The Other Forms of Bullying in Schools – Teacher Bullying

untitled-design-4The Other Forms of Bullying in Schools – Teacher Bullying

The most studied form of bullying in schools is student-to-student bullying (alternatively called peer or lateral bullying).  There are at least two other forms of bullying in schools: (i) teacher-targeted bullying and (ii) teacher bullying.  This article examines one of those forms of bullying that exist in schools specifically, teacher bullying, i.e., the teacher is the bully.

The discussion in this article comes from work done by Fromuth et. al. and from the literature review presented in their article. The Fromuth study focused only on teacher bullying, which is different from some studies on the topic which include bullying by all school personnel.

(1)  Teacher Bullying

There are many definitions of the term bullying, but one of  the common features is that it is based on a power differential. Teacher bullying can be described as “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress” (p. 128).  Teachers can have 3 types of power over students, i.e., (i) expert power (teachers have knowledge that the students do not have), (ii) teachers have the ability to determine the types of learning activities the students will participate in and (iii) teachers have the ability to either give rewards or privileges or to withhold rewards or privileges (p. 127).  Other researchers add an additional term and define teacher bullying as a teacher that uses “his/her power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure” (Twemlow & Fonagy in Fromuth, p. 128).

(2)  Bullying Behaviours by Teachers

The behaviour of teachers can be divided into two groups, i.e., acts of commission (what the teacher actually does) and acts of omission (i.e., what the teacher  does not do) and the two examples cited are, in the first case – belittles a child, and in the second case – failing to provide a student with an appropriate level of attention (p. 127-128).  One could envision the act of omission as making a student feel as they have been ostracized, i.e., they don’t feel like they are part of the class.

Fromuth et. al. list some of the behaviours and they found the most common to be as listed below. Furthermore, these bullying behaviours were not isolated events, i.e., were repeated and not a onetime thing, (p.131).  I have also included in curly brackets {}, how each behaviour is similar to a workplace bullying behaviour.

  1. shouted at me (85%) – commission; {threatening & intimidating behaviour}
  2. gave me a lower grade than I deserved (79%) – commission; {abusive supervision}
  3. ignored me when I asked for help or raised my hand (78%) – omission; {destabilization}
  4. blamed me for things I did not do (75%) – commission; {harm to reputation}
  5. humiliated me in front of others (71%) – commission; {demeaning behaviour},

from Table 1, p. 131, Fromuth. Most of the participants in the Fromuth study indicated that the bullying had extended over a period of one year (p. 131).

Some other common or frequently perpetrated behaviours by teachers found in the literature were: (i) sarcasm and put downs, (ii) calling a student names (iii) embarrassing a student (p. 128). Table 1 in the Fromuth paper indicates that they were able to identify at least 10 different types of bullying behaviours by teachers. Furthermore, it was noted that some students felt like they had been singled out by the teacher for bullying, from others students (p.132). Having been an instructor at the college level for 3 academic terms, I understand that this is not just a student perception, but from my personal experience as a teacher, it is a reality. This is a pitfall that a teacher can easily fall into, i.e., take your frustrations out on the one you like the least. Thus, it is important for a teacher to treat all students equally, i.e., there is always an appropriate way to handle a difficult situation and bullying is not one of the ways.

Other studies showed that 40% of students reported being picked on by teachers (Australia, Delfabbro study) and 31% reported being bullied by teachers (Ireland, James study) as cited in Fromuth.  

(3)  Effects of Bullying Behaviours

An important effect found in a Delfabbro study (2006 as cited in Fromuth, p. 128), is students who were subjected to bullying behaviours were “more likely to experience problems in psychological adjustment (low self-esteem) or social functioning”. A study by Nesbit & Philpott (2002 as cited in Fromuth) suggested that students are still negatively impacted by bullying behaviours, even if the behaviour seemed benign (lack of sensitivity by the teacher (p. 133). In this case, the teacher is employing the mechanism of moral disengagement termed disregard of consequences, (i.e., they are disregarding the impact of their behaviour on others).

A final point that can be made is that since students perceive teachers to have power over them (the power differential), they may feel trapped or they may fear retaliation (p. 127). If bullying were to occur in the workplace, an employee has the ultimate option to leave that place of employment and look for work elsewhere, but this is not a readily available option for a student in grade school (p. 127).

(4)  Recognition of the problem

The Fromuth study suggests that teacher bullying is not a widely acknowledged phenomenon and a possible reason being that even if a student felt that they had been bullied, they would most often just confide in a fellow student and not report it to an authority figure.  Thus, if the behaviour is not reported, it cannot come to the attention of school officials (p.132).  A study done by Whitted & Dupper (2008) suggested that teacher bullying is a hidden problem and furthermore suggest that there are few consequences for teachers who engage in bullying behaviours (p. 132).  Another research group has noted that in the US, some states have not yet defined what constitutes teacher bullying (Terry & Baer, 2012, as cited in Fromuth, p. 133).  Zerillo & Osterman (2011, as cited in Fromuth, p. 133), suggested providing professional development programs for teachers so that they are aware of what constitutes teacher bullying.  They recommend that schools should emphasize the need for a teacher to show respect for students and furthermore, that schools should have a zero-tolerance policy to behaviours that are considered teacher bullying (p.133).                                                

The Fromuth paper is a good starting point for those looking for references related to the topic.


(1) Fromuth, M., Davis, T., Kelly, D. and Wakefield, C., (2015), Descriptive features of student psychological maltreatment by teachers, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, 8, p.127-135.


The Other Forms of Bullying in Schools – Teacher Bullying
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