Q: I’m a graduate student in an education program, and I hope to be a middle school math teacher when I’m certified. As part of my program, I’m required to complete an internship with an experienced teacher. My university professor assigns work that I need to do in the school setting so I get “real life” experience, including delivering lessons. This is particularly important for me because I’ve never taught. My supervisor at the internship, Dianne, is making this nearly impossible for me. She won’t let me do some of my required assignments, and sometimes she won’t even let me observe other teachers! When I teach, she often interrupts me mid-lesson to “correct me” in front of students. She’s been like this from the moment I arrived, so it can’t be my work quality. Maybe it is though, I don’t know — I just feel so crappy about myself. She tells me she can’t believe I was admitted to my program, suggests that I bag teaching and go back to accounting, and whispers to her colleagues about me. She isn’t subtle, and I feel like I’m back in middle school myself. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m falling apart and feel depressed. These internships are hard to get and leaving isn’t an option, so what now?
A: There’s a lot to unpack here. The hardest part about being bullied is that you feel disempowered and helpless. You’re not stuck, but I’m not surprised that you feel that way. As you’ve internalized Dianne’s negative messages, you’ve started to believe some of them. Your inexperience makes you particularly vulnerable — and bullies like easy targets. Plus, there’s a power differential at play. You need her much more than she needs you. No wonder you feel insecure and are struggling to assert yourself. The problem is that as you’ve suppressed your anger, you’ve turned it inward and become depressed. That too is clouding your thinking and making it hard to problem solve.
Step one is giving you back a sense of agency. As a counselor, I remind bullied kids that while they may not be able to control someone else’s behavior, they do have control over their own. They can put themselves back in the driver’s seat, consider the options available to them and decide how to proceed. Even if nothing changes right away, kids feel less stressed and more optimistic when they’re actively trying to change their circumstances.
So what are your possible courses of action? In terms of seeking help from above, you can talk to Dianne’s supervisor or to your university professor. Presumably, these partnerships are intended to be mutually beneficial. For the school system, the internships create a pipeline of well-trained educators they can employ. The university benefits too, because it attracts more applicants when graduates are prepared for the workplace and easily find jobs. The school and university administrators may talk to Dianne, find you a new supervisor, or remove you from this toxic situation entirely. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.
In the meantime, think about your own reactions to Dianne. Many people have difficulty coming up with retorts when they feel attacked, but try practicing some responses in advance. Keep them calm and productive and related to your learning process. You can experiment with different styles. Does she respond better when you ask for advice, or when you ask to observe her? When she insults you without offering constructive feedback, have you tried asking her to expand on her observations? Is it best to be direct or to be completely nonreactive, because she’s worse when you’re flustered? Are there ways to create distance from her?
Your goal at this point is to complete your assignments and absorb as much information as possible while minimizing the damage to you. As you mentioned, this type of treatment can take a person down. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. This internship is only one piece of your life, even though it’s occupying all of your thoughts.
If you can’t change Dianne or improve your experience, try not to care what she thinks about you. This is as hard for adults as it is for children. One trick is to put yourself in her shoes. Is she going through a hard time with a family member? Is she struggling with her workload and feels overwhelmed? None of this excuses the disrespectful treatment, but it might help you take it less personally. There’s an expression: “Hurt people hurt people.” Many bullies have experienced bullying themselves. Even if Dianne is just feeling threatened or envious, it might be helpful to identify her motives for being mean.
Of course, you want your mentor to like you and treat you respectfully. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. On the upside, you’re getting a crash course on working with difficult people, and these tough lessons won’t be wasted. You’ll be more resilient, strong, and savvy in the future. You’ll also have more capacity for empathy, and you may even be more likely to take a stand when you see others in the same crummy situation.
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