Students, parents, teachers and administrators seem to accept it as an unfortunate but inevitable feature of school life. There is a knowing shrug of indifference or resignation when it happens. Even when there is a complaint, it is rarely addressed.
The “it” in question refers to bullying behavior by teachers toward students.
Nearly all schools, to their credit, have embraced policies and protocols intended to address how students treat one another. The appellation “bullyproof” is routinely applied to programs schools adopt to reinforce civil behavior. Such programs focus almost exclusively on student interactions with their peers, while a pall of stony silence shrouds the phenomenon of “teacher as bully.”
Although there is scant empirical research examining bullying by professional educators, anecdotal evidence abounds. Teachers who bully students often have a reputation within the school system. Colleagues who are bystanders often are aware of problematic conduct, but little is known about exactly what these bystanders observe, how often they observe it, how the school administrators respond, or how bullying behaviors by teachers affect school climate.
With the assistance of Teaching Tolerance, we at Northern Michigan University conducted an online survey of 1,067 educators during July 2017. To our knowledge, this is the first significant survey of its kind.
Our survey defined teacher bullying as “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear or causes students substantial emotional distress.” We then listed behaviors that reasonably conform to this definition and asked teachers to indicate how often they observed such behavior by colleagues during the past year. We also asked about how schools attempt to address this concern.
The survey data presented here lead us to conclude that the phenomenon of teachers who bully their students is something every school needs to consider. A small number of bullies can do enormous damage to a school’s effectiveness. Bullying contributes to a harmful, discriminatory and hostile climate in which learning is undermined and intolerance flourishes. It may also cause a contagion effect: Mean behavior by a teacher encourages students to be mean as well. We also find that marginalized students may be especially vulnerable as targets of this expression of behavior. For the sake of students, educators and larger communities of learning, we must do better.
We hope the results presented here, though disturbing, will serve as a basis for thoughtful discussion and action.
Bullying Behaviors Observed
Bullying is most often expressed as the hostile, often repeated, ritualized humiliation of another person in public. Teacher codes of ethics emphasize that such behaviors are antithetical to the educational mission of the school. For example, the National Education Association’s (NEA) Code of Ethics of the Education Profession states that educators must strive “to help each student realize his or her potential as a worthy and effective member of society.” This includes two fundamental obligations: (1) The educator “shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning or to health and safety”; and (2) “they shall not intentionally expose the student to embarrassment or disparagement.”
Our survey identified examples of bullying behaviors by teachers that stand in opposition to the NEA’s Code of Ethics. These include embarrassing students unnecessarily, displaying extreme emotional outbursts toward students and publicly suggesting a student is stupid. Graphs 1, 2 and 3 (above) illustrate the frequencies of these behaviors by teachers toward students as observed by other teachers in the last year.
The data suggest that public displays of humiliation by teachers toward students occur regularly. In fact, never observing problematic conduct toward students—the ethical ideal—seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Even the extreme of publicly suggesting that a student is stupid was observed by more than half the respondents. One early childhood teacher reported that, “[Some teachers] are unreasonably judgmental and have a lack of respect for children as human beings.”
Particularly troubling are observations at high-end frequencies. Our conclusion is that significant numbers of students—both bystanders and targets—experience bullying microaggressions by some teachers as a commonplace aspect of school life. This raises two questions: What percentage of teachers behave like bullies? Which students are selected as targets and why are they selected?
When asked to specify what percentage of teachers in their school bully students, 65 percent of respondents indicated “less than 10 percent,” and just under 14 percent indicated “none” (Graph 4). These findings are consistent with previous research that suggests the presence of a few teachers who bully is common in most schools, though they constitute a minority of the teaching staff. Several respondents indicated this in their comments, reporting that “I only encountered one teacher in all of my years of teaching who was unkind to her students,” and “[Certain students] are often targeted by a few of my colleagues.” Yet even these small few can do enormous damage to students and to a school’s instructional mission. Their conduct adversely affects school climate and the morale of colleagues.
Especially troubling is the finding that one in five respondents identified more than 10 percent of the teaching staff in their school as bullies. When asked if teachers who bully students also bully their colleagues, 63 percent of the respondents said yes.
The survey data do not offer a full understanding of the process of “target selection” by teachers. The data suggest, however, that students who pose behavioral challenges, lack motivation or possess immutable characteristics that are not valued by the school are more likely to be targets of bullying. One respondent stated that the teacher bullies at their private, religious, suburban high school “want to maintain control of the classroom, but do not know how with challenging students, esp[ecially] those who are not high achievers in this age of high stakes tests that teachers get judged on.”
Teachers who bully can justify to themselves and to others that their conduct is appropriate because, after all, the student needed to be “disciplined” or “motivated” to perform. In fact, offending teachers may claim they are obligated to use aggressive tactics with “difficult” students. A teacher who works at a public urban elementary school explained, “I think they are scared of being seen as less powerful or authoritarian, and so they overreact to minor infractions.”
Our data also suggest one student may be singled out and excessively reprimanded for behaviors that many students are exhibiting (Graph 5). This raises the question: What student characteristics are the basis for being singled out?
Respondents identified low-achieving students and students with behavioral disorders as the most targeted by bullying teachers, followed by students with poor attendance (Graph 6). Open-ended comments from respondents indicated that teachers feel frustrated when dealing with students who misbehave, who lack motivation or who seem poorly prepared for school. Such frustration, they suggest, is part of the reason why some teachers may lash out at students in unprofessional ways.
Open-ended responses to the “Other” category in Graph 6 reflect another concern. Eighty-four respondents in this category, almost one-third, indicate that students of color and students from other nondominant groups (e.g., LGBT students and English language learners) are targets of bullying by educators. According to one urban public high school teacher, stereotypes are exacerbated by “a lack of cultural connection, authoritative practices, racism, power dynamics and patriarchal biases.” A teacher at an urban public elementary school also noted that students of color were the primary targets of teacher bullying, referring to them as “the so-called ‘usual suspects.’”In some schools, students of color may become scapegoats for a teacher’s inability to connect with members of the class. In addition, when the teacher’s race differs from that of his or her students, it may create a level of discomfort that becomes an excuse to bully students into forced cultural assimilation. When asked why some teachers bully their students, nearly 9 percent of respondents volunteered that students of color are the primary targets. A teacher at a suburban public middle school explained, “They [teachers] can get away with it when it is done with students of color.”
When asked why some teachers bully their students, nearly 9 percent of respondents volunteered that students of color are the primary targets. A teacher at a suburban public middle school explained, “Teachers can get away with it when it is done with students of color.”
Given the unfortunate reality that a minority of teachers behave in unprofessional ways toward students, how do schools respond?
Programs that address peer-on-peer bullying often emphasize the need for bystanders to report what they observe in order to activate appropriate interventions. There is a normative message of responsibility coupled with a protocol for students to follow. But what is the protocol for teachers who observe bullying conduct by a colleague?
The principle of bystander activation relevant to peer-on-peer bullying should also apply to professional educators. As Graph 7 indicates, however, two-thirds of the teaching staff do not have a clear understanding of where to report—or if they should report—instances of a colleague bullying a student. A suburban public middle school teacher admits that teacher bullying “is handled however the observer feels it should be: not at all, talk personally to the teacher, report to administrator or gossip with another teacher about the situation.” This range of responses suggests there is a compelling need for schools to establish protocols to guide bystanders when they observe such behavior. The absence of guidelines for reporting unprofessional conduct is a recipe for inaction.
The absence of reporting guidelines is compounded by the absence of teacher-specific language in existing school bullying policies. Less than 13 percent of respondents can say, unequivocally, their school’s policy indicates that bullying could involve teachers as well as students (Graph 8). This points to the need for broader policy language that sends a clear message: Everyone in the school is accountable when it comes to bullying behavior.
Although reporting guidelines and policies that address bullying by teachers are positive steps, formal policies alone are unlikely to reinforce codes of professional conduct. Intentional dialogue about professional norms is an essential element in creating a prosocial school climate. Most teachers, we believe, are upset when they observe a colleague say and do things that undermine student well-being. Unless schools provide a safe forum for educators to discuss how best to handle such observations, it is unlikely that bystanders will risk speaking up.
Graph 9 indicates that intentional dialogue about teachers who bully students, in the form of professional staff development, is absent in most schools. It may be that discussing problematic conduct by colleagues is outside the comfort zone of many educators. This is where administrative leadership providing ongoing in-service training is essential.
Although the phenomenon of teachers who bully exists in many schools, most teachers do not abuse their power over students. If schools embrace proactive measures (e.g., changing policy language and providing professional development), we believe the frequency and severity of bullying will abate.
A closer examination of the data reveals two important findings. First, teachers are somewhat less likely to observe bullying behaviors when their school’s policy includes specific language about teacher conduct. At schools where such language was included, nearly 35 percent “never” observed bullying behavior, compared to 22 percent without such language. In other words, the existence of a policy does not eliminate teacher bullying entirely, but it does lessen the prevalence.
Second, in schools that provided a professional development session in the last two years about teachers who bully students, respondents were more likely to report they never observed the bullying behavior. Approximately 39 percent of those with training had “never” observed bullying, compared to 26 percent without training. Training teachers about unprofessional conduct reinforces professional codes of ethics and lessens punitive treatment of students. Even if bullying teachers aren’t motivated by a schoolwide shift in culture, they may at least realize that a training means their behavior can no longer fly under the radar.
Bullying constitutes a form of educational discrimination that demands active intervention rather than passive acceptance. It is not, nor should it ever be considered, an inevitable feature of school life. Bullying by even a few teachers is a corruption of the teacher role that harms students and undermines the ability of nonoffending teachers to educate our youth. Of particular concern are vulnerable populations, including ELLs, students of color, students with disabilities and LGBT students, who disproportionately may be the targets of bullying based on negative stereotypes or devalued immutable characteristics.
For all students to thrive as learners and citizens of a community, the school must be a place where their physical and emotional safety is not in question. Most educators are appalled when confronted with a colleague who is mean and abusive toward students. Yet they feel powerless to act or are otherwise frustrated into silence by bureaucratic indifference. For the sake of our students—and for the sake of our shared sense of justice and fairness—it is time to speak up.
McEvoy is a professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University.
Smith is an education researcher and elementary special education teacher.