corrected by their students, but the stories in the comments below are funnier. Check out the story of the kid who tried–and failed!–to convince his high school honors English teacher that Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote takes place in Spain instead of the Netherlands. (Because windmills–duh!) And the stories about not understanding a teacher’s thick Southern or New England accent are pretty funny too: what would you do if you were asked to lead your class “down yonder hill,” or if instructed to draw a picture of that cozy autumn ritual we know as a “barn fire?”

The worst thing I can remember was probably said by a student teacher in his late 20s who also volunteered to coach the debate team in my junior year of high school.  At the time, in true debate nerd fashion, I wanted to be an attorney or a journalist.  He informed me that I might one day rise to the ranks of the teevee newsreaders, “because you’ve got the look.”  I know, I know–it’s not that bad, merely patronizing, sexist, and douchey.  (I’m kind of envious of Chris Wade and his classmates in the last anecdote of the Slate story, who were told “Y’all are fuckin’ cocksuckers, get out of here” by their calculus teacher!  Now that’s a lesson to remember.)

Do you have any bad teacher stories?  Bring ’em!

46 thoughts on “Worst teachers ever.

  1. First year in high school, second semester of an “advanced placement” science methods class. The substitute teacher (a friend’s aunt who was ill suited to the class–we spent the semester repeating everything we’d done in semester 1) told me that I was on the border between A- and B+ and she was giving me the B+ because I didn’t have any future as a scientist.

    She may still prove to have been right, but two decades into it, my science career seems to be going okay.


  2. 8th grade – got hauled out of a music class and into home ec, where the teacher told me I had to be there “because a woman’s place was in the home as a wife and mother”.

    I was back in music the next day, and I still don’t care where the damned shrimp fork goes.


  3. 4th grade, history/science teacher (we were practicing having different subject teachers in preparation for middle school). Told she didn’t want to hear my snot-nosed voice (and many more things… she went on for quite a while, also said “just because I was right about the royal jelly for bees”… which I didn’t remember at the time, but must have said something about the prior semester) because I said that the Pilgrims weren’t the first white (permanent) settlers in the US. I was in tears for the rest of the day. Wouldn’t tell my regular teacher why.

    My mom, on the phone with the principal after school, said it was bad enough to be picking on a little fourth grader, but on top of that, how can someone supposedly teaching history have never heard of Jamestown.

    The next year she was switched to kindergarten.


  4. “how can someone supposedly teaching history have never heard of Jamestown?” Or St. Augustine (1565)? Or Cahokia (7th-15th centuries C.E.?) The “first white” whatever thing is pretty stupid to begin with.

    Sorry to get all pedantic, but I feel I must stand up for Spain given the high school teacher who wanted to give Don Quixote to the Dutch!


  5. In either first or second grade, a teacher informed us that slaves were unequipped for freedom and better off under slavery. That was probably 1971 or 1972.


  6. I had pretty good luck with teachers growing up — but I do have a borrowed accent anecdote. In college (I went to a public uni in the South) one of my friends took a literature course with a TA from the Boston area. After missing class one day, she borrowed a classmate’s notes… someone who evidently had neither done the reading nor even looked very closely at the syllabus because his notes were all about a story about

    “Bottleby” the Scrivener.

    a ha ha ha ha ha ha that one kills me every time, 20 years on….


  7. Oh, I’ve got an accent one too! A really good friend said about a mutual acquaintance: Pat’s such a nice guy, it’s a shame about his speech impediment. I fell on the floor laughing and had to tell her he was just from Boston.


  8. Maybe the honors teacher was still fighting battles in the Age of Religious Wars? Because, just because a particular windmill is thirty miles, or kilometers, or leagues, or whatever, outside of Rotterdam, doesn’t necessarily mean it was (or wasn’t) in “Spain.”

    The however-ironically or perversely intended, best thing said aloud about me in a classroom was said by one of the worst teachers, Mr. Steer, in Latin class, who–looking at the massive list of library books I claimed to have read as part of a desperate extra-credit contest–shook his head and said “who knows, maybe [Indyanna] will someday go on to become a world-famous scholar….” The look on his face added: “…but probably not.”


  9. 1. Sophomore, high school, dreadful English class, started taking notes on teacher’s “lecture” because (young dork that I was) I figured I should learn how to take notes bc. that’s what you did in college. Teacher stopped, said “WHAT ARE YOU WRITING,” snatched notes from me; upon persual and discovery they were more or less a transcription of what she was saying, threw them back on my desk, and continued. Got a B in that class and am STILL pissed off about that.

    Same teacher gave me B in typing, never mind I was the best typist in the class, but I couldn’t get the fold on my paper quite right to fit into envelope perfectly.

    Grades given purely out of spite. I hate her. To this day.

    2. Teacher who organized high school assembly (preceded by prayer, of course, this being a public school and all), featuring a “debate” between Communism v. Capitalism. Some Marine gave the pro-capitalism speech; then local Farm Bureau agent dressed as East German (looking much like Col. Klink from Hogan’s Heroes) came on and, yes, ranted and then took his shoe off and beat the podium with it, before delightedly exposing himself as local yokel that he was. We were not allowed to debate the point.


  10. @Historiann– That’s actually my mom’s professional area of expertise (not Jamestown), so no fault on her (I cannot, however, vouch for my own 4th grade knowledge). I imagine though that she figured the teacher should at least know about northern European settlers given the state we were living in at the time.


  11. My classes are typically full. No one ever complained about my accent or my clarity or had a fight or dispute with a student. (Except for a grade of course) One time I had a class that complaint endlessly, disagreed constantly and went to the chair repeatedly. It was a vanilla flavored class I taught before and after.

    After final grades I sent them all an email stating that they are spoiled a$$holes. I hope they remember me.


  12. Tenth grade, Catholic school, New Orleans. Sister Mary Henry was an mean, evil woman. I showed up in “civvies” instead of my uniform (it was a privilege for kids who were going to some awards ceremony or other). It being 1982, I was wearing pink corduroys, penny loafers, and a ruffly “new romantic” pink and white striped shirt that, let me be clear, was long-sleeved and buttoned up to the neck. I may have had pink lipstick and a side-ponytail (remember, *1982*). The evil one calls me up to the desk and tells me that outfits like mine “are the reason girls get raped.” WTF, Sister Henry, W.T.F?

    The only other thing I remember about her is her weird obsession with Chief Justice John Jay.

    Oh, wait! Also, my classmate Betty Lo, whose given name was in fact, Betty, pissed her off by refusing to answer to Elizabeth, since that wasn’t her actual name. Sister Henry called her “Miss Lo” the rest of the year. Nasty piece of work, that one.


  13. The calling me ‘Elizabeth’ instead of ‘Betty’ thing (only with my name) used to happen to me a lot when I was child, but by high school I’d learned to say ‘It’s Betty on my birth certificate. Yes really’, which shut it down pretty quickly. Still remarkable how many adults feel they have the right to question what your name is.

    On retrospect, most of my teachers were fairly competent, although the English teacher who told us at 14 that there was no point in doing creative writing as you needed life experience to write still strikes me as short-sighted.

    Then, there was the chemistry teacher who set us to copying the textbook into our notes verbatim, which I could do without processing and so chatted to my neighbour. When we got told off for not doing our work, I said ‘I am doing it’ and s/he said ‘well what does it say’, and I was like ‘oh, we were meant to read it?, why didn’t you say so?’. S/he just looked bewildered, but I still see this as a failure to communicate the point of the exercise. I do remember thinking it was a pointless exercise at the time, but I felt like that a lot in school…

    I didn’t experience it personally but I do know a lot of children who told that they couldn’t go on to do particular careers or go to particular unis (like Oxbridge) so there was no point in trying (often at age 11 or 12). My bro was told at age 11 that he would never become a medical doctor so not to try (yet he got the grades at 18). He became a nuclear chemist so this is strictly true, but I’m not sure this was a reflection on his ability! I tend to think telling children this young that sort of advice is akin to saying ‘this school doesn’t have the capacity to help you achieve this’.


  14. “[T]hat sort of advice is akin to saying ‘this school doesn’t have the capacity to help you achieve this’.” That’s fantastic! I will keep this in mind and use this myself if I ever need it again.

    I had two school friends whose given names were Beth, and they both were constantly explaining that their name wasn’t Elizabeth in fact. (Maybe that’s a message to parents against creative naming?) One of the things I love about a 3-letter monosyllabic name is that no one EVER asks me if it’s short for something else, or if I’m really named something else.


  15. I don’t really have any stories, though I’m pretty sure there are a bunch that are told about me. One class even made a facebook quotes page. I appear to be very quotable if mildly scarring.


  16. Send me that fB link, Western Dave! It actually sounds like an affectionate and appreciative tribute to you. Who among us doesn’t want to be remembered and quoted throughout our students’ lives? (The good students, anyway.)

    Do you wear a KC and the Sunshine Band belt buckle, too?


  17. In sixth grade, my mother was called in for a parent-teacher conference whereupon she was presented with a notebook to give to me. Evidently my science and social studies teachers were fed up with me asking questions in class that they could not adequately answer, and wanted me to write them down instead of “embarrassing” them.


  18. In high school I took a sociology course taught by, of course, a football coach. He constantly harassed me and a friend of mine in the class, but really singled me out and repeatedly called me an “intellectual snob.” My friend and I were in an honors class that met across the hall from one of his classes. One day the coach actually came into our classroom to hassle me; as our teacher ushered him out, the coach sneered, “At least MY daughters won’t grow up to be intellectual snobs!!” and our teacher replied, “Don’t worry. They won’t.” Best part: the coach didn’t get the joke and thought our teacher was agreeing with him. The whole classroom laughed for about five minutes.


  19. A separate sub-genre along these lines is particularly memorable marginal comments in handed-back written work. Like when Ol’ Miz Davies witheringly wrote “you have simply no grasp on the logic of the comma,” which was probably at least technically true, depending on what the meaning of the word “is” is. Or when a later mentor offered the pithy stab: “do you care AT ALL about split infinitives?!?” (emphasis supplied). I did and didn’t and still sort of do and don’t, but I never split one without remembering this. These were formative jabs, though, from respected agents, not the snarky flailing of frustrated pedagogues as reported above.


  20. I’ve always found it annoying as an adult to have people ask me if I actually go by “Katherine” or something shorter. Because I didn’t just introduce myself that way, sign a document or have a hand written name tag on not actually sticking to my blouse. Not everyone with classically shortened names shortens them.

    Though to be fair, I did go by a short form when I was a kid, but dumped it as soon as I went to college and figured out that it was a time in my life where I could escape being “Kathy”.

    As for teachers…. I have a story sadly about a community college instructor. I was taking classes while I worked full time and tried to figure out my life. During a history of technology class, this gave a very detailed lecture about how medieval men were permenantly bolted into their armor and had to have attendents help them go to the bathroom. Royal courts had several castles that they moved between because they just threw trash on the flour and they would leave whe the castle got to dirty and would come back either after it was cleaned or …. the trash biodegrated. I am not sure.

    I dropped the course after getting a C on the midterm because I couldn’t remember her crazy from what I knew to be the actual history.


  21. The worst I had was an English teacher sign my yearbook noting that I was a very ‘special’ individual (yes in quotes). Years later I still can’t figure out exactly what she meant by that…


  22. Senior year my homeroom teacher was a young guy who had just received his teaching certificate. Neither I nor my best friend (a slightly overweight guy) ever stood for the pledge of allegiance. One day, he asked why we didn’t stand. I said I thought it seemed a bit strange to pledge allegiance to a flag and country and etc.; when my friend replied similarly, the teacher called him (but not me) lazy and made him stand up.

    As for the name thing – I also go by the full, 3-syllable version of my name and find it really frustrating that others can’t simply repeat the name I use when I sign emails or introduce myself. (When I’m in Russia, I never have this problem even though my name is far more strange/difficult for Russian speakers.)


  23. In my sophomore American history class, the teacher told the only Catholic student in the class (in rural northern Florida)that the reason the English fleet defeated the Spanish Armada was because “God favors Protestants.”


  24. I had a high school honors English teacher who was unaware that something could be a “Freudian slip” and yet not be about sex and who got very upset with me when I called something – that was a Freudian slip if I ever heard one! but that was not about sex – a Freudian slip.

    On the whole, my teachers were pretty well informed. The “worst things” they said were rarely about academics, but I have some real horror stories about teacher-led bullying (like, ordinary childish bullying but instigated by teachers – not even teacherly cruel comments but really childish stuff) and intentional teacher complicity with the popular kids bullying others. Those things were pretty terrible both for me and for a couple of my friends.

    There was also the teacher/football coach who was telling my 9th grade geography class about the San Andreas fault and remarked that California would one day break off and drift away from the US to the north “and all the fairies will freeze”.


  25. Fairies? The wee sprites who inhabit the great Redwood Forest? (Of course!)

    As for being called “special:” I think that’s more about what a dim bulb that teacher was that she couldn’t think of anything more specific to you.

    Indyanna: Just the other day, I was thanked by a student for writing “PLEASE write in complete sentences!!!” on his paper! I hope he will remember (and heed!) that request.


  26. Fifth grade. I was doing a report on Egyptian hieroglyphs and I used the word “decipherment” several times, referring to Champollion and his activities. The teacher told me that “decipherment” was not a word and that I couldn’t use it in my report. I brought in one of the books I was using for research to show that the author used “decipherment.” The teacher happened to notice that the book had been published in Britain. She said, “Well, it must be a British expression. You still can’t use it.” This took place at a supposedly prestigious private school.


  27. Indellibly etched in my mind from my 3rd grade days in southern Maine was Mr Marines (no, I am absolutely not making up his name) bent over one of the delinquents sitting in our class and shouting not quite at the top of his voice “I faced killers in Vietnam, YOU DON’T SCARE ME”


  28. My town started language lessons in the third grade, and for those who did well with French or Spanish (offered in alternating years), we could take Russian beginning in 7th grade. I had two very successful years of Russian, and entered ninth grade , where there were two Russian classes. The teacher did not like teaching Russian (he preferred French, but French was taught by a French woman, a war bride, so he didn’t have a chance). He told the parents on parents’ night that he would flunk half the students; I remember how shocked my parents were when they came home with that news. I was one of the students he picked on. He would call on me in a sneering tone, to say “Tia (my Russian name) knows” (Tia znaet). About all I remember from Russian now is “Ya ni znao,” or however you would transcribe “I don’t know,” which is actually a very useful phrase in any language. I did get a D and did not take any further Russian.

    In some ways I am grateful. If I had continued with Russian I might have felt obligated to do Soviet studies in college (dating myself…), but instead I was able to more freely choose African studies (which included learning Swahili, so language ability was NOT the issue in high school Russian!).

    And I will answer to either Kathleen or Kathie. And even Kate or Katie on occasion.


  29. In 3rd grade we had an assignment to write a 2 page report on some historical figure and I wrote on Louis Pasteur. I was fascinated by the assignment and read far more than required and turned in an 8 page report. The school was close to the housing project where I lived, but approximately 50% of the kids did not live in public housing. The day the assignment was returned the teacher called me to the front of the class and showed the front page of the report to the entire class with a large red “F” and informed me and the entire class “I said 2 pages and children from the project must learn to follow orders”. I hated school for years after.


  30. I’ll answer to Kathy, Kate, Katie, and even Kathleen. But that doesn’t mean I wont be secretly suppressing unhealthy resentment at people who decide they can pick my name.

    In fact I’m usually more sympathetic to the people who call me Kathleen because I figure it usually means they’ve just heard it wrong through my accent.


  31. Everything before I turned 18 is a blur, so I’ll have to give a college anecdote.

    1987. UMass Amherst had a “diversity requirement.” As a sophomore I took a 400 level class called the Novels of Chinua Achebe from somebody in the African American Studies Department who knew quite a lot about Africa, the diaspora, and Chinua Achebe specifically.

    The class was very enjoyable, but sadly did not meet the “diversity requirement.” Only classes marked in the catalog with a tiny nazi eagle met the diversity requirement, and UMass had completely abolished the system for appealing rules and decisions because they previously had a bad reputation for allowing students to abuse the process and graduate without taking any of the required classes.

    So I signed up for Art History 101, which was duly marked with a diversity eagle. On the first day of class the pleasant young graduate student teacher said “I don’t really know anything about any of that African or Asian stuff, so we’re pretty much going to stick to the main subject.” Which was, of course, the western canon.

    And that’s how I met my “diversity requirement” at UMass Amherst!


  32. 2nd grade — family had just moved from Philadelphia, PA to Vancouver, BC. The teacher asked us to copy the questions on the blackboard. So, I dutifully copied the questions not realizing that, in Vancouver, “copy” actually meant “answer.” Scarred me for life.


  33. One of my fave teacher stories comes from my mom, who was a high school English teacher. One of her colleagues, in teaching “A Rose for Emily,” taught students that the big reveal at the end isn’t that Miss Emily might be a necrophiliac, but that she’s black.


  34. A fascination collection of horror and not-horror stories. Brian’s describes a nightmare situation bad enough to belong in a Dickens novel! We need a teaching malpractice statute so people like that could be sued and appropriately punished. Maybe a decade of teaching diversity classes to jailed members of the Aryan Brotherhood?


  35. Sophomore “world cultures” class in high school, the young woman (now principal at the same high school) told us that we should make careful distinctions, because while ‘all Arabs are Muslim, not all Muslims are Arabs.’

    I’m relatively sure this was taken as truth by many of my white, rich, future business leaders of America classmates.


  36. World History, 10th grade. After learning about the holocaust… well, the Holocaust killed millions of people and it was bad. But there are people who say there was some good. You know, like the plague. Things naturally come along to regulate the population growth.


  37. In my 20th century European History course (junior year of college, I believe), I had one otherwise excellent professor who was a hideous homophobe. He couldn’t mention john Maynard Keynes’s name without adding, “he was a meat handler. I mean a bloody fagot.” Horrible stuff. He has to be the worst teacher I ever had.


  38. Somehow I managed to get through my first year of college with great grades (with a lot of hard work), and then my second year I took a math and an English class in which I suddenly wasn’t doing very well at all, and I had no idea why. (This was the first college English class I’d taken, and the second math class, but the first was a fun, small number theory class, and the second was a huge linear algebra lecture.) I took my papers & midterms to the professors’ office hours to ask for feedback and help.

    They both gave me a stern variation on “Do you really WANT help, or do you just not care enough to do the work?” The English professor told me he’d go over my paper in detail with me if I were a freshman to help me, but since I wasn’t, he wasn’t sure it was worth the commitment to either of us. I still don’t understand that distinction – are students only allowed to struggle their first year, and then they should be perfect?! The math professor asked if I’d even been doing the homework because my midterm grade was so bad, and if I was really even there to look for help. Unfortunately, at that point I burst into tears.

    I don’t remember ANYTHING else they said for the rest of those meetings, just how humiliated I felt, but I somehow got through the semester OK. Now that I teach, I know that students who worry about their grades are annoying, but sometimes grades are the best signposts they have that they need help, and I hope I never treat a student with outright suspicion when they come to me.


  39. But students discourage teachers more than teachers discourage students.

    I don’t agree with that. They’re not equals in the relationship, and only one side is getting paid. Students are children or young adults, and they can be jerks but teachers and professors have to set a better example and be the bigger persons. (To quote Don Draper, in a comment to his protege Peggy Olson: “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!”)

    To this day, I can barely remember the occasional annoying student, but the bad teachers in this thread are well remembered decades later by their unfortunate students.


  40. A few gems:

    My ninth grade “world cultures” teacher had the class draw a comic strip about the life of the prophet Mohammed.

    My tenth grade English teacher began a class on Antigone by telling us the plays were written 3,000 years ago. I raised my hand and said, “No, they’re not.” She corrected by saying that the plays were written 2,000 years ago. I corrected her again (I was a little shit in high school, and very superior). She told me that if I knew so much, I could give the lecture. Which I did, having been raised by two classically-educated parents. We cordially hated each other. I feel… almost… guilty now. Less so when I remember that this teacher gave us copies of her self-published poetry for Christmas with the assignment to come back after break with constructive criticism…

    Also in the tenth grade I decided I’d no longer say the pledge of allegiance, and was told by one very angry (and confused) substitute teacher that this was AGAINST THE LAW. I got my only in-school suspension for that…


  41. My boyfriend had a Kindergarten teacher who called him fat. Nearly 40 years later, he still gets depressed over that and now has weight issues.

    My mom (who is 75) had a fourth grade teacher who made fun of her drawing of the moon. It took her decades of counseling to get over it.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.