By Dru Ahlborg, Bullying Recovery Resource Center

Before I delve into this topic, let me first state that the vast majority of teachers, coaches and educators are wonderful people.  Individuals who choose this profession generally do so because they have a vested interest in educating the next generation and are drawn to working with young people in helpful and formative ways.  Teaching is a noble profession whose perks strike at the heartstrings versus the checkbook.

Most of the time, when bullying is discussed about children, it is assumed to be child on child bullying.  Very little research has been conducted on teachers bullying students.  Unfortunately, some adult teachers and coaches engage in bullying behavior with their students or athletes.  Alan McEvoy, professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University and author of topics such as bullying and violence in schools defines teacher bullying as “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear in or causes students emotional stress.”  Examples of adults bullying children can include humiliating students in front of their peers, singling out students who do poorly on a test, choosing to give athletes more aggressive workouts for no apparent reason, and verbal abuse.

Teacher bullying has special circumstances that can make it incredibly difficult for the target.  Bullied students oftentimes feel shock, shame and report feeling powerless.  Being bullied by an adult can cause other students to jump on the bandwagon and join in the abuse.  Furthermore, when young people or other adults confront adult bullies such as teachers or coaches the results can garner more humiliation, being given unfairly low grades, loss of playing time or less involvement in special activities.

When a child reports being bullied by an adult in a position of authority caring adults have a responsibility to take the situations seriously and to intervene carefully.  Several strategies can be helpful.  Janet Olsen of Michigan State University offers the following suggestions:

  • Listen deeply and probe for more information. It is important to respond in a way that shows your care for the child’s safety and well-being.  It is a time to ask thoughtful questions and start to create a written account of what has happened with dates, times and potential witnesses.
  • Stay calm. This is an opportunity to model thoughtful action for the child involved.  Reacting quickly and out of anger can cause greater harm.
  • Ask the child’s opinion before taking action. Remember, the child is the most at risk for further consequences and it is important to balance their concerns and have them be part of the solution going forward.
  • Meet with the adult and their supervisor. Be prepared, respectful and clear. It is important to prepare ahead of the meeting.  The school handbook should be consulted to see if there is policy or code of conduct related to adult behaviors at school.  At the meeting, share what your child has reported to you.  Describe how the situation is affecting their ability to learn or participate fully.  Report how the behaviors relate to the school policy.  If the teacher/coach seems concerned, regretful and apologetic, ask how they plan to follow up with your child.  If your conversation and concerns are dismissed or not taken seriously be prepared to take your concerns to the next level such as the school board or consider contacting an attorney or Bullying Recovery Resource Center.
  • After taking action, follow-up with your child. Your child needs to know what to expect going forward.  They may also need additional support from a counselor.

Experts agree that with any bullying, and especially bullying involving an authority figure it should not remain silent.  Letting teacher or coach bullying “blow over” allows the cycle of harassment to continue and silence ultimately enables the bully.  The adult who engages in unabated bullying behavior may feel that their behavior is acceptable and label it as “discipline” or “motivation”.   If the bullying continues after reporting it, the child should be removed from the classroom or the team.

As a charity, we have worked with many families whose children have been targets of bullying by a teacher and/or a coach.  It is a phenomenon that is generally not properly addressed by the education profession.  In general, bullying by educators is:

  • Rationalized by offenders
  • Normalized by students
  • Minimized or ignored by collogues who remain silent
  • Enabled by inaction of school systems
  • Undetected by outsiders in many cases

Bullying Recovery Resource Center believes it is always the responsibility of adults to STOP bullying.  It is no less important when a teacher or coach is the aggressor.    We feel it is the duty of school officials to care for their students and take appropriate action when a trusted adult is bullying children.  This very likely requires policies that directly address teacher conduct, procedures that address how complaints are handled and investigated, proper training of all school staff about bullying and proper student discipline procedures, formal tracking of all bullying complaints, a process for parents to address grievances, and policies in place to reprimand educators in positions of power who bully children.

If your child has been the target of adult bullying and the school has not properly addressed the problem, please contact us.  No child ever deserves to be bullied.