A parent recently asked me: “Is it possible for a teacher to bully a student?” In essence she was saying, “My child is being bullied by a teacher, but I don’t know what to do about it.” As a parent myself, I know where she’s coming from. We’ve had a couple (not a lot) of negative experiences with teachers over the years, and it definitely feels like bullying. The behavior is much the same: one person attempts to take power over another person in a way that is negative, hurtful, or abusive. So is it “bullying” for a teacher to treat a student in this way?
Technically, we would call this type of behavior an “abuse of power.” Let me explain why (there is one very subtle difference). The national bullying definition from StopBullying.gov includes four basic components:
“Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” – StopBullying.gov
The definition includes four components:
- Unwanted aggressive behavior
- Among school aged children
- A real or perceived power imbalance
- Repetition or potential for repetition
But wait a minute! Can’t bullying happen in college, in the workplace, and into adulthood? Yes, I believe it can. I know it can. So you’re right – that second point can be very misleading.
As an Anti-Bullying Speaker, I hear stories all the time of adult bullying, and I know those stories are real.
Why is that second point even in there? Are they trying to let teachers off the hook?
I don’t think so.
I think the definition is trying to clarify an important point – that bullying happens among people of the same power level. Here we have two people who should be treating each other with the same level of respect and power, and yet one of tries to take power over the other. This is the essence of bullying. It’s a power play between two people of the same “power status,” if you will.
When a teacher treats a student in a way that is hurtful, controlling, and dominating, some people will call it bullying, but it is technically an abuse of power. And either way, it needs to stop.
That’s where we as parents come in. We need to be in better communication with our kids and with the school. We need to report incidents when they occur and not wait for things to pile up. We need to communicate a sense of partnership with the school, giving them the the same level of respect that we expect back from them.
And before anyone makes a judgement call, it’s important to acknowledge all the built-in subtleties and biases of the teacher-to-student relationship. Below are 5 points to consider before taking action.
1. Acknowledge the Built-In Healthy Power of the Teacher
Kids can sometimes feel bullied by a teacher when in reality, the teacher is only doing his or her job. The teacher has a built-in power relationship to the student. The teacher is an authority figure with the power to give constructive criticism, assign unwanted homework, and hold kids accountable (in a respectful way) for their behavior. That’s part of the deal, whether students like it or not. Looking back at my life, I am so grateful for the teachers who did their jobs with strength and maybe just a touch of grace. Those teachers became my heroes.
2. Acknowledge Any Biases of the Student
It’s easy for a kid to receive a low grade on a test and then develop a bad attitude toward the teacher. Sometimes kids take things the wrong way. Perhaps they misinterpreted the teacher’s correcting them as bullying, or maybe they couldn’t handle being corrected. Ask your child how they feel about the teacher, and try to acknowledge any possible biases. Talk through it and do your best to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. After all, teachers dedicate a huge portion of their life to their students, and the vast majority of them use their power in a positive way.
3. Acknowledge Any Biases of the Parent
As parents of four school-aged kids, my wife and I know what it’s like to be frustrated with a teacher. I won’t go into detail here, but in those moments it’s so important that we step back and take a chill pill before responding. We have to remember that we are only hearing one side of the story – our child’s interpretation – which could be right or wrong, but usually it’s somewhere in the middle. If your child’s feelings were hurt, acknowledge it, talk through it at home, and be careful not to develop a bad attitude toward the teacher. Sometimes our biggest biases come from the Papa Bear / Mama Bear instinct, which can cloud our vision (can your child do no wrong?) On the other hand, if you suspect your child’s teacher is abusing their power, you need to take it seriously. Try not to contact the school when your emotions are high. Instead, give yourself some time to calm down, process it, and talk it out before responding. Then follow through by calling the principal or by meeting with the principal in person.
4. Acknowledge Any Biases of the Teacher
Teachers can have some built-in biases too. Maybe they are merely doing their job, or just trying get the class under control, and so on. If your child has behavioral challenges, it’s possible for a teacher to develop an unfair bias against them, sometimes leading to negative consequences and even bad grades. At the same time, there are definitely times when a child deserves a lower grade for their poor behavior or bad attitude. If you see a repeated negative bias toward your child, then you need to report it to the school and meet with the administrators to find a resolution. Which brings me to my final point.
5. Acknowledge the Challenge for School Administrators.
Holding teachers accountable for an abuse of power incident can be very challenging for school administrators – but it is there job to do it. The bottom line is: good teachers don’t want to abuse their power and schools need to help teachers identify this type of behavior, so they make changes and corrections and grow as an educator.
If your child is being bullied by another student, or if you’re seeing an abuse of power by a teacher, then please report every incident to the school, so it can be documented. If you see a pattern forming, then it’s time to setup an in-person meeting with the school administrators (don’t use email or social media, as so much is lost in digital communication). Go in with a good attitude and be clear that you desire a positive outcome for your child. After all, every kid deserves to be in a safe environment where they are NOT being bullied or abused.