We hear a lot about bullying these days, but rarely do we hear about teachers who are bullies. In the many articles and books about bullying, the focus is almost exclusively on peer victimization – actions taken by one youth towards another.
But the small minority of teachers who engage in this pernicious behavior are only infrequently challenged or disciplined, so the behavior persists. There is even a Facebook page, No More Teacher Bullies, with numerous examples of teacher bullying, many contributed by frustrated parents.
In their book, Youth Voice Project, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon describe their findings from an anonymous online survey of more than 13,000 student in grades 5 – 12 in 31 schools around the nation. In that sample, about 3,000 students
reported they had been mistreated by peers at least twice in the last month.
The Davis and Nixon data reveal some other disturbing findings. Of the 3,000 young people who were mistreated, 7 percent reported that they had been called names by teachers or staff, 4 percent said teachers had spread rumors about them, and 3 percent indicated that teachers or staff had pushed or threatened them. Although these percentages are not high, anything over 0 percent is unacceptable.
Few schools or districts have policies and procedures in place to guide responses to allegations of teacher bullying. Few surveys ask questions about teacher bullying. These are two important first steps.
Including items that inquire about this problem on anonymous student surveys would be a way to gather information about the extent of the problem in a school. Adopting a formal policy would be an important step to show that schools take this seriously. And schools would be less likely to be held liable in cases of teacher bullying.
Attorney Alice Vachs has made available a model policy that would be an excellent starting point for discussion by school districts.
The policy should include a clear definition of what constitutes bullying by a teacher, including examples (humiliating a child before others, scapegoating a child, using grades as discipline, violating a student’s privacy, etc.). It should include specific procedures for filing a complaint, including protection from retaliation against the complainant, and a statement of possible sanctions if the allegations are substantiated. Once a policy has been developed and approved, it must be disseminated so that educators, students, and parents are familiar with the contents.
In an extreme case, a Florida teacher was accused last year of duct-taping a student’s hands in the prayer position and taunting a student with a song in front of the class. In Washington State last year, a teacher was accused of making students who did something wrong spin the wheel to determine what their punishment would be. One punishment required the rest of the class to throw foam balls at the student. In Hawaii, a teacher was accused of verbally abusing students and also taping a child’s mouth shut to prevent whining. Of course, many other cases have likely gone unreported.
Such behavior sends a powerful message to students that mistreating others with less power is acceptable. It teaches youth that gaining power and status is desirable, and that bullying others is legitimate when you have that power.
Social scientists learned years ago that children learn by observing others, and they imitate behaviors performed by important models such as parents and teachers. They also pay attention to what happens to the models when they enact a behavior, and are more likely to imitate a behavior that seems to be rewarded (or unpunished). If, for example, the teacher gains compliance from a student by calling the student names, or threatening the student, or pushing the student, the observers are learning that this is an effective way to behave.
We already see celebrities, athletes, and politicians – people with high status – who bully others, and often do so with impunity. True, they may get some negative reactions in the press, but for many of them, any mention in the press is to their advantage.
So as we debate and study the best approaches to stop bullying, we need to be mindful that bullying does not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of spheres of influence. It is difficult to tell children that treating others with kindness is the right way to act when they observe influential adults behaving otherwise. When it is the very teachers who are expected to convey anti-bullying messages that are doing the bullying, children will respond to the message delivered by example, not by words.
The consequences of teacher bullying are not trivial. In a recent conversation with an old high school friend, we recalled our decision not to continue studying French after satisfying minimum foreign language requirements for high school graduation. More than 50 years ago, we had a French teacher who called us demeaning names when our pronunciation did not meet his standards. We all tried to be invisible in our seats, out of fear that he would call on us to recite – and that meant certain humiliation.
Although we realize he did this to most of us, each one felt personally targeted and degraded. And we still remember that feeling.
We need to be very careful not to condemn teachers as a group, but we must recognize that some teachers are bullies, too, and this undermines all the best efforts to reduce bullying among youth. Tolerance.org has a toolkit that is an excellent starting point for reflection and discussion among educators. We cannot ignore such behavior, because that is tantamount to condoning it.
Sheri Bauman, Ph.D., is a professor of counseling at the University of Arizona, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She has served as an expert witness in bullying cases.