Help! Is Yelling Traumatic for Students?

Dear We Are Teachers,

I teach large sections of 5th grade advanced math (between 36 and 40 kids). I naturally have a loud, deep voice (I also coach) and occasionally have to raise my voice to get everyone’s attention. Last week, a table of girls was still working after I told students to put their pencils down. I said it again, and two of the girls looked up at me, smiled, and kept working. So finally I said quite loud, “Pencils down!” I got an email that night that my “yelling” at a student “inflicted unnecessary trauma.” I responded politely and apologized, plus I apologized to the student the next day in class. But now the parent wants to meet to discuss “adjusting my teaching strategies so this doesn’t happen to another child.” What? Loud voices are traumatic now?

—My voice carries!

Dear M.V.C.,

I have conflicting thoughts on this as a person who both 1) thinks it’s a problem that we’ve started to call everything trauma and 2) really, really, really hated being yelled at as a kid.

First, no, I don’t think you inflicted trauma on this student by raising your voice. I think your principal needs to intervene and say, “He has 40 kids in that class and your child wasn’t listening after several redirects. End of story.”

But I do think it’s worth examining whether you raise your voice out of frustration or purely to be heard. When we yell out of frustration regularly to a class, it sends the message that this class holds the power, not me. That can feel really unstable for kids, especially your anxious ones (that would be me!).

Maybe you can find an attention-getter that doesn’t rely on you having to yell. Wireless doorbells, maybe. Or one of these noise meters that can prevent it from getting too loud in the first place.

You’ve got enough to stress about with giant class sizes. Don’t stress yourself (or your voice!) even more by hollering.

Dear We Are Teachers,

I am very confused by the dress code for teachers at our school. In our school’s code of conduct, the only stipulations apart from “professional dress and hygienic appearance” are no open-toed shoes or jeans on undesignated days. Fine. But twice now I have been called to the office because my clothing has been “unprofessional.” Once for wearing slacks with a fitted wool jacket that had a hood (“It’s a hoodie,” my principal said), and just this week for trousers with back pockets that “looked like jeans” (he eventually conceded that they were not, in fact, jeans). I don’t want to play the “But look at everyone else!” card, but you can walk down our hallway and see tons of teachers in jeans with holes in them and hoodies that are definitely better-suited to lawn work than to school. What’s his deal, and do I call him on it?

—Why me?

Dear W.M.,

My 30-second unlicensed armchair psychoanalyst diagnosis is that this is a man with big-time control issues. We’re in a historic teacher shortage, and you have the gall to go hard on jeans?

I wouldn’t open the conversation retroactively about one of your past wardrobe “indiscretions.” But I would do two things:

1. If you think this could be discrimination, talk to a union rep.

Women—especially women with curvy bodies—are more often faced with dress code discrimination. If you happen to see that the people who aren’t getting in trouble for their hoodies or jeans or open-toed shoes are also people who don’t like you, this could be grounds for a lawsuit. (What? I have zero chill for discriminatory school districts these days.)

2. If it happens again, ask for clearer guidelines.

“Thanks for the feedback. Could you provide me with some guidelines on your expectations for professional dress? I was striving for the level of professional dress I see in other teachers, but there seems to be a discrepancy for what’s expected of me vs. everyone else.”

This statement is a little risky, sure. But petty tyrants like him need to know you won’t put up with this, and/or that he is seriously flirting with a workplace discrimination case.

Dear We Are Teachers,

I’m in my 7th year of teaching first grade, and this school year I got paired with a 24-year teacher. We spend a lot of time together planning, grading, eating lunch, etc., and she is so negative. Anything I’m excited about, she’ll turn it into a complaint. If I say our students look cute for the living history museum, she’ll say how parents spend $200 to put a cute picture on Instagram. When I came up with a camping-themed week for the end of the year, she immediately said, “I don’t have that kind of energy.” I popped into her room yesterday to tell her about the fancy catered lunch from the PTA, and she said, “Don’t they know we would just prefer a raise?” I’m so tired of being dragged down all the time. Has anyone ever had success in lifting up a Debbie Downer, or should I just ask my principal to switch partners next year?

—Womp wahhhhh

Dear W.W.,

I remember feeling this way about more experienced teachers at my first school. Then, as I gained more experience, I understood how they got that way. Constant disappointment in the system will make anyone jaded. Exhaustion and powerlessness can easily lead to negativity. Being beat down begets bitterness. Say that three times fast.

However, this doesn’t mean every teacher has the green light to be a total bummer.

You can be drained without draining others. You can be frustrated without ruining experiences for everyone else.

I would wait for a private moment where you both have plenty of time to talk and respond. (That is, not during recess duty or your planning period.) Front-load with gratitude and empathy. Avoid blaming. Say something like this:

“Candice, I’m so glad we get to work together. Your experience and expertise are invaluable to me. I wanted to share with you something that has been challenging for me. I know that you have dealt with a lot as a teacher over the years. But it’s really hard for me to feel confident or enthusiastic about teaching when I’m met with negative comments. I don’t need a Pollyanna or constant affirmation or for you to change your personality. I just need to feel like my partner believes in me and is excited for me. That would help me a lot. Can you do that for me?”

And honestly? She might not be able to get there. That’s OK. It might be a wake-up call for her to embrace the sunny side. It may also be a wake-up call that she needs to retire. If she doesn’t change, talk to your principal about a new partner teacher for next year. But something’s gotta fold, and we can’t let it be your happiness.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at

Dear We Are Teachers,

I’ve been teaching 6th grade science at a Title I middle school for three years now. From what I understand, schools in our district get a thousand dollars every year to spend on their school/students “as they see fit.” What does our principal use it for? 1) Renting a snow machine in December (as you can imagine, this is a nightmare), 2) a pumpkin patch in October (less of a nightmare, just more confusing for kids), and 3) an end-of-standardized testing season party in May with snow cones and bouncy houses (also a nightmare). Other teachers are frustrated by this spending, but they said she has railed against anyone who criticizes her. I think I have a pretty good relationship with this principal, and I think getting her to use the budget for things we really need—an updated math curriculum, for example—would go a long way. Should I chance a convo with her? 


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