“Most teachers enter their profession with a genuine desire to make a positive difference in the lives of children. However, not all succeed. Unfortunately, some teachers and even principals actually participate in bullying.”
– Alison Seale (2004, p. 16)
Perhaps the saddest fact about the bullying our children experience is that teachers are often enablers and/or promoters of bullying behavior, and sometimes, they even actively bully children themselves. As Garbarino & deLara (2002) point out, “not all the bullies in a school are kids.” This information will help parents understand how the teachers we trust to protect our kids could come to engage in such behavior, and hopefully, it will help any teachers who are reading this material to understand how they might be inadvertently contributing to the bullying problem.
Why teachers bully kids
Many people engage in bullying behavior, yet rarely will you find someone who admits to being a bully. This is because it’s easy to rationalize such behavior or come up with reasons and excuses to justify such aggression when we’re the ones delivering it. Teachers are the same way. None set out with the goal to be a bully, yet for a number of reasons, some teachers can end up doing precisely that.
Teacher bullying can arise out of FRUSTRATION
Teachers are human, and they can let frustration get the best of them in dealing with difficult kids or situations. We know of one case where a kindergarten teacher sat down with the kids and conducted a group time session during which he encouraged all the students in the class to think of “all the reasons we hate (Johnny).” We can certainly understand the frustration of having a highly disruptive child in class – something we’ve had to deal with many times ourselves. He may have intended it to be a disciplinary action, a way of letting Johnny know how his actions affect others. Yet such tactics are nonetheless inexcusable, and this case provides a perfect example of how frustration can lead to bullying behavior by teachers.
Teacher bullying can occur because of PERSONAL PREJUDICES OR BELIEFS
When Michigan passed some new anti-bullying legislation, lobbyists for different interest groups succeeded in exempting religious bullying from its language, effectively preserving the right for students to harass others on account of their differing religious beliefs. It appears that disapproval of bullying is contingent upon one’s viewpoints of the subject matter. And many Christian organizations, in a despicable show of flawed priorities that would make Satan himself proud, even spend large amounts of money (funds that could be devoted towards helping children rather than defending the right to hurt them) to disrupt legislation or even fight anti-bullying programs outright. The reason? They say they’re against bullying… except when it comes to sexual bullying. So they fiercely fight any attempts at bullying prevention that might reduce the harassment of gay or lesbian youth.
Sadly, a large number of teachers share these bigoted views. Those that do are likely to encourage the bullying of those students they are prejudiced against, and may even bully them directly. So until society changes the numerous ways in which it condones or makes excuses for certain types of bullying, there will always be teachers who believe that certain students need to be harassed on account of who or what they are.
Teacher bullying can occur because of INSTITUTIONALIZED PREJUDICE or a DISLIKE OF CERTAIN TYPES OF STUDENTS
Finally, bullying by teachers may occur because a teacher(s) develops a dislike for certain student(s). In the Marion school district near San Antonio, Texas, a boy with special needs was ridiculed by teachers who believed he was fabricating stories about being bullied. (Hollandsworth, 2011) He wasn’t, of course, but such complaints were enough to make him an antagonist in the eyes of the school, which reactively led to him being further targeted by the teachers who saw him as a troublemaker…someone who was making life difficult.
Especially in the later grades, many schools promote an environment that favors certain kids and looks suspiciously upon others. This can occur for several reasons. First, many high schools directly play into popularity games, supporting and encouraging an environment that favors the ‘elite’ students: the jocks, the prom queens, the ones who are at the top of the social hierarchy and involved in school functions. Meanwhile, those who are not part of this privileged elite and not as popular and not as involved in school functions tend to (not coincidentally) develop an adversarial relationship with the school, seeing it as an oppressive institution. This creates its own perverse social psychology.
Teachers may spend more time with these privileged students, coming to favor them over others. Just like kids will develop the “your enemy is my enemy” mentality when it comes to their friends, teachers can wind up with the same viewpoints, seeing these cherished students as good and those they may bully as inferior or as troublemakers. When this happens, they can subtly encourage bullying or even participate in it directly.
The problem grows especially pronounced when it comes to students who are easily labeled as losers or delinquents, such as ‘goth’ kids or ‘hicks’ or ‘druggies.’ Here we see how society’s promotion of certain types of bullying can have a profound impact. (See our chapter on causes of bullying.) Because of their outward appearances, certain groups of students are stereotyped by both peers and teachers alike as strange, threatening, or delinquent. This has become especially pronounced since the Columbine tragedy. Put another way, goth or other groups of outcasts have essentially become the high school equivalent of community sex offenders – outcast, marginalized individuals who aren’t to be trusted, who are psychotic and unstable and who might shoot up the school at any moment. Much like the hype over sex offenders, the paranoia rarely matches reality. Yet these biased views of certain kids as criminals and troublemakers can lead to them being scapegoats for problems of every type: “The school wouldn’t have to deal with these issues if those druggies weren’t around; those hicks are ruining our reputation; kids like those are the reason we have so many problems in society;” etc. Given such attitudes, it’s no surprise that such students report being harassed or discriminated against by teachers. (Garbarino & deLara, 2002)
“Kids are directly scapegoated within the system when they are bullied or intimidated by teachers, coaches, and other school personnel who ridicule or tease for their own reasons. The poisonous process comes full circle when adult participation in scapegoating ensures that the other children will see these kids as ‘fair game.‘”
– Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 124)
In one example of how teachers can encourage bullying, anti-bullying activist Nicole Stanton describes what happened to her older brother, Dion. One night Dion came home bruised and bloody, having been pummeled by some other students off the school grounds. The high school junior had previously attended a school board meeting where he asked for money so that the school debate team could travel out of town for a debate. The school’s football coach got wind of this, and with school budgets being as tight as they are, saw it as Dion trying to take funds away from the football team. He told his players as much, and that night several of them jumped Dion outside of the local post office, hitting him with a baseball bat and kicking him in the head and ribs. (D’Andrea, 2015) When their family went to the school, they were told not to make the problem worse by drawing attention to it, and that it would go away on its own. It didn’t, and the bullying continued.
The More Subtle Ways in Which Teachers Bully Kids
Most teachers will not directly bully children in the same way a child’s peers do. Yet they can engage in behavior that indirectly promotes bullying in the school. They can serve as powerful enablers when they act in ways that invite other kids to attack a child, or by modeling bullying behavior themselves. Here are some of the ways in which this happens:
A) Giving an unhelpful lecture to the class about how other students are supposed to be nice to Jamie and aren’t supposed to pick on her. Though said with good intentions, this naturally has precisely the opposite effect: the teacher has just singled out Jamie and inadvertently labeled her as a target to be picked on.
B) Making comments about a child’s dress, appearances, or intelligence in front of other students.
C) Making an example out of a child or singling them out from (or in front of) others.
D) Consistently scolding a child in front of their peers or using humiliation as a form of discipline.
E) Using intimidation as a form of discipline in the classroom. For example, posturing in front of students to get them to listen or handling them in a rough manner when they don’t.
F) Teachers may model bullying behavior by engaging in such tactics with each other. Promoting an anti-bullying message among students is “undermined when a principal bullies a teacher in front of the kids,” says Garie Namie, who with his wife and fellow psychologist Ruth Namie, founded the Workplace Bullying Institute in Bellingham, Washington. (Matheny, 2010) Yet in many schools, such spats among staff can be commonplace.
The Impact of Teacher Bullying
If bullying by peers can be hurtful to endure, then bullying by teachers is excruciating. As psychologists who study bullying point out, “we must emphasize that the damaging effects of adult intimidation are far-reaching because adult bullies amplify the effects of peer bullies. They do this by depriving kids of a sense of adults as allies.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 77) Alison Seale describes hearing stories recounted to her of the painful things teachers had said or done, and talks about how these incidents could profoundly impact a child’s self-esteem. Speaking of one such hurtful comment to a girl she knew to be a talented writer, she says, “It astounded me that one teacher’s off-hand statement – probably a comment of which the teacher probably had no memory – had been enough to extinguish a budding writing career, to say nothing of college hopes.” (Seale, 2004, p.5) Kids are supposed to be cruel and unstable. Adults are not. So when a teacher acts cruelly towards a child like this, it can produce hurt that is remembered for a lifetime.