What Does “Mean” Actually Mean?

I’m sitting across the office from Jonathan’s parents. Dad is in casual athletic-wear and Mom is suited up in professional office-wear. Their faces are both pensive.

            Dad leans in, “He’s just not thriving this year.”

            Mom nods in affirmation. “He comes home just hating school.”

            “He used to love it. So we talked about it last night at dinner. I was like, ‘Jonathan, what’s the deal? You used to love school.’”

            “It was a father-son talk.”

            “Yeah. You know. Man to man.”

            I reflect on the fact that Jonathan is now in 6th grade, now moving into the middle school years, now at the beginning of the long process from boyhood to manhood.

            “And he said to me that it’s all about his teacher. That his teacher is mean. That his teacher—what’s her name again?  Cortinez?—yeah…Ms. Cortinez is mean.”

            “He backed it up,” Mom says, as if about to pull out a briefcase of evidence. “He gave a whole story about how Ms. Cortinez embarrassed him by saying that he missed his homework for three days in a row and would get no credit.”

            “In front of the class!” Dad exclaims.

            “And she humiliated him by making him stay in at recess and lunch to complete the homework. That she made him feel really uncomfortable because it was just him in the classroom with her. All his friends were together and probably talking about him behind his back.”

             “I want him to switch into Mr. Busby’s class. He’s just better for Jonathan. All the kids love Mr. Busby. He’s not mean like Ms. Cortinez is.”

            So many thoughts cross my mind when I have parents and students in my office complaining that a teacher is mean. And the description, while a wholeheartedly simple term, has become weaponized in schools today.

            Like the word “yell”, the word “mean” can be interpreted in many ways, all of them subjective. When a teacher is “mean”, she could be exhibiting traits more akin to strict. Or analytical. Or non-plussed. Humorless. Sarcastic. Introverted. You get the picture. It is the simplicity of the word that gives it power when describing a teacher. 

            The word “mean” over-personalizes the teacher-student relationship. A student would say that a mean teacher simply does not like him. This presumption suggests that the teacher doesn’t have the emotional maturity to be the adult in the room. 

            So back to Ms. Cortinez: Was she being “mean” based on the evidence cited in the conversation above? Was she treating him in a way that implied she doesn’t like him? 

            After talking with her, I learned a few things. By calling Jonathan out in front of his peers, Ms. Cortinez was trying to be clear about the homework expectations in a way that would benefit the class. By drawing attention to the fact that Jonathan didn’t do his homework on multiple occasions, she was expressing reasonable disappointment in his actions, not in him as a human being. By keeping Jonathan in the classroom during recess and lunch, she was communicating that his homework matters. Additionally, by making herself available, Ms. Cortinez was demonstrating support for Jonathan’s learning. 

            Still, it takes two to tango. I spoke with Ms. Cortinez about the fact that she hadn’t built a connection with Jonathan. She may have been teaching the curriculum and hitting the benchmarks, but she was not focusing on the relational side to her teaching. As a result, Jonathan did not sense her belief in him. As a result, he viewed her from an antagonistic—rather than collaborative—perspective.

            I advised Jonathan’s parents to resist jumping into interrogation mode when their child calls a teacher “mean”. I also advised them to remind him that negative name-calling is not okay. It would have made for richer discussion, and closer relationships between all constituencies (teacher-student-parent) if a more nuanced approach were taken.   

            As it turns out, it wasn’t too late in the school year for Ms. Cortinez to reinstate a positive relationship with Jonathan. After this incident, she found a way to effectively communicate belief in his potential. Jonathan may not have finished the year with an “A” in math, but he became a more engaged student nonetheless.

Nat Damon