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Alex McRae Columnist

Published Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fear in the blackboard jungle

Once upon a time, I taught school. I did so briefly and not too well, but left the profession with a load of wonderful memories and countless friends.

I also left with a pile of stories. It’s finally time to share this one ...

During a break between classes I joined my fellow faculty members in the teacher’s lounge. The group included a middle school math teacher who was a local legend, revered for her classroom longevity, if nothing else. She was always nice to me so I assumed she was a fine person.

And she might have been. But she was definitely in the wrong place.

She was a year from retirement and reminiscing about her career when she muttered something that set my head spinning. With a perfectly straight face, she said, “You know if it wasn’t for the students, this would be the best job in the world.”

I sat there in stunned silence while she gathered her belongings and headed back to the classroom, which she clearly considered just slightly more pleasant than Alabama’s Julia Tutweiler Prison for Woman.

How could you teach for over 30 years and not like your students, I wondered. Sure, kids can be aggravating and trying and testy and tearful. We all are. And teaching pay wasn’t great, but the non-monetary rewards — like watching a student beam with pride over a hard-earned accomplishment — were priceless. I couldn’t have gone to work every day if I hated my job. A teacher who didn’t like students? It was the last thing I expected to come across.

But now an Ohio teacher is in the news because of her strained relationship with students. This teacher doesn’t hate her students. She’s scared of them. Instead of yoga classes, she’s relieving her stress by suing the school board.

The “educator” in the center ring of this legal circus is 61-year-old Maria Waltherr-Willard, who started teaching Spanish and French at Mariemont High in Cincinnati in 1976. For the first 33 years of her career, Waltherr-Willard had no reported problems with her students.

But when she was transferred to a middle school in 2009, she discovered that she was scared to death of 7th-, 8th- and 9th-graders. And not just because they were Justin Bieber fans, who are indeed a creepy bunch.

Waltherr-Willard’s lawsuit claimed she was frightened into early retirement last year when her blood pressure soared to dangerous levels as a result of anxiety disorder.

Her lawyer claimed the school system had violated her rights because her fear of adolescents is among the miseries covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Phobias exist, to be sure. Anxiety disorder is real as roadkill. And mental problems are nothing to be mocked or trivialized. But you’d think that it would be hard to spend decades in a classroom without realizing you were scared of young kids.

During the legal proceedings, Waltherr-Willard’s attorney presented a doctor’s excuse that said her “mental anguish” was “of a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure the same.”

Then the attorney suggested Waltherr-Willard might feel better if she was awarded the $100,000 she is seeking in lost wages suffered as a result of her early retirement.

Stuff happens. Always has, always will. Some problems are unforeseen.

This one shouldn’t be. As we embrace the brave new world of modern education it shouldn’t be too much to ask that we only award teaching certificates to potential “educators” who aren’t scared of students.

...........................................................

Send your email comments to: alex@newnan.com .

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