Professor adds to teacher bullying response

September 6, 2012


In the Aug. 27 Double Take column published in the Journal-World entitled, “When teachers bully,” Wes Crenshaw and Katie Guyot provided some sage advice on a situation in which a classroom teacher was depicted as bullying her student by yelling at her in front of the class. If this behavior actually happened as described and was the teacher’s usual mode of interaction with this student, this situation would certainly qualify as teacher bullying. Bullying teachers have been defined as those teachers who use their power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what other professionals in the field would describe as a reasonable disciplinary procedure. So, persistent yelling, name-calling, public humiliation, regular exclusion from class, applying class rules unfairly, physical punishment, intimidation, threats, refusing to call on a student, using the student as a bad example, sharing personal information about a student and manipulating earned course grades to gain control of a student’s behavior are all potential examples of teacher bullying.

While an apology from the teacher described above might help assuage hurt feelings on the part of the student and while a report by the parent to the principal might get the teacher in some hot water, the problem may likely remain unsolved as Crenshaw insinuated in his column. In fact, the student-teacher relationship could be soured entirely. Furthermore, moving a student to another class or section may not be an option. Teacher bullying is just as important a problem to solve as student bullying even if it occurs less often. I would like to add some more options to the very good ideas provided so that other parents might learn something from this example and have a range of response options.

First, the underlying cause for this situation is classroom management. Teachers need training and continuing education in classroom management. Classroom management is the main reason why teachers quit the profession. Managing a classroom of up to 30 or more students can be very stressful. This means that school districts must be committed to training their teachers in classroom management and bullying prevention and intervention.

Second, only authoritative teachers are successful in the classroom. These are teachers who are flexible, democratic, fair and most of all respectful in their approach to students. Some classroom managers believe that the only way to manage a class is to get control, not smile for the first few weeks of school and have strict rules with lots of punishment. This approach does not lead to a “classroom learning community” or a sense of “belongingness” wherein students support each other in learning.

Third, most schools do not have bullying policies that include teachers. When schools have such inclusive policies it means that they recognize that not only can teachers be bullies but teachers can be bullied, too.

Fourth, the best approach a parent can take is to advocate for his or her student and avoid becoming an adversary with the teacher. Mutual respect that includes positive communication is key. Talk with the teacher, seek a solution, support the teacher, find something positive to say about what the teacher is doing, rebuild your relationship. The same ideas work well when teachers apply them to their interactions with parents and their students.

Fifth, when it is difficult to know how the bullying situation started a problem-solving conflict resolution approach would be recommended. Avoid blame. Try to find common ground and work toward a resolution that is mutually acceptable. In most cases of bullying there are two sides to the story, even when the teacher is involved. Listen and be empathic to the other’s position.

Sixth, in my 33 years as a professor in the School of Education at Kansas University, I have found, by far, that most teachers want to treat their students respectfully and fairly. It sounds like this student wanted to treat this teacher with respect in return. Something went wrong. Clear communication, untainted by angry accusations, and focusing on solving the problem most likely would improve the situation.

In the end schools need to help students, teachers, parents and administrators understand that anyone can be a bully, a victim or a bystander and that it is the responsibility of everyone to prevent and intervene in cases of bullying by repairing relationships and teaching new and better social skills, and in the case of teachers, better skills in classroom management. Most teachers appreciate learning new skills that lead to personal success, and they want their students to be successful too.

— Robert Harrington is a professor in the department of psychology and research in the Kansas University School of Education. He teaches courses in classroom management, as well as a graduate course in bullying prevention and intervention. He is creating an online instructional outreach program for teachers around Kansas who want to learn more about classroom management and bullying. Readers may contact him at rgharrin@ku.edu.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago

"Third, most schools do not have bullying policies that include teachers. When schools have such inclusive policies it means that they recognize that not only can teachers be bullies but teachers can be bullied, too."

I doubt that. Kansas law prohibits bullying by all parties. KSDE and KASB recommend policies that speak to this. If adult staff bullies students and no help is forthcoming, call the cops and press charges or sue the teacher. Hint: If a behavior is inappropriate on the street with a fifty year old, it is also wrong and probably illegal in a classroom with a six-year-old.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago

PS: It is also illegal for adults to bully other adults in schools.

Mike George 5 years, 4 months ago

Bob Harrington's comments are based on years of practical experience, and he always understands the art of compromise in all relationship building and maintenance. Thanks for your wisdom, Bob.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 4 months ago

I agree discussion and compromise is always the best. If nothing works out most of what is now called bullying has been illegal for a long time. Legislatures discovered this issue and are giving old crimes new names. I applaud all the peacemakers. Shanti

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