Bullying By Teachers? Yes, It Happens All The Time!

Can teachers ever be bullies? Can teachers ever cause mental trauma to a student? Can students get fed up with school altogether due to bullying by teachers? The answer to these questions is, sadly, yes.

Walliullah* is a grade-8 student at a private school in Sukkur. And like millions of other students of his age around the world, he does not seem to keep well at Mathematics. In any other civilized society, Waliullah’s teachers would have considered other areas where he performs better and urged him to focus on exactly those. Alternatively, teachers would have offered him additional help to overcome his difficulties in the subject. But not here. Not Waliullah.“I try my best to learn mathematics, but I am always confused by word problems. I seek help from my elder sister and I also take help from my friends but I do not seem to get it. Would I really will not be able to clear the Math exams?” He asks plaintively. And the reason he worries so is because his teacher has told him definitively: You are never going to pass the math exam.“My teacher tells me I am no good, ” he says. “Whenever I ask a question, my teacher ignores it. He just keeps calling me useless and my classmates have a field day over my mockery by the teacher. I hate it. I have stopped talking to my classmates and I don’t even feel like going to school.”

Nothing can be worse than a student feeling worthless and pressurized because of being bullied by his or her teacher, a person a student looks up to for guidance and sincerest of advices. However, this is indeed a very common practice in educational institutes across Pakistan, especially in public and middle-tier private schools.But do our teachers who practice routine belittling of children, quashing their curiosity and calling them names realize that they are nothing else than bullies casting a negative shadow on the personalities of hundreds of children they teach each year.

Bullying

The most widely accepted definition of bullying has been offered by Olweus in 1983 after he initiated an empirical investigation of the phenomenon. In 1983, after three adolescents in Norway committed suicide, most likely as a consequence of severe bullying by peers, the Norwegian Ministry of Education initiated a nationwide campaign against bullying in schools, which later become known as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP). The main aim of the OBPP is to reduce existing bullying issues among students at schools.

Do teachers who are in the habit of belittling children, quashing their curiosity and calling them names realize that they are nothing else than bullies casting a negative shadow on students’ personalities

Olweus describes bullying as an intentional, recurring exposure to negative actions, performed by an individual or a group, perceived to be more powerful and stronger than the victim. According to research, bullying behavior primarily revolves around oppression and intimidation by using a range of both direct and indirect forms of aggression. The direct form of aggression is physical that includes slapping, shoving, pushing, beating, snatching, and damaging the victim’s property. The other form is verbal and involves name-calling, shouting, abusing, and insulting acts of violence. There is also an indirect form involving gossiping, rumor spreading, and socially rejecting the targeted individual. Having said that, bullying can cause serious trauma and harm to students, including mental illnesses and drug abuse.

Teachers Playing Bully

It has been a common practice in Pakistani schools that whenever students complain about teachers’ indecent behavior, specifically bullying, to school administrations or parents, they are completely ignored for two reasons. First, bullying or issues like these are the least discussed social issues in Pakistani society. There is a scarcity of research studies on teachers bullying students and so very little attention is paid to this sensitive issue. Second, a cherished belief runs deep in our psyches that teachers are the ones whose heroic efforts transform the lives of students. It is not to say that there is no truth in the narrative. There is truth in the narrative that supports this view, but parents and management need to understand that there is also a darker side.

Bullying by teachers is ignored due to two reasons: one, the issue itself is hardly taken seriously, and two, the social belief that teachers are heroes who transform the lives of students

Teachers are human beings too, and therefore, their personalities can be expected to range from the best example of the species to the worst. In Pakistan and other developing countries where education is mostly a physical drill rather than a sustained exercise to instill learning, a considerable number of teachers act only as merciless taskmasters, rather than compassionate role models. An ugly undercurrent of mean-spirited and disdainful conduct towards students is a common sight in schools spread across the country. This conduct not only constitutes corruption in a role referred to as the prophetic profession but also does enormous damage to students.

My personal interest in the phenomenon of teachers who bully students has its roots in childhood experiences. During my teaching experience, peer teachers revealed demoralizing experiences of a certain colleague’s cruel behavior toward students. One of my peers related the tale of her experience. “When I joined this school, there was a student who was darker skinned than others. Almost all teachers use to mock him for that. I even heard one asking the poor kid: Do you even bathe? After some time, the child stopped coming to school. I was told that the boy started working with his father and stopped studying.” If we look around, we’ll find ample of similar stories and the common pattern in these stories is a sense of powerlessness on part of the victim and the conclusion that little or nothing was being done to ease the suffering.

Why Is It There?

Bullying by teachers is a pattern of conduct rooted in power dynamics. It threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear in or causes real emotional stress t subjects, who in this case are students. To address the phenomenon of teachers who bully students, we need to come face to face with several troublesome truths. Teachers who bully are rationalized by offenders, normalized by students and minimized and ignored by peer teachers who largely remain silent. It is fact that bullying by teachers is conditioned by the inaction of school systems, and hence remains undetected by outsiders. All things considered, teachers are in fact provided the opportunities to bully. There are no school policies and procedures written to handle allegations of abusive conduct on part of teachers and there has been no discussion or methodologies on how to proceed once bullying by teachers is established.

Schools have a responsibility to protect and take care of their students. Despite the complaints, their failure to act enhances liability

More often, teachers do the bullying in classrooms, where students witness the behavior, but other teachers don’t. When students are targeted by teachers, they feel powerless and helpless. In most of the cases, students become unable to even establish positive relationships with the other teachers and students. According to research, bullying by a teacher can also be contagious, as it would encourage students to think that bullying in general and that of a certain student particularly is acceptable.But the most befuddling aspect of bullying by teachers is how easily it remains. Perhaps, it does so because our schools simply lack the expertise and capacity to offer a solution to students or parents who register complaints against a teacher who has been perceived as a bully.Also to blame are peer teachers, who may know about the behavior, but they do nothing. School officials may have a reason to believe that bullying is underway, yet fail to act decisively. One of the reasons for administrations looking the other way could be the fact that teachers justify they bullying behavior as a necessary means to achieve the ultimate end of ‘discipline’.

What Can Be Done?

Several research studies recommend that the right to redress (a process by which grievances are heard and settled) is a basic civil right of students and is effective in the cases of bullying. Schools have a responsibility to protect and take care of their students. Despite the complaints, their failure to act enhances liability. Schools should reduce bullying by teachers and staff members, with the first step being accepting the truth and be willing to take action against such conduct. Furthermore, there should be written policies against bullying to explicitly address teachers’, staff and students’ conduct. It is so important to identify teachers’ conduct in every schools’ code of ethics. Apart from that, school officials should use the in-service time to discuss appropriate and inappropriate teacher behavior, especially in the context of disciplining students.

Likewise, there must be a means to address complaints about alleged bullying by a teacher. For every teacher who engages in this abuse of power, there are many more teachers who care deeply and try to reduce the enormous damage this behavior inflicts upon our students. Bullying by teachers is a clear and present danger in our education system that we have ignored for far too long. Without a change in the way teachers conduct themselves, we cannot expect the pupils to be builders of a brighter tomorrow. For bullying by teachers will leave them too dark inside.

Originally published at Academia Magazine on April 13, 2020.

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