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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.

A Parent's Dilemma continued...

"He was already over it."

The clincher came when Jan visited another family with a daughter in the choir. Jan was shocked when the girl said, "Oh, yeah, he totally picks on your son."

Why didn't Jan approach the teacher or principal? "I didn't expect anything to come out of it. Everyone turned their heads because this teacher was so talented."

Besides, the teacher was the gatekeeper for coveted choir trips. Jan worried, too, that he would bad-mouth her son to other teachers. "The teacher lunchroom, that's where people talk about kids. So for the next four years, you've poisoned them."

Jan concluded that the teacher was brilliant but volatile, and she's unsure why was her son was a "lightning rod," she says. Maybe it was a personality clash, she adds, because her younger daughter had no problems in his class.

Why Do Teachers Bully?

Teachers are human, and it's unfair to expect them never to utter a hurtful word.

But teachers do bully for various reasons, experts tell WebMD. A student may remind them of someone they dislike. Or, in a surprising reversal of the "teacher's pet" syndrome, insecure teachers may bully bright students out of envy.

Other teachers suffer from personal problems -- job burnout, marital woes, or severe behavior problems with their own children -- and they take out their frustrations in class.

Furthermore, in some troubled schools, students bully teachers -- and teachers dish it back to avoid appearing weak. "Teachers are often physically scared of students," Twemlow says.

Teacher bullying spans "the range of human behaviors," Twemlow says. But he has been able to identify two categories: a "tiny minority" of sadistic teachers and the "bully-victim" teachers.

"The sadistic teacher hacks on kids in a way that indicates they might get some pleasure from it," he says. That means "humiliating students, hurting students' feelings, and being spiteful." For example, he remembers one teacher who repeatedly ridiculed a boy by calling him a girl's name.

In an ideal world, there would be screening methods to weed out such "nightmare teachers," he says. "We basically feel that sadistic teachers shouldn't be teachers."

For the bully-victim teacher, there may be more hope, he says. "This is the type of teacher who usually is passive and lets a class get out of control and responds with rage and bullying. These bully-victim teachers are often absent from work, they fail to set limits, and they do a lot of referrals to the principal because they like other people to handle their problems."

These teachers could benefit from training on effective classroom management, he says.

Men and women are equally likely to bully, Twemlow says, but his study didn't look at whether their tactics differed.

One interesting finding: Teachers who bully were often bullied themselves in childhood. As Twemlow's study co-researcher, Peter Fonagy, PhD, noted in a news release: "If your early experiences lead you to expect that people will not reason, but respond to force, then you are at risk of recreating this situation in your classroom."

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