Often when we discuss bullying in school the focus of the conversation is peer-to-peer abuse. The image of the schoolyard bully, the “Mean Girl” cheerleader and other stereotypes surface readily in the minds of parents and educators. However, in this two part series, I would like to take some time to focus on a different avenue of bullying, that which involves adults. Far from merely an adolescent problem, bullying in school can be directed towards or by the educators themselves. This leaves two distinct subheadings of bullying behavior: teacher-bullies and teacher-victims.
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
The idea of a teacher as a bully seems far-fetched at first. As the adults entrusted with the sacred covenant of educating our youth most would think that the position of power (i.e. grading, discipline) and the experience of age would cast adult educators beyond the petty games of popularity and control that dominate peer-to-peer student bullying.
However, as McEvoy (2005) points out, bullying is defined as, “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress” (1). This definition alone casts teachers, coaches and other administrative staff in the perfect position to use bullying behavior.
Because teachers and coaches are in a position of power, absolute power some would say, they are able to use that power to whatever means they deem necessary. As Lord Acton famously pointed out (and as a favorite high school English teacher routinely quoted), “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Therefore, the very position of unchecked authority can cause adults of a certain mindset, perhaps former bullies or former victims themselves, to abuse that authority by humiliating and intimidating their students.
Ways that Teachers Bully in School
There are several examples, some historical and some modern, that fully illustrate the harmful effect that misused teacher-centered power can have on an individual student or an entire class. Let’s take a look at the ways in which teachers and coaches can bully:
- The Dunce Cap – though certainly out of use in the modern education system, the act of labeling one student the dumbest among the group is clearly bullying behavior. It also sets a precedent in the profession itself. Though we no longer “name” the Dunce in our classes, most teachers are well aware of the students who struggle most and some may feel it acceptable to label them as such.
- Posting Grades – long a practice in medical and law schools as well as other elite institutions, the practice of posting student grades (whether anonymous or not) has the effect of casting some as the “losers” of the class and others as #1. It is likely that, even though anonymous, students will pick up on whose grades were far below that of the rest of the class.
- Classroom-Based Verbal Intimidation – this is a far more subtle, and prevalent form of teacher-bullying. A teacher-bully may single out one or two members of the class that he or she feels are especially vulnerable for “motivational” reprimand; similar to peer-to-peer bullying, a teacher-bully will pick victims based on their likeliness to fight back and criticize their work or attitude in front of the entire class. The teacher-bully may instead choose to intimidate the entire class through the threat of grades and other punitive measures, creating a fear-based environment they will argue is conducive to learning.
- Field-Based Verbal Intimidation – Coaches (both on athletic teams and in general gym class) are statistically most likely to fall under the teacher-bully category. Because of the emphasis that is placed on athletic prowess in our society, there is a general acceptance of criticism in sports. While much of this criticism is needed in team situations, it is the method of delivery that dictates whether or not it is considered bullying by the teacher. Coaches who routinely pick on the smallest or slowest athlete and criticize more than they motivate can be cast as bullies. In sports especially, there is a fine line between motivation to improve, which is rooted in genuine concern for the student-athlete, and unmitigated desire to win, which in many cases takes the form of intimidation, humiliation, and abuse.
Special Case of the Teacher-Bully
The biggest issue that surrounds the identification and reporting of teacher-bullies surrounds the likeliness of the victim(s) to be taken seriously. Because of their position of power, teachers are generally able to avoid reprimand for what they do. They will use the student’s poor performance as justification for their criticism and cast the student’s complaint as a ploy for receiving a higher grade. In many cases, other students may also view the bully victim as weak or outcast which will make them less likely to confirm the abuse. In the case when an entire class is victim, fear of retribution in the form of grades or other disciplinary action may also cause witnesses and victims to remain silent.
As parents and educational professionals, it is our job to identify and speak up for these adolescent and youth victims in any way possible. However, finding the necessary evidence in order to support our claims is doubly tough in the case of teacher-bully behavior. We need to be careful not to cast a teacher-victim into a teacher-bully, and there is a lot of grey area that we cannot really decipher in that regard.
Have you ever met a teacher-bully?