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.

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
6 min read

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?"

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.'

"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.

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 them 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."

When abuse is physical, most parents don't hesitate to report the offending teacher, Freeman says. But many see emotional or verbal bullying as a gray area. They worry that speaking up could cause a teacher to take revenge on their child -- and there's little escape. "It really is on a different level than kid-to-kid bullying," Twemlow says. "The kid has no power."

Don't ignore the problem, experts say. Here are some tips for handling the issue of teacher bullying:

Because children view teachers as authority figures, they often won't tell their parents if they're being mistreated. Parents who don't talk with their children won't know about bullying until grades drop or a child becomes depressed, Twemlow says.

Keep an eye out for such behavior changes. Also, probe for details if your child says, "Mrs. So-and-So doesn't like me," says Janet Belsky, PhD, a Middle Tennessee State University psychology professor. That's especially true if a child rarely complains of mistreatment by others.

Volunteering in class also allows a parent to keep an eye on the situation and develop a relationship with the teacher.

If parents suspect a problem, they should meet with the teacher without "screaming or threatening attorneys," Twemlow says. Avoid blaming and keep an open mind. After all, a child may have misinterpreted a teacher's behavior.

Take a cooperative approach, says Mark Weiss, education director for Operation Respect, a New York-based nonprofit organization that deals with bullying. A parent can say, "'I'm concerned. I think my child's afraid in this class. What do you think is going on?' The teacher is then able to engage in the conversation."

Don't bring a young child, Twemlow adds, but it's fine to include a teenager "who needs to be treated more like an adult." Always tell your child beforehand that you're seeing the teacher, he says. That way, they won't be embarrassed to find out after the fact.

A teacher meeting often solves the problem, Twemlow says. But not always. "A master bully will rationalize," Freeman says, and nothing changes.

If the situation doesn't improve, ask the principal to intervene. It may pay to ask for a classroom transfer, Freeman says. Not all principals honor such requests, but some do.

Some principals let bully teachers go unchallenged, he adds. Then parents may have to go up the chain of command, for example, by filing a formal complaint with the school superintendent or school board and demanding a response. They should also keep good records of all communications and incidents.

Resolving a bullying issue can be difficult, so support your child, Weiss says. "Let your child know that you care and that you want to do something -- that in life we try to do things and sometimes it takes more than one shot at it."

But don't let the situation drag on for months, Belsky says. "You want to try to nip it in the bud."