Tips For Handling A Real Life “Sue Sylvester From Glee”

Update: April 2, 2013 Given Mike Rice’s conduct berating players at practice captured on cam and sent all over the social media airwaves w/Rutgers news today, I have to reprise this post to remind that this DOES happen at the high school and club level on teams as well, as I can attest to firsthand.

Despite life skills and tips from the Positive Coaching Alliance, I’ve repeatedly seen some head-turning ‘whaaa?’ moments involving swearing, belittling, pushing, and drill sargent-in-the-face media snapshots that are downright surreal as a parent. In fact, they prompted this post.

Here’s to raising the bar and not sloughing off abusive behavior as a ‘coaching style’…Let’s learn from Rutgers as yet another media ‘teaching moment’ to share…

Original post: April 26, 2011 Tonight is the season opener of the Fox hit, Glee,so this seems timely to talk about navigating abuse of power amidst the Sue Sylvesters of the world…

Lately it seems like “bullying prevention” has taken center stage from pundits, programming, and policies to entire White House Prevention Conferences, so it’s made me put the chicken and the egg question into play about anti-bullying and school climate methodology…has it become a ‘business’ in and of itself?

Much like the national dialogue surrounding public health and obesity, countless programs get put in place to ‘address the problem’ without much circumspection about whether the programs ‘work’ or not.

Rosalind Wiseman details this conundrum artfully in ‘do’s and don’ts’ for anti-bullying PSAs, and the character Sue from Glee (Jane Lynch) has a ‘don’t text and drive’ PSA, which leverages a “mock bullying” style for grins and a good cause…But short of obvious Sue Sylvester-style bullies out there, parents often wonder ‘where to start’ in terms of ‘what’s real’ when kids claim their teacher is a bully.

How and when should adults intervene with an adult authority figure? What if it “makes it worse” for a child? Did you ever encounter a real life “Sue Sylvester” in your past and if so, how did you handle it?

When a child power-whines, “My teacher hates me” (whose hasn’t?) or “you won’t BELIEVE what happened in class today” it’s easy to assume it’s an exaggeration…

But don’t be TOO quick to toss it into the “yougawdabekiddinme” pile. It appears much of our culture has devolved to a level of incivility that mirrors snarky send-ups or Reality TV on and off the screen.

There’s a lot of “thinking out loud” taking place these days, digitally and in school yards…Comments once left unsaid with mindfulness of the reckless reverb, now spew forth with tongues wagging like trigger happy verbal bullets of venom.

A recent Tufts University study on media and incivility echoes this dramatic shift in verbal lambasting, so it’s no wonder anti-bullying experts like Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabes–the basis for Mean Girls,  Owning Up Curriculum, Boys/Girls & Other Hazardous Materials, etc) and Rachel Simmons (Odd Girl Out, Curse of the Good Girl, Girls Leadership Institute) are in high demand to bring advocacy, tips and hands-on solutions to sorely needed civility, empathy and consideration.

In short, yes, there IS a problem. And no, you can’t make this stuff up. It’s QUITE possible the coach/teacher/neighbor/band instructor (insert responsible adult person of choice) may HAVE said exactly, verbatim what the child is quoting.

But don’t take the media’s word for it. I don’t put much stock in media giving me a ‘true’ snapshot of much of anything anymore. Newsy talk shows often blather with sensationalized show-n-tells or reflect a ‘tip of the iceberg’ conversation while missing the much bigger, deeply rooted endemic problem.

I prefer real life scenarios detached from the vested interest of broadcast ratings and digital click through rates, and like to keep a discerning eye on ‘corollary vs causation’ when sifting through the antics of media and marketing’s impact on kids.

When I read through Rosalind Wiseman’s insightful post about “facing our own bullies” in workplace scenarios (educators among educators, or adult to adult) I knew I wanted to do a follow up piece on the power-based relationship among NON-parental authority figures wielding control over kids which has long been a parental conundrum.

Many feel a palpable emotional gridlock:

“Do I formally object/call ’em out and risk making it worse, or teach resiliency, coping skills, and deal with it off the radar?”

After all, teacher harassment can be “on purpose” (Sue/Glee/shame-blame) inadvertent and insensitive, or passive aggressive (“just kidding”) much the way peer to peer bullying transpires, so I decided to put forth REAL LIFE, recent examples to show the severity and tonality in this way too common absurdity.

I’d heard certain claims from students and responded with an incredulous ‘whaaaa?’ only to follow up and find out directly that it was not only true, but confirmed straight from the educator’s mouth, who somehow thought it was within their boundaries of ethical conduct.

Mock slave auctions? Classroom assignments and weight and BMI showing up on report cards? As my teen would say, “R U serious?” Add in the “real life Sue Sylvesters” and that sounds more like shame/blame  humiliation tactics versus constructive criticism.

Granted, the dunce cap and cartoon visuals of old comic strips might be gone, but after hearing (and experiencing) some of the ‘over the top’ stories of ‘adults behaving badly’ it’s time to callout these occurrences of adult/child bullying, because ‘outside the parenting trenches’ one would frankly find it surreal. I know I have.

How can we teach kids how to handle themselves ‘in the moment’ with adults like these despite a high stakes game of authority figure “risk the reverb?”

Standby…Today we’re talking with Rosalind Wiseman, (again) See last interview w/Rosalind Wiseman here) one of the foremost authorities on creating cultures of dignity and wildly applauded by yours truly for serving up substance and pragmatic tips over platitudes and parenting floof. (Rachel Simmons is my other ‘go to gal’ along these lines, last chat with Rachel here and here)- Enjoy!

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth:

Okay Rosalind, let’s play “what if”…Except that I’m going to toss out some very REAL life scenarios for you to react to and give advice upon. This is all in the context of an adult/child authority based relationship which is uncomfy, and eyebrow raising at best (all REAL examples) Here we go:

What if…? —-A teacher assigns a project that makes students squirm (race, health, sexed, family matters, whatever) aimed at being ‘participatory and collaboratory’ sharing info kids would rather keep private? E.g.

“An AP Anatomy teacher assigned the class project to measure their BMI and their Body Fat and write it on the board with their name and that they get 10% extra credit on their final if they can all lose 10% of their body fat in the next two weeks.” (context: student asked if it was okay to just put male/female and the numbers instead of putting down their names because one of her friends in the class is overweight and was embarrassed. He said that they had to put their names. 5 girls left the class crying, some of the boys were taking pictures of the data with their phones and she thinks they’re going to put it on facebook, etc)

Rosalind Wiseman: This is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately. Not only because he is using a so called teaching assignment to humiliate his students but potentially dangerous for those students who may have eating disorders and are being mandated to lose an additional 10% BMI.

If I were the parent, I would email the teacher and confirm that this is, in fact, the assignment. If he confirms it then you have it in writing and I would immediately contact the Principal and counselor (if the school has one). I would ask for a meeting by email outlining the problem but keep it simple. ‘My child reported to me that Mr. Clark has assigned the following assignment and I have confirmed with Mr. Clark that he did assign this project.

This teacher needs training and ideally the school needs to communicate to the students that the teacher made a mistake. I would also have the counselor meet with the students about healthy body weights but the teacher needs to withdraw the assignment without making comments to the students or anyone else about how stupid it is that he had to do that.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What if…? A PE Teacher has singled out ‘favorites’ based on ‘attitude’ using laps/push-ups as the punishment of choice for questioning hierarchy…

(e.g. also, toss in the obesity component, w/either ’reverse discrimination’ where a teacher gives larger students a ‘pass’ on running to ‘walk fast’ but demands other kids ‘perform’ —AND/OR a hurtful comment lobbed into the crowd, ‘you’d better get a head start’ or ‘pretend there’s a doughnut at the end of the finish line’)

Rosalind Wiseman: When a child has a problem with a teacher about an academic issue then I think the child should meet with teacher. However, when the problem involves a teacher who humiliates a student then the parent should get more visibly involved. To prepare, I would ask your child to write down what this teacher has specifically said and when they said it. At the most, get three examples for now. Email the teacher that you would like to meet with them at their convenience. At the meeting present the information this way,

“Thanks for meeting with me. I need to share with you something my child is reporting to me that’s making it difficult for her to participate in your class the way I am sure both of us would want.” Watch carefully how s/he reacts. If s/he dismisses you, say “This is a hard conversation to have and I am coming to you directly about it. The way you have reacted is coming across to me as not respecting what I am saying. Every child deserves to be in class and feel safe. I have no choice but to talk to the Principal.”

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What if…?…A band instructor/teacher/coach/etc. plays power games, i.e. “You would’ve made Varsity if you would’ve run the mile in my class last year. But now you’re gonna rot on the bench.” (or “you would’ve made first chair if”…)

“Just because you’re good doesn’t mean I have to play you. If I had it my way, you wouldn’t even be on this team.” (or “I don’t HAVE to give you that solo for recital…)

Rosalind Wiseman: As rude and inappropriate as s/he is, it sounds to me like the adult believes the child is being dishonest or not taking his responsibilities on the team seriously. So as the parent I would go to the adult and express what the child is reporting and ask if the child has done anything to convey s/he isn’t taking team responsibilities seriously. The parent and the child can ask them why they think the child doesn’t deserve to play.

The goal here is to be clear that the humiliating degrading comments need to stop but the reason the coach/conductor feels that way, needs to be respected. If the comments don’t stop as a result of this conversation and the child is participating with their best effort, then the child needs to decide if being on the team is worth it. That’s a call you both need to make because sometimes having a horrible instructor is a good life lesson about working with obnoxious people…though it also could be perfectly appropriate to walk away.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What if…? A coach uses ‘shout in the face drill sergeant tactics’ to shame/humiliate based on PERSONAL not PERFORMANCE based assessments (in other words, not intended as a ‘motivator/tough coach’ style, but bringing in elements from outside of the game experience, such as family/home life, implications of ‘extracurricular’ activities (partying/BFs/GFs etc)

Rosalind Wiseman: I am all for coaches being tough and pushing their players but there is no reason or excuse to humiliate players. If this happens, the parents have to approach the coach. And if this coach is a winning coach that the other parents don’t want to confront (which sends the message that the parent thinks its more important for the child to be on a winning team than be treated well) the parent and child need to decide if its worth it to stay on the team…

I would give the child the out to leave the team and find another one if they wanted. As far as a coach implying partying etc. this is an easy one. If the coach has asked for the players to sign a contract about not drinking or partying while on the team and your child has signed that contract, than any comments about violating those terms must be made in private in relation to that agreement. Other than that, those comments are unprofessional and blur the boundary between coach and player.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What if…? An athlete is injured and a competitive coach wants them ‘back in the game’ before they’re ready, urging with ‘strongly worded’ suggestions…

Conversely, what if an athlete is OBVIOUSLY injured/on crutches and a teacher marks them down as unexcused ‘until they bring a note’ from both parents AND doctor? (e.g. power/control leveraging/in danger of ‘flunking’ …)

Rosalind Wiseman: I would ask for the school handbook that will state who needs to sign a note for an excused absence. If the mandate isn’t there, I would send an email to the teacher with the rules included in the email and detailing the notes you do have. I would end with reiterating that if they have problems with any of this, since this is an administrative issue you would be happy to meet with them in conjunction with a school administrator.

Amy’s note: Ok, full disclosure, this incident was mine; As absurd as it all seems, this was NOT bullying per se, it was POLICY. (important caveat to add to Rosalind’s tips…it may not always be the teacher, it might be the institution/rule/law etc)

PE in CA is a state mandated class; a parent note lasts 3 days, a doctor’s note must specify degree of activity and intended time frame for an excuse to hold water. Also a student will need to ‘repeat the class if they miss over 30 days’ (which thankfully, we didn’t miss at all) Moral of the story, give ‘benefit of the doubt.’ Still, I’ve had incidents of this type before, and after 3.5 hours of  drawn out voicemail gymnastics/phone tag btwn health officers, school admin, PE teacher, pediatrician and the ER to get a simple faxed/signed note, I’d amped up to Howard Beale mode where I just wanted to shout “she’s on freakin crutches, figure it out people, she cannot R-U-N.”

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What if…?  A student is being singled out and though everyone ‘sees it’ no one will ‘report it’ for fear of reprisal/making the matter worse? (parents included…)

Rosalind Wiseman: The child and his parents need to decide two things: How much do they want to come forward to articulate his/her experience and is there another school that the child can attend to escape this problem. I don’t think kids should always leave a school but if they feel trapped and the adults have proved that they are incapable of addressing the problem effectively then I don’t think its fair for the kid to have to put up with this—plus it’s usually incredibly difficult for them to function in school—academically and otherwise.

Amy’s note: Further advice from a coach and some pals schooled at Positive Coaching Alliance is to have the kids that witness firsthand abuse use media itself to ‘take a video’ (flipcam or phone) to record the perpetrator. Parents discussed that you could present it to admin as a universal ‘outing’ of the educator’s behavioral style (or post in on YouTube, but that’s an automatic ‘fire’ vs reprimand) Also, I investigated further on Rosalind’s suggestion on transfers and in the case of an educator who also holds a position like a coach it’s dicey with the union controls…further, in our state (CA) if it’s a coach situation, the child is ‘red-shirted’ in transfers at the Varsity level (avoiding them playing their sport elsewhere) due to evidently the preponderance of ‘poaching’ hardcore athletes.So not as easy as it sounds. In sum, this shows you how the ‘business’ of athletics has over-taken the mental and physical well-being of the children in that they need to ‘stay and play’ (despite a “Sue Sylvester” sociopathic style) due to the administrative problem of unsportsmanlike/illegal adult ‘poaching’ of talent…(imo, this toxicity acts in the best interest of the schools/funding winning team scenarios, NOT the childs’ mental/physical health) ugh.

Finally, last question:

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: What was the format like for the White House conference on bullying prevention? (Was the summit exciting? Any breakout sessions? What was ‘missing’ that you wish you could’ve altered that specific day to move beyond rhetoric into action?)

And logistically…Do you have any idea how the White House created the ‘guest list?’ (e.g. parents like Phoebe Prince’s dad made quite a MSNBC statement about feeling dissed at the summit (while disgusted that the teacher who ‘spread untruths’ about his daughter allegedly attended) Can you comment on this?

Rosalind Wiseman: I don’t know how they organized the event. I was invited only a few days before the Summit—and many people I spoke with said the same thing. While I am appreciative that the White House did the event at all, many people who were not there should have been and I would hope that the organizers recognize that in planning future events. I also hope they are getting that feedback from others about how their actions come across to people in the field and their response isn’t, “We can only accommodate so many people,” because that would be missing the point. There were large gaps.

I also wish there had been more break outs but it was incredible to begin the day listening to the President and First Lady speak passionately about these issues and end the day with Secretary Sebilius and Duncan articulating their support for bullying prevention programs.

Now our challenge is to assist these departments in moving beyond slogans and generalities and help support realistic and effective bullying prevention tools.

Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Thanks, Rosalind, as always, you are on point and real.

I’ll be cross-posting the do’s/don’ts of anti-bullying PSAs next… It’s important that we don’t waste money producing formulaic media that doesn’t do the job.

P.S. Consider this, “What if…” Your TEACHER is the one that makes you feel the way that Alye Pollack, 8th grader, silent filmmaker, and poignant prose producer/new twitter friend (below) feels with her STRONG anti-bullying message…“Words Do Hurt” (Facebook group here).

Think about it, educators. The character of Sue Sylvester on Glee is meant to be “a satire” not a reality. All too often that is NOT the case. Get a grip, or get a new job.

P.S. S. And THIS is part of the beauty of social media…Alye’s heartful PSA (above) is answered with a beautiful song as a response (below) just a few weeks ago!

Though I’ve ‘spoken’ to 8th grader Alye Pollack of Words Do Hurt on Twitter, I don’t know who JoeySixx1 (musician below) is at all…But with a handful (just six) YouTube subscribers and already over 10,000 views of this song he wrote for Alye, he’s a hero.

Clearly, media reports a lot on bullying, BUT kids are ALSO using media as digital storytelling to appreciate and support each other…perhaps even ‘saving a life’ by reaching out into cyberspace to lend a hand.

That’s something to be GLEEful about.

Visual Credits: Glee photos courtesy of Fox Broadcasting/Glee

Related Resources

Teachers Who Bully (WebMD)

Teachers Who Bully Students: Patterns/Policy Implications

Education World: (Educator or a Bully: Which Are You?)

Going Back to the Basics: A Reality Check on Bullying Prevention Tips (Rosalind Wiseman)

Takeaways From The Bullying Prevention Summit (Anne Collier)

The Attention Factor Website, Alice Aspen March

Raising Resilient Children Foundation

From the same authors: Parent Resiliency Quiz

Tough Times/Resilient Kids, Documentary on DVD

Dr. Myrna Shure’s website/book series: Raising a Thinking Child


Helpful resource round-ups/parenting pragmatics

Rosalind Creating Cultures of Dignity

Rachel Leadership for Life


Oprah’s dialog on bullying

True’s great research section on bullying/stereotypes & more

Jess Creating a Nation of Confident Women & Girls

Sue author of Google Bomb Book on Reputation Management

Dr. Robyn Silverman: Child Development Specialist (Powerful Words, body image expert/Shaping Youth, author-Good Girls Don’t Get Fat

Dr. Michele Borba-The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries)



  1. Thanks, Anne for the link/reco above. I laughed when I saw your “directions for how to actually GET to the interview” 😉 heh. Windy/wordy here per usual, though I feel it’s imperative to add context and framing, rather than jump right in…;-)

  2. Amy,

    What good resources. Thanks for another empowering post and great resources.


  3. Lots of Anns here today and in my e-mail & on FB as well! (Where’s your avatar, girl? 😉

    I’ve appreciated your tweets on Psychology Today info too…Readers if you’re on Twitter, check out: @DrBeckerSchutte she has great resources too!

  4. Andrew Vanderwoude says

    The danger to America is not Barack Hussein Obama but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency. It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of an Obama presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president. The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Mr. Obama, who is a mere symptom of what ails America . Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince. The Republic can survive a Barack Hussein Obama, who is, after all, merely a fool. It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who made him their president.

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