The general understanding in the community is the image of the teacher as a duty-driven professional whose interest is in transforming the lives of children. People in America have the same feelings about all the community heroes who serve: teachers, pastors, and first responders to name a few. But working with adolescents can be frustrating. Teachers are often mistreated by the students and families they serve. It is not uncommon to hear about teachers retaliating against a student. Even more common is students and families unwilling to share constructive feedback for fear a teacher will retaliate against their child by poor grades, intentionally embarrassment, or some other means.
What is teacher retaliation?
Professor Alan McEvoy, sociologist at Northern Michigan University, calls these incidents examples of abuse of power:
“In a small minority of teachers, an ugly undercurrent of mean-spirited and disdainful conduct toward students also exists. This conduct constitutes a corruption of the role of the educator and does enormous damage to students, colleagues and the public’s faith in schools….teachers who bully…and coaches who waged a daily reign of terror over students.”
McEvoy points out that at present 49 states have passed legislation to address student on student bullying, however none have addressed the issue of abuse of power by educators toward students. There are no national studies on the subject, only a few limited studies begin to document the issue. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report entitled, “Bullying Surveillance among Youths.” The report acknowledges this lack of attention to the problem of educators abuse of power, saying that its report, “excludes abuse perpetrated by adults against children or youths.”
Retaliatory behavior often takes the form of public humiliation of student targets.
Students and teachers often agree on which teachers engage in retaliatory behavior.
Most often the bullying takes place only in the teacher’s own classroom where other students can view it, but other teachers can not.
Teachers are perceived to bully with impunity. They are seldom to account for this behavior.
Schools generally lack a means of redress for students or their parents who register complaints against a teacher.
Teacher bullying is often in retaliation for what the teacher feels are student behaviors that make their jobs more difficult. It often takes the form of exaggerated discipline that originates as a means of changing student behavior that becomes distorted into irrelevant punishment.
How frequent is it?
In a small-sample survey published in The International Journal of Social Psychiatry Psychiatrist Stuart Twemlow finds hints that the problem of teacher retaliation leading to bullying may be more common that many believe. Anonymously, Twemlow surveyed 116 teachers at seven elementary school and found that 70 percent believed that the problem was isolated. When he asked the teacher if they had specifically if they had themselves retaliated against a child, 45 percent admitted that they had.
A student talks to his mother, Karen about his “mean” teacher. Karen takes it with a grain of salt, thinking that “mean” usually stands for making you study or demanding you answer questions. It usually does not mean verbal abuse. Karen had just transferred her son from a private school to an appealing charter school. She fell in love with the new school where there was a garden where music played at lunch.
After the school year began, her fourth grader began saying he didn’t want to go to school. Every morning before school he said he felt nauseous. He was angry every afternoon when he was picked up. Karen was told by a classmate that the teacher yells at her son all the time. He also said that the teacher yells at her son especially, so loud that “we can hear it in the next room.”
When Karen expressed her concerns to the school administration, they pointed their fingers at her son, saying he needed medication. I response to that, Karen took her son for a psychological assessment at a university educational center. She was told there was nothing wrong with him. Eventually in desperation, Karen withdrew her son from school and began home schooling.
It is important that schools and teacher be trusted as a safe environment for students and families. School officials have a duty to protect students. Schools must (and can) act to reduce teacher retaliation behavior. Even if retaliation does not exist on a campus, the fear of retaliation can also lead to stymied constructive feedback and improvement. Here are some steps schools can take to establish a culture against teacher retaliation and/or the fear of teacher retaliation:
Use in-service time to frankly discuss the issue and the limits of appropriate teacher behavior, especially when it comes to class discipline. Teachers will be mistreated by students (and even parents), yet is is a teachers duty to respond professionally as the mature adult.
Establish and formalize a systematic way to address complaints about alleged teacher bullying. Provide a process in which grievances can be heard and settled as a basic civil right.
Track formal and informal complaints, including student comments. Use course and teacher evaluation forms. Allegations about teacher retaliation behavior should be included in annual performance reviews.
The Tenney School is a small private school focused on nurturing the needs of each individual student. If you are looking for a school to meet you child’s individual needs, contact us.