First, let’s establish what I mean by the term “bully.” A bully is a person who intimidates, harasses, ridicules or demeans another individual, risking their assurance of physical or emotional safety and general well being. This may be intentional behavior or an unintended consequence of some other action.
In my work with kids I used to call it “one-sided fun”- the perpetrator is enjoying the power of his or her actions, while the victim is miserable.
I didn’t mean to, but I bullied a student thirty-plus years ago. It’s difficult to admit, but it’s a story I must tell.
Let’s call her Abby. Abby was a popular 8th grade girl in my choir class. She loved being the center of attention and, as is frequently the case for girls her age, nothing was more important to her than maintaining her social standing. Abby loved to talk. When the full class wasn’t engaged in a full-throated rendition of a song we were learning, Abby was talking. If I needed to spend a few minutes working with the alto section, she was entertaining the sopranos by talking. If I was speaking to the entire class, it would be over her talking. Despite repeated appeals for her to stop, Abby preferred to pursue her social agenda and continued to talk. One day, I finally reached my limit. I stopped our rehearsal and focussed 100% of my frustrated attention on Abby. I used words like “rude”. . .”lack of respect” . . . “disrupting” . . . “wasting our time.” I berated her for half a minute as seventy-five other 7th and 8th graders looked on in stunned silence.
Resuming our rehearsal, I noticed that the singing was more subdued and less joyful. I also noted, rather smugly, that Abby had stopped talking. I also noticed that she had stopped singing.
That encounter gnawed at me for the rest of the day. I even brought it with me to my evening graduate class. My reflection evolved into profound regret as I had to acknowledge that I had demeaned, ridiculed and embarrassed Abby in front of her peers. Unintentionally, by unleashing my frustration, I had treated her badly. I felt terrible.
I slipped out of class and found a pay phone hanging on a wall in the hallway. (That should offer an idea of just how long ago this transpired.) I leafed through the phone book hanging by its small chain and, through a process of elimination, located what I was reasonably certain was her family’s phone number. Investing a dime, I dialed the number. Abby’s father answered the phone. I briefly described what had occurred in class earlier in the day and explained that I was calling to apologize to Abby. His response was: “You don’t need to apologize to her. You did nothing wrong. She shouldn’t have been talking.” I responded, “Respect must be reciprocal. I can’t expect her to behave respectfully if I don’t demonstrate respect for her.”
Abby came to the phone. We had a good conversation. She willingly accepted my apology and expressed regret for her behavior. We even negotiated a “secret” non-verbal cue that I would use to remind her to modify her behavior. It worked, most of the time, as she and I found a pathway to move forward while preserving her dignity.
I apologized to the entire class the next day for my outburst. The kids relaxed and their singing resumed its joyful character.
Schools across the country are investing considerable time and resources in raising awareness and curbing peer-to-peer bullying in their communities. We readily agree that kids must feel safe at school, and with each other, as a prerequisite for learning and fully realizing their potential. Sadly, there is a double standard at play; one that erodes the overall culture of the school house - the bullying of children by teachers.
A study summarized in the Spring 2018 issue of Learning for Justice Magazine, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offers some illuminating insight into this pervasive, and often unreported, phenomenon. “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.” To address these concerns, researchers at Northern Michigan University mounted a first-of-its-kind study, surveying 1,067 educators regarding their observations and experiences with teacher-to-student bullying; seeking to identify “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear or causes students substantial emotional distress.”
A simple point of emphasis . . . We hold children accountable when they mistreat each other. We discipline kids when they do not meet our expectation of compliant and respectful behavior toward their teachers. What happens when teachers fail to show respect toward their students?
Some of the study’s disturbing findings suggest:
“One in five respondents (20%) identified more than 10 percent of the teaching staff in their school as bullies. Sixty-five percent of respondents indicated ‘less than 10 percent,’ of teachers in their school bully students.”
Regardless of the relatively low percentages, “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.”
“Significant numbers of students—both bystanders and targets—experience bullying micro-aggressions by some teachers as a commonplace aspect of school life.”
“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.” Of particular alarm was the report that marginalized student populations; students of color, those with learning challenges and students within the LGBTQ+ community were more often to be targets of teacher-to-student bullying.
“When asked if teachers who bully students also bully their colleagues, 63 percent of the respondents said ‘yes.’”
“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.”
“Less than 13 percent of respondents can say, unequivocally, their school’s policy indicates that bullying could involve teachers as well as students.”
I don’t believe for a second that anyone enters the profession of teaching with an agenda to harm and demean children. However, I do believe, based on my experience, that some teachers display attitudes and behaviors that do just that, however unintentional they may be. Truthfully, I have supervised several teachers like this. When it occurs, damage is done: to the child, to the culture of the school, to the professional standing of the teacher.
Why does this happen?
One of the survey respondents noted: “[These teachers] want to maintain control of the classroom, but do not know how with challenging students, especially those who are not high achievers in this age of high stakes tests that teachers get judged on.” Others noted that some teachers truly believe that select students require “discipline” and, through the voice of another survey respondent, “I think they are scared of being seen as less powerful or authoritarian, and so they overreact to minor infractions.”
Ready for an alarming observation? Hold on . . . “Teachers can get away with it when it is done with students of color.”
What must happen?
Three specific actions are indicated by the results of this research study and my own experience.
Teachers and other school personnel must receive frequent, targeted training and in-service on what constitutes bullying, focusing on the fact that it is not solely a student-to-student concern. They must realize, instead, that bullying is an issue that requires the attention of the entire school community. Teachers need to recognize that a school culture that tolerates a bullying double standard is toxic for everyone. Further, they must be given the opportunity to reflect on their personal biases or professional inadequacies that may contribute to a bullying culture and receive tangible support in remediating these issues.
Explicit policy language must be written and widely distributed that affirms that the prohibition of bullying is not limited to student-to student behavior. It is a person-to-person concern, which includes the adult treatment of children in a learning environment. All education practitioners must be held to the two fundamental obligations stated in the National Education Association’s Code of Ethics of the Education Profession: (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.”
We train kids to report things they observe that are concerning - “If you see something, say something.” The same opportunity and obligation must be impressed upon teachers and other school staff. Along side this mandate must be a clear avenue of reporting. Who and when should observations or allegations of school-based bullying be taken forward? A transparent process is critical:
How do I report?
To whom do I report?
What can I expect after I make a report?
This, as with any personnel or performance issue, must be treated with absolute confidentiality. All staff members must understand what this means in plain, easily understood, language. No ambiguity. Transparency. Shared understanding.
If we truly abhor bullying behavior among kids, and we are sincere in our enterprise to eradicate it, we can only be effective in our efforts if we hold adults to an even higher standard. Kids judge the boundaries of what constitutes appropriate person-to-person behavior by mirroring what they see; in addition (or in opposition to) how they are told they should behave.
Thankfully, my outburst toward Abby was an isolated career event. It was also very illustrative. She demonstrated more compassion and maturity during our phone call than I had displayed as the adult in the room a few hours before in my role of “teacher” and, perhaps, “role model.” She reminded me that evening of something I diligently carried forward - all human beings are deserving, and are entitled, to respect: no matter their size, their age, their condition or circumstance, their heritage or even their level of annoyance.
That lesson became a cornerstone of my administrative work. It was foundational in creating and nurturing inclusive, supportive and positive school cultures. In my dealings with students sent to the dreaded Principal’s Office for a disciplinary intervention, I would frequently ask: “What is it I expect of all of us in this school? What’s my bottom line?” Without skipping a beat, the answer would be “respect.”
That’s a school culture that kids deserve.