Teachers Who Bully
The problem of teachers bullying students is more common than you think. Learn how to prevent your child from becoming a victim.
In recent years, a slew of books have offered parents ample insight into the minds of young bullies.
But what if it's the teacher who screams, threatens, or uses biting sarcasm to humiliate a child in front of the class?
Teacher bullying gets little attention, say Stuart Twemlow, MD, a psychiatrist who directs the Peaceful Schools and Communities Project at the Menninger Clinic in Houston. But his new study, published in The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, hints that the problem may be more common than people believe.
In his anonymous survey of 116 teachers at seven elementary schools, more than 70% said they believed that bullying was isolated. But 45% admitted to having bullied a student. "I was surprised at how many teachers were willing to be honest," Twemlow says.
He defines teacher bullying as "using power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure."
Twemlow, a former high school teacher, insists that he's not trying to denigrate a praiseworthy -- and often beleaguered -- profession. "This is not being done to victimize or criticize teachers. There are a few bad apples, but the vast majority of teachers go beyond the call of duty. They're very committed and altruistic."
Nevertheless, bullying is a risk, he says. When Twemlow quizzed subjects about bullying, "Some teachers reported being angry at being asked the question," he writes. "But more reflective teachers realized that bullying is a hazard of teaching."
Robert Freeman, an elementary school principal in Fallon, Nev., agrees. He recalls one teacher who was a notorious bully. When he came onboard, "Other teachers inundated me with complaints about her," he says. "One year, I got 16 requests from parents asking me not to put their child in her class."
Freeman investigated and found a cruel streak. When elementary students asked for explanations during lessons, she sometimes retorted, "What's the matter? Didn't your parents give you the right genes?"
A Parent's Dilemma
Jan, a New Jersey mother who asked not to use her real name to protect her privacy, says that bullying affects the student's family, too. In high school, her son began complaining that the choir teacher had singled him out for tirades.
Like many parents who have had mostly positive relationships with teachers, Jan believed her son was overreacting. "We got into arguments at dinner. I told him, 'Just stop it.' It affected his mood and it affected our relationship."
Before long, Jan herself saw signs of the teacher's outbursts. One day, he phoned her during a choir rehearsal. "He said, 'Your son is ruining this,'" Jan recalls. "I'm ready to kill my son. I'm driving there, and I'm ready to tell him he's grounded. When I got there, the teacher said, 'Oh, it's fine.'