Teacher as Bully: Knowingly or Unintentionally Harming Students

Bullying behavior is repeated, intentional, and within the context of an unequal power relationship. Yet, when teachers display bullying behaviors within their own classrooms, I contend that they may not be cognizant of their bullying conduct. In this article, I present ways teachers may knowingly or unintentionally bully their students, labels they often employ to mask or defect the bullying behavior, and implications for educators.






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Publication: Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin
Author: Sylvester, Ruth
Date published: January 1, 2011

Introduction

Recently, K- 12 schools across the large county where I live were required to reserve an entire day for bullying-prevention instruction. The efforts of the district parallel the current attention popular media and scholarly journals have placed on documenting the nature and extent of bullying, victims of bullying, and witnesses of the bullying (Merrell, Isava, Gueldner, & Ross, 2008; Milsom & Gallo, 2006; Rivers, Poteat, Noret, & Ashurst, 2009; Sanchez, 2010).

Bullying may be characterized as repeated physical hurt or psychological distress inflicted by unwanted, offensive, threatening, insulting, or humiliating assaults or any conduct that causes so much stress that it interferes with a victim's educational performance (McEvoy, 2005)* Bullying is usually associated with an imbalance of power in which the bully has perceived, appointed, or self-appointed authority over another due to factors such as the victim's size, age, experience, title, socioeconomic status, or brawn.

Bullying is not restricted only to the schoolyard, peer-on-peer skirmishes, and cyberbullying (Chen, 2010) but is observed or felt in less-expected contexts as welL For example, bullying in the workplace made headline news when a victim's suicide note described the bullying boss as the cause of the worker's decision to commit suicide (Sanchez, 2010). Likewise, the very people whom parents trust to provide a safe, nurturing environment for their children 180 days a year may be bullying students. Olweus (1993) posited that bullying is repeated, intentional, and within the context of an unequal power relationship. Yet, for the classroom, I contend that teachers may not be cognizant of their bullying or bordering- on-bullying behavior. In this article, I present ways that teachers may knowingly or unintentionally bully their students, labels they often employ to mask or deflect the bullying behavior, and implications for educators.

Engaging in Bullying Behaviors: Knowingly or Unintentionally

Four common ways that teachers may unintentionally bully students are through sarcasm, opaque name calling, refusing late or unidentified work, and humiliating future students whom they perceive as having potential behavioral problems in the classroom,

"Yeah; you're going to be a world-class writer/' Sarcasm is a type of irony users employ to speak of something as the complete opposite of what they really mean. For example, noticing the small amount of food on the plate of a dieter, a friend might ask sarcastically, 'Are you going to eat all that?" Sarcasm can also be a cutting remark when the meaning of the statement is intended to wound the recipient of the comment. Either type of sarcasm has no place within the classroom. Although adults and older students understand the irony of teasing associated with the first example, young students are more literal and are often confused by the rhetoric. Culturally diverse students who are unfamiliar with this device of language may also be confused by sarcasm intended as humor.

Using words of sarcasm to respond to a student, reprimand a student, or evaluate a students performance is demoralizing and insulting. For example, a high school teacher of English might return a graded composition to its struggling author and quip, "Yeah, you're going to be a world-class writer," Making such an insensitive remark within the hearing of the entire class just one time, to one student, would hardly classify the teacher as a bully, yet the remark could leave the student wounded in action, demoralized in front of peers, and questioning his or her academic competency. The first such incident might cause embarrassment, but if instances continued and became a pattern, the student would not only lose respect for the teacher but also confidence as a writer.

Secret names. Most educators would never flagrantly call a student stupid, dumb, incompetent, or other denigrating descriptors and likely would be appalled if a colleague were reported to be belittling students in this manner. However, although unlikely to engage in such blatantly unprofessional conduct, these same teachers may give students secret names through opaque name calling. To illustrate, when a math teacher assumes students remember vocabulary or concepts foundational to the math lesson at hand, only to discover by students' perplexed stares and silence that they are lost, a common response may be "Come on, you guys should know this. You had it last year," A similar response is "Didn't Mrs, Math teach this last year?" Not only do such comments secretly name Mrs, Math as incompetent, but they also rename students as academically behind, not up to par, or an inconvenience to the teacher. Although the teacher is not directly calling students by these names, they interpret themselves as such. Surely teachers are surprised and disappointed when their students have not mastered skills necessary to understand new concepts. Furthermore, during the era of high- stakes testing, having to introduce or reteach foundational skills can indeed make teachers feel as if they are losing ground instead of moving forward. Seldom is the gap a direct link caused by the students, yet they are often the recipients of a teacher's frustration.

Rejecting late assignments and trashing nameless papers* Most teachers understand the importance of having procedures in place to facilitate the daily flow of school activities and related tasks, and they design a few mindfully written school and classroom rules to ensure procedures are followed. Two common classroom practices witnessed over the years might seem justified as routine classroom practice but, in my opinion, are bullying behaviors. One practice is rejecting late assignments and not allowing the student to explain why the assignment is late. Rejecting a late assignment or grossly reducing the number of points for submitting a late assignment is clearly an abuse of power. When a student spends time on an assignment - especially when the student completes it at home instead of engaging in more enjoyable activities - having the work then disregarded and discarded inconsiderately by the one in authority because of the student's oversight is humiliating.

Another inconsiderate practice is tossing unidentified work in a waste basket, often with a flourish, as an example to other potentially negligent students. Rather than penalizing students, a teacher who wants to help students remember to identify their work might ask them to circle their names, put a star above the third letter, or do any special thing to call attention to their names just before passing in their work. Students receive a bonus point if their name is circled, starred, and so forth. Although a bonus point will certainly not affect students' overall grades, getting an extra point will likely motivate them to put a name on their work.

"My reputation precedes me" Some middle and high school teachers begin their bullying behavior toward students whom they perceive as having behavioral problems. These perceptions are usually a result of teacher-lounge gossip or their observations of these students' actions and behaviors in the hallways, in the cafeteria, or before and after school. These teachers begin the humiliation and sometimes threats early on in order to make students fearful of them and thereby more likely to acquiesce when the students are in the bully's classroom. This sort of deliberate humiliation serves no legitimate academic purpose.

Masking Bullying Behavior

Teachers may justify their behavior as motivational, an appropriate part of the instruction, an appropriate disciplinary response, or good classroom management. Teachers who use sarcasm as insults, as in the case of the English teacher, most likely think they are amusing. The very students who are bullied may even promote this false identification when they chuckle with the bully and class in order to save face. Teachers who reject late work or discard no name work usually defend their behavior as a way to teach students responsibility. I cannot help but wonder if these teachers ever forgot to sign a check, or stamp an important bill, or return a library book on the due date. Fortunately, we, as adults, are not penalized with threats or humiliation when we are occasionally negligent. Accepting late work, changing a grade in the grade book to reflect an adjustment, or tracking down the author of a nameless paper can be time consuming, but such actions are marks of a considerate human being, not a bully.

Implications

McEvoy (2005) surveyed 236 high school and college-age students regarding their recollection of high school teachers who were abusive to students. Of the teachers identified, 89% had been in the profession for 5 or more years, and only 6% were new teachers. Confronting veteran teachers who are secure in their positions is unquestionably a difficult challenge.

Students may feel they have no avenue of redress when they feel bullied by a teacher. The administration or other teachers will unlikely defend the victim if the abusive teacher has what they perceive as redeeming qualities, such as content expertise, longevity, good rapport with average or advanced students, or a consistent record of high test scores. However, when bullying is ignored, administrators are tacitly sanctioning a teacher's bad behavior and mistreatment of students. Children may attempt to seek help from their parents, and although some parents may confront the teacher, others are less likely to do so because they (a) feel intimidated or inferior due to their socioeconomic status or level of education; (b) may be from a culture where teaching is held in high esteem and would be unlikely to question overtly the teacher's conduct, expectations, or methods of classroom management; or (c) are uninvolved in their children's school life.

Summary

Repeated occurrences of behaviors described in this article are forms of teacher-student bullying. Often at the beginning of a new school year, students receive instruction about peer-peer bullying prevention, and bullies are warned about the consequences of their behavior, but students do not know how to respond to teacher-student bullying. It is up to those who are advocates for all children, regardless of their age, to be their voice and confront colleagues who exhibit bullying or bordering- on-bullying behavior,

In addition, caring educators must tend to the wounded victims of abusive colleagues whose actions go uninvestigated and whose behavior impacts the morale of the entire school and the learning process of students. Whether their bullying actions are intentional or not, teachers who bully leave a blight on the profession that most of us consider a calling.

References

Chen, S. (2010). In a wired world, children unable to escape cyberbullying. CNNLiving. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010 /LIVING/lO/04/youth.cyberbuUying.abuse/

McEvoy, A. (2005, September). Teachers who bully students: Patterns and policy implications. Paper presented at the Hamilton Fish Institute's Persistently Safe Schools Conference, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from http://www.stopbullyingnow.com /teachers%20who%20bully%20students%20McEvoy.pdf

Merrell, K. W., Isava, D. M., Gueldner, B. A., 8>C Ross, S. W. (2008). How effective are school bullying intervention programs? A meta-analysis of intervention research. School Psychology Quarterly, 23(1), 26-42.

Milsom, A., 8>C Gallo, L. L. (2006) Bullying in middle schools: Prevention and intervention. Middle School Journal, 37(3), 12-19.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Rivers, I., Po teat, V. P., Noret, N., 8>C Ashurst, N. (2009). Observing bullying at school: The mental health implications of witness status. School Psychology Quarterly, 24(4), 211-223.

Sanchez, R. (2010, August). Did depression or alleged bully boss prompt editor suicide? abcNews. Retrieved from http://abcnews .go.com/Business/MindMoodResourceCenter/editors-suicide-draws-attention-workplace -bullying/storyfid= 1142 18 10

Author affiliation:

Dr. Ruth Sylvester is an assistant professor in the Department of Childhood Education and Literacy Studies at the University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland, FL, where she teaches and conducts research. She is on the executive board of several professional literacy association and reviews for a number of literacy research journals. She is a member of the Delta Beta Chapter of Mu State, FL, ruthsylv@poly,usf,edu

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