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. If you take the bullying definition from StopBullying.gov too literally (where it describes bullying as happening “among school-aged children”), then you would have to say it’s impossible for a teacher to bully a student. But as a full time author on bullying, my instincts and experience tell me otherwise.
I believe teacher-to-student bullying is a real thing, and it definitely does happen… some of the time. The tough job for school administrators is investigation and dealing with each incident when it is reported. For example, it’s hard to verify “teacher bullying” if this is the first reported incident… or if all the incidents are coming from the same student. (Don’t get me wrong: the school should still investigate and intervene, but they have to be very careful here.)
That’s where we as parents come in. We need to be in better communication with the school, so they can identify any patterns that start to form. We need to report incidents when they occur and not wait for things to pile up. And we need to communicate to the school with the same level of respect that we expect from them.
The reality is: if there are no repeated patterns, or no third-party eye-witnesses, then it becomes very difficult for the school to hold the teacher accountable. Even so, schools need to acknowledge that teacher-to-student bullying is a real thing that needs to be dealt with.
So was it really bullying?
Bullying is unwanted aggressive (or even passive-aggressive) behavior that seeks to exert power over another. It’s a control thing… a dominance thing. And I believe it can happen in almost any environment. Bullying does not depend on the age of the participants; it depends on the behavior itself.
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.
5 Factors to Acknowledge About Teacher-to-Student Bullying:
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 (and healthy) 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 the Biases of the Student
Kids and teens are very smart, but when their emotions get in the way, their intellect can go right out the window. It’s very easy for kids and to take a low grade and begin to develop a bad attitude toward the teacher. If a student dislikes their teacher, it’s easy to take things the wrong way and feel bullied. A student with a chip on her shoulder will certainly find what she’s looking for. There are a million biases for why a student might accuse a teacher of bullying. Maybe the student wants revenge with the teacher, or perhaps they misinterpreted the teacher’s correcting them as bullying, or maybe they cannot handle being told what to do, the list goes on. Ask your child how they feel about the teacher, and try to acknowledge any 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 most of them use their power in a positive way.
3. Acknowledge the Biases of the Parent
As a parent of four elementary-aged kids, 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 for me and my wife to step back and take a chill pill before we respond. We have to remember that we are only hearing one side of the story – our child’s interpretation – which could be right, wrong, or 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 (I’m talking to the parents here!). 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 is being bullied by a teacher, you have to take the matter seriously. Try not to call the school when your emotions are high. Instead, give yourself some time to calm down and think about it rationally. Then follow through by contacting a school counselor or the principal to make a report.
4. Acknowledge the Biases of the Teacher
No teacher in their right mind will readily admit to bullying their students. It just doesn’t happen. But 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 issues, it is possible for a teacher to develop an unfair bias against them, sometimes leading to negative consequences and even bad grades. Again, we are walking a fine line here. There are definitely cases when a child deserves a lower grade for their poor behavior or bad attitude. But 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 try and find a resolution. Which brings me to my final point.
5. Acknowledge the Challenge for School Administrators.
Holding teachers responsible for bullying is a challenging task for school administrators – but it is there job to do it. Many teachers who bully students (and they are few and far between) are not even cognitively aware of it. And the bottom line is: good teachers don’t want to be bullying their students; they appreciate the accountability. Schools need to help them identify the behavior, so they make a change if needed. If the school does nothing, the bullying will likely get worse or result in lower grades for your child, which is totally unfair.
If your child is being bullied (by a teacher or by another student) then you need to report each incident to the school in a respectful way, so everything can be documented. And 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). Go in with a good attitude, but be clear that you really desire a positive outcome for your child. After all, every kid deserves to be in a safe environment where they are NOT being bullied by a teacher.