Why Do Teachers Bully?
Teachers are human, and it’s unfair to expect them never to utter a hurtful word.
But teachers do bully for various reasons, experts tell WebMD. A student may remind them of someone they dislike. Or, in a surprising reversal of the “teacher’s pet” syndrome, insecure teachers may bully bright students out of envy.
Other teachers suffer from personal problems — job burnout, marital woes, or severe behavior problems with their own children — and they take out their frustrations in class.
Furthermore, in some troubled schools, students bully teachers — and teachers dish it back to avoid appearing weak. “Teachers are often physically scared of students,” Twemlow says.
Teacher bullying spans “the range of human behaviors,” Twemlow says. But he has been able to identify two categories: a “tiny minority” of sadistic teachers and the “bully-victim” teachers.
“The sadistic teacher hacks on kids in a way that indicates they might get some pleasure from it,” he says. That means “humiliating students, hurting students’ feelings, and being spiteful.” For example, he remembers one teacher who repeatedly ridiculed a boy by calling him a girl’s name.
In an ideal world, there would be screening methods to weed out such “nightmare teachers,” he says. “We basically feel that sadistic teachers shouldn’t be teachers.”
For the bully-victim teacher, there may be more hope, he says. “This is the type of teacher who usually is passive and lets a class get out of control and responds with rage and bullying. These bully-victim teachers are often absent from work, they fail to set limits, and they do a lot of referrals to the principal because they like other people to handle their problems.”
These teachers could benefit from training on effective classroom management, he says.
Men and women are equally likely to bully, Twemlow says, but his study didn’t look at whether their tactics differed.
One interesting finding: Teachers who bully were often bullied themselves in childhood. As Twemlow’s study co-researcher, Peter Fonagy, PhD, noted in a news release: “If your early experiences lead you to expect that people will not reason, but respond to force, then you are at risk of recreating this situation in your classroom.”
Advice for Parents
When abuse is physical, most parents don’t hesitate to report the offending teacher, Freeman says. But many see emotional or verbal bullying as a gray area. They worry that speaking up could cause a teacher to take revenge on their child — and there’s little escape. “It really is on a different level than kid-to-kid bullying,” Twemlow says. “The kid has no power.”
Don’t ignore the problem, experts say. Here are some tips for handling the issue of teacher bullying:
Develop a Habit of Talking Openly About School With Your Child
Because children view teachers as authority figures, they often won’t tell their parents if they’re being mistreated. Parents who don’t talk with their children won’t know about bullying until grades drop or a child becomes depressed, Twemlow says.
Keep an eye out for such behavior changes. Also, probe for details if your child says, “Mrs. So-and-So doesn’t like me,” says Janet Belsky, PhD, a Middle Tennessee State University psychology professor. That’s especially true if a child rarely complains of mistreatment by others.
Volunteering in class also allows a parent to keep an eye on the situation and develop a relationship with the teacher.
Talk With the Teacher in a Nonadversarial Manner
If parents suspect a problem, they should meet with the teacher without “screaming or threatening attorneys,” Twemlow says. Avoid blaming and keep an open mind. After all, a child may have misinterpreted a teacher’s behavior.
Take a cooperative approach, says Mark Weiss, education director for Operation Respect, a New York-based nonprofit organization that deals with bullying. A parent can say, “‘I’m concerned. I think my child’s afraid in this class. What do you think is going on?’ The teacher is then able to engage in the conversation.”
Don’t bring a young child, Twemlow adds, but it’s fine to include a teenager “who needs to be treated more like an adult.” Always tell your child beforehand that you’re seeing the teacher, he says. That way, he or she won’t be embarrassed to find out after the fact.
A teacher meeting often solves the problem, Twemlow says. But not always. “A master bully will rationalize,” Freeman says, and nothing changes.
Take Your Complaint Higher
If the situation doesn’t improve, ask the principal to intervene. It may pay to ask for a classroom transfer, Freeman says. Not all principals honor such requests, but some do.
Some principals let bully teachers go unchallenged, he adds. Then parents may have to go up the chain of command, for example, by filing a formal complaint with the school superintendent or school board and demanding a response. They should also keep good records of all communications and incidents.
Reassure Your Child
Resolving a bullying issue can be difficult, so support your child, Weiss says. “Let your child know that you care and that you want to do something — that in life we try to do things and sometimes it takes more than one shot at it.”
But don’t let the situation drag on for months, Belsky says. “You want to try to nip it in the bud.”